The first time Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo really smiled in a Zoom call on Friday was as he discussed the business of making players better.
‘When that happens, it’s really special,’ he said, grinning almost boyishly. ‘That’s what it’s all about. And it will always be about that.’
At Wolves, the improvement of players and the purchase of very good ones has led to the emergence of an exciting team. Before Saturday’s home game against Arsenal, Nuno’s team are sixth in the Premier League, two points off the Champions League places.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves face Arsenal as they look to boost their top four chances
Raul Jimenez has been in fine form for Wolves this season – he has scored 15 goals in the league
Nuno, 46, will not talk about Europe. ‘There has never been that talk and there never will be,’ he said. But nor will he set a limit on how high his team can fly.
‘It’s unlimited,’ he said. ‘We are chasing perfection. It’s about having a squad to compete with anybody, no matter where.’
Wolves have won only six times at home this season, surprising for a club with such vibrant support. Strangely, 27 of their 52 league points have come away. Whether that explains why Nuno’s team have managed so well without fans since football’s resumption, it’s impossible to tell. What we do know is that few teams re-entered the fray fitter, and three wins from three is the upshot.
The Wolves manager is refusing to talk about Europe but has much faith in his squad
‘The reason is the work and dedication of the players during lockdown,’ Nuno said.
The Wolves manager spent the season’s interruption at home in Portugal, but his influence was felt. While the Wolves first team messaged each other daily on their own WhatsApp group, Nuno was a regular contributor on another staff and players’ forum.
‘It was motivational messages or videos and even some funny stuff,’ revealed a Wolves source. ‘His way of making sure he was in contact without suffocating them.’
Despite their wide range of nationalities — eight different countries were represented in the starting XI who beat Aston Villa 1-0 last Saturday — the Wolves players are tight.
The influence of captain Conor Coady, who has excelled under Nuno, has been profound
The influence of captain Conor Coady, who has played every minute of his club’s last 105 league games since Nuno moved him from midfield to defence, is profound. So is that of Portuguese playmaker Joao Moutinho.
It was the 33-year-old who amused bored team-mates by sending them regular videos of himself performing outlandish tricks with the ball in his garden.
‘We missed each other and our daily routine,’ said Coady recently. ‘But while we were away, there was incredible attention to detail from our amazing staff. We have to do what they tell us simply because we know it works.’
Lockdown sessions provided by Wolves fitness coach Antonio Dias were rigorous. Coady did the necessary running in a field next to his house, and foreign players based in Wolverhampton were able to use the club’s training ground on a revolving basis.
Nuno has made sure to engage with players through motivational messages and funny videos
With the club’s nutritionist delivering food to the players’ homes, no stone was left unturned. It is now up to the players to take the next step.
Nuno will take charge of his 150th Wolves game on Saturday. His impact at the club was immediate and endures. Appointed in 2017, he won promotion to the Premier League in his first season. His team played an expansive style many presumed would be tempered by pragmatism in the top division. That hasn’t happened.
Speaking to the excellent Molineux View podcast, former Wolves sporting director Kevin Thelwell revealed: ‘Most managers say they need nine to 12 months to build a philosophy and a team. Nuno did it in five weeks in pre-season. It was incredible. It looked like we had been playing 3-5-2 for 10 years.’
Nuno is set to take charge of his 150th Wolves game when Arsenal visit Molineux on Saturday
Thelwell left Molineux after 11 years in March. In his wake is a set-up increasingly shaped by Wolves’ Portuguese coach. His influence runs right through the club and every age-group team now employ Nuno’s preferred system. Players of all ages are recruited to fit the model.
Nuno, for example, likes big, athletic central defenders so academy scouts are instructed to seek out boys with those traits.
‘When you have a coach with a clear idea of the positional attributes required for each space, it means you can direct recruitment into very specific areas,’ added Thelwell. ‘We would put one or two profiles in front of Nuno and he would make the choice. I can’t think of a time when we signed a player he didn’t want.’
Wolves’ first-team squad is not big. That again is Nuno’s choice. It means players from the Under 23s and Under 18s are regularly called to join training sessions.
WhatsApp messages delivered to academy head Scott Sellars each morning list the first-team needs for that day. If boys do not fit in — or do not behave correctly — it is a while before their chance comes again.
Wolves are growing in ambition from top to bottom. It is extra-ordinary that only 13 years ago the club was bought by previous owner Steve Morgan from Sir Jack Hayward for £10.
On match day, when fans are present, the old stadium bounces and there is talk of redeveloping Molineux further. The club is also thinking about building its own mini-stadium to host the women’s team and Under 23s.
Manchester City have led the way in this regard and Wolves have no qualms about following.
Chelsea is another club whose structure they admire. Wolves would like to copy the London club’s policy of having two lead coaches for each age-group team.
For now, though, it is the first team who point the way. One of Nuno’s pet hates is players standing at training with hands on their hips. He feels it indicates they are not ready to work.
With this strange, truncated season approaching its critical weeks, there is no indication they are ready to slack off just yet.
It could be argued any football team is only as good as their manager. At Wolves, it is more complicated than that. The club’s relationship with super-agent Jorge Mendes is well known.
One of Nuno’s pet hates is when players stand with their hands of their hips during training
Mendes advised Chinese owners Fosun when they were searching for a club to buy in 2016. His Gestifute company — in which Fosun have a small share — have an executive box at Molineux and one of his most trusted staffers, Valdir Cardoso, is his man on the ground in the Black Country. Around 10 members of a Portuguese-flavoured first-team pool are represented by Gestifute.
During Thelwell’s time at Wolves it was suggested Cardoso was the driving force behind recruitment. Thelwell has not been replaced since leaving for New York Red Bulls, but he was phlegmatic when pressed on the matter.
‘I have a lot of respect for Jorge and for Valdi,’ Thelwell told Molineux View. ‘Their network gives Wolves access to any football club in the world. They can connect at ownership level.
‘Wolves are very lucky to have that advantage. They have helped Wolves achieve the success they are having today.’
It is against football regulations for an agent to head up a club’s recruitment and Mendes’ influence at Wolves has been signed off as being on the right side of the line by the EFL and the Premier League. Equally, it is not remotely unusual for clubs to rely on favoured big-name agents.
Wolves describe Jorge Mendes as an ‘adviser’ and fans may be concerned about Nuno’s future
Wolves describe Mendes as an ‘adviser’ and the only concern for supporters will come if and when he decides Nuno’s career is ready for its next step.
Nuno was Mendes’ first client — they met in a nightclub when the manager was a jobbing goalkeeper in Portugal almost 25 years ago — and he has only managed at clubs (Rio Ave and Porto in Portugal, Valencia in Spain) where his agent was heavily involved.
In Spain, they talk of Nuno as a future manager of Atletico Madrid, where Mendes has influence. Last December he was fancied by Saturday’s opponents Arsenal. In Wolverhampton, they merely hope this gifted coach will renew a deal that expires next summer.
Nuno has not said much on the matter but did suggest last week: ‘Now we are back at work we will have time to talk. We are here and it’s good to be here.’
Adama Traore, who has improved massively, perfectly embodies Nuno’s attacking style
With his son at university in Manchester — his wife and daughters live in Portugal — and his team surging forwards, Nuno’s job at Wolves feels far from done. Maybe the fans should not fret yet. Maybe they should just enjoy what they have and worry about what comes later, later.
Close-up footage of Wolves winger Adama Traore dashing through the Villa defence was shared on social media this week. Few players have improved like Traore has under Nuno and in many ways he embodies the spirit of the coach’s attacking style.
A Villa player can be heard imploring team-mates to ‘f*****g foul him’ and eventually somebody does. Twenty-four players have been booked for doing likewise to Traore in the Premier League this season. Any player can be stopped, by fair means or foul.
Whether Wolves’ momentum is as easy to slow is another matter.