A nod to Nuno – the Premier League’s most underrated manager?
Given the January transfer window Wolverhampton Wanderers had, most head coaches would be fed up. Not Nuno Espírito Santo. But then the Portuguese isn't like most bosses.
Wolves already had the Premier League's smallest squad ahead of last month's trading period. Nuno called for reinforcements but instead saw two senior players who'd only signed in the summer leave Molineux.
In terms of the incomings Nuno had hoped for, there were six. Of those, only Olympiacos winger Daniel Podence has been signed for the here and now.
Justin Hubner, Leonardo Campana, Nigel Lonwijk and Enzo Loiodice have all been signed for the under-23s and under-18s, while Luke Matheson – you might remember his Carabao Cup goal at Old Trafford in September – has been loaned back to Rochdale for the rest of the season.
All of that leaves Nuno with 17 senior outfield players for the rest of the season. Wolves are embroiled in a battle for Europa League football and have the small matter of a last-32 tie with Espanyol in the same competition.
But unlike most of his peers, Nuno isn't bothered. In fact, the 46-year-old prefers it.
“It’s our philosophy, it’s our idea of having a strong and compact squad that allows us to make good decisions,” Nuno explained last March.
“If it’s the same players, over and over again, training together, passing the ball to each other, timing their runs, all these small details that can help so a deep knowledge of your team-mates it really helps with the tasks he has to do.
“The squad must work well, then we have to decide the 11 and the players that come in, but although we have a small squad, everybody’s involved at the same time.
“Even if they don’t play, they are still involved in the competition, so that makes it easier when the player steps into the team, they know their task and what they have to do inside the dynamic of the team.”
It's hard to argue with Nuno's logic.
Taking over after a campaign which had seen Kenny Jackett (until July 29), Walter Zenga (until October 25), Rob Edwards (interim) and Paul Lambert (November until May) take charge, Nuno delivered promotion the following season.
He followed that with a seventh-place finish in Wolves' first year back in the top-flight and was minutes away from an FA Cup final before Watford forced extra-time at Wembley, going on to win set up a mauling by Manchester City in the final.
Despite the increased demands on the squad thanks to their Europa League exploits – Wolves' season started on July 25 with a game against Northern Ireland's Crusaders – they are very much in the tussle to secure European football again next season.
Supplementing their small squad has been a collection of talented youngsters from the academy. Defender Max Kilman has been an unused sub 22 times, making three appearances. Benny Ashley-Seal, Oskar Buur, Taylor Perry, Ryan Giles, Owen Otasowie and Luke Cundle have all made the matchday 18 on at least one occasion.
Even though Wolves have a phenomenal injury record – only centre-back Willy Boly and midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White have missed any real length of time this season – thanks to the ground-breaking preventative measures they take, you can bet further opportunities will come the way of these youngsters.
The only concern for Wolves supporters is how much longer they'll be able to hold onto their impressive coach. Nuno was linked with the Arsenal job when the Gunners sacked Unai Emery at the end of 2019 and given the club's trajectory under his stewardship it's hard to imagine there won't be further interest soon.
“I have one more year of contract so I don’t think about that,” Nuno told the Birmingham Mail.
“I’m happy with the group of players, the way we work. Yes, I’m settled.
“Players came with us since day one, that’s why I say it’s my life because I’m 100 per cent here and I give everything I have to help improve the players and help the club.
“We signed it and we are committed to it. They (the fans) can be totally assured every day Wolves is my obsession, I don’t think about anything else.”
It's easy to see why. Wolves have shown themselves to be a perpetually progressive club since Nuno arrived in the summer of 2017. Much has been made of their links with so-called ‘super agent' Jorge Mendes but he holds no formal role at Molineux.
Wolves' recruitment in that time has been superb – think Rúben Neves, João Moutinho, Willy Boly, Raúl Jiménez, Rui Patricio – and the fact Vallejo and Cutrone were such high-profile busts only serves to underline the fact there aren't many. As well as vindicating Nuno's desire to carry a small yet perfectly formed squad in the first place.
Nuno clearly has something as a coach, too. Adama Traoré has gone from inconsistent novelty act to one of the Premier League's most-dangerous players – to the point Liverpool boss Jürgen Klopp labelled the Spaniard ‘unplayable' recently.
Wolves have a clear gameplan which works and is easy on the eye. No-one completes more long passes in the Premier League (34.44 per 90) but they're not hit-and-hope merchants. They counter with precision and pace and, thanks in no small part to Traoré, complete the third-most crosses, not including set pieces, in the league with 3.72 (per 90).
Defensively organised to boot, making the third-most interceptions (11.64 per 90) and second-most possession regains in their defensive third (28.92 per 90), Wolves are the poster boys for what can be achieved with a clear plan, identity, smart recruitment and a little patience.
Nuno isn't like his coaching peers – he's the most underrated manager in the Premier League, in a class of his own.