Given the gulf in resources between the Premier League’s ‘big six’ and their rivals, you could be forgiven for thinking that 7th place deserves its own ‘best of the rest trophy’. Indeed, with Watford, West Ham, Everton and Leicester all in the race, Wolves can rightly feel that they’ve finished above high quality opposition.
It’s perhaps testament to the quality of Wolves’ play that many could be forgiven for forgetting that this was Nuno Espirito Santos’ side’s debut back in the big time. As is the fact that attention has already turned to ‘what next?’. Bookies such as William Hill have already installed Wolves as seventh favourites for 2019/20, but could they really go one better and break up the big club consensus?
The signs from 2018/19 are good. Wolves’ style has not looked out of place in the top tier and they have shown an ability to rub shoulders with the very best teams. Only Manchester City and Liverpool have a greater return against top six teams than Wolves’ 16 points, with famous wins earned against Spurs, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea.
Theirs is the best points tally earned by a promoted team since Ipswich took the Premier League by storm in 2000/01.
Smart recruitment – aided by super-agent Jorge Mendes – meant that Wolves were Premier League ready before they were even promoted and they’ve been able to have a settled side, with nine players starting more than 30 league games. Republic of Ireland’s Matt Doherty probably deserves wider recognition for his rampaging displays – and his nine assists from full back aren’t far behind the chance-making exploits of Liverpool duo Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Wolves have momentum, a quality team and an excellent manager. If they can learn how to overcome poorer teams (Huddersfield inexplicably managed to do the double over Wanderers) then they’re really not that far off the pace. Yet Wolves are only part of this story. There’s also a chance that current members of the top six might continue to slide. Chelsea are being hit with a transfer embargo and could lose Eden Hazard. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faces a big task to rebuild Manchester United and the post-Wenger era at Arsenal isn’t leading to an immediate return to the all-conquering heyday of Henry, Bergkamp et al. There could well be a place up for grabs for Wolves.
But no-one should be under the impression that it’s going to be easy. Firstly, there’s the chance of the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ taking hold. While on face value it might seem a simple fox to be able to overcome the division’s worst teams, it’s also surely the case that more teams will be cautious against Wolves next season. The surprise factor has well and truly gone and it can be tricky to cope with increased expectations.
There’s also a dilemma over what to do next in the transfer market for the men from Molineux. Some at the club feel there’s a need for caution and others want to pursue an aggressive strategy to chase the top six dream. There’s a tricky balance to be had here – with a need to maintain the unity and togetherness of the existing crop of players while still needing to add a bit more quality and depth to the squad. The sort of players needed could be costly and it’s not easy to shop for upgrades on the current squad.
The aforementioned Ipswich side are, after all, something of a cautionary tale, having been relegated from the top flight the season after their 5th placed 66-point season under George Burley.
Relegation shouldn’t be a worry for Wolves. The quality in their squad – and the ability of their recruitment regime – should guard against that. However, people at the club shouldn’t panic if next season ends with consolidation rather than a full-scale assault on the top six. The club are on to a good thing and the results so far should give them faith and confidence to ride out any bumps in the road. If a top spot emerges – and that might rely on the performance of rivals – then don’t bet against Nuno’s men taking it.