Sunshine arrived at Wolves’ training ground this week. That always lifts the mood a little and this is a club in need of a lift. “We have had a couple of good days,” Nuno Espirito Santo tells Sky Sports. “But the cold is coming again. The predictions are not very nice.”
The forecast for Wolves’ season was rather better than it has turned out. Seventh on their Premier League return, they repeated the feat while navigating European football last season. There was optimism that a lighter fixture list would present a real opportunity.
Wolves were sixth towards the end of November after winning at Arsenal but the loss of Raul Jimenez to a horrific skull fracture that day sparked an alarming dip in form.
Replacements were unable to fill the void left by the team’s star striker. No Wolves player has scored more than five goals this season – a tally reached by Diogo Jota for Liverpool on the night of Jimenez’s injury. Wolves go into the weekend down in 14th.
For Nuno, it has been a new experience and he acknowledges that it has been difficult. On the field, his lowest league finish as a coach prior to this was 11th with Rio Ave seven years ago. Off the field, the strains of the global pandemic have weighed heavily on his mind.
“I think it is the toughest season, the toughest moment due to the pandemic. It is a challenge for everyone. The most important thing is that we stay close to each other and support each other through this situation. It is truly demanding on all aspects of society.”
On the face of it, Wolves’ particular problems can be explained away by Jimenez’s absence. The team scored 34 Premier League goals without him in each of their two previous seasons and the rest of the squad will not be too far behind that total this time around.
Unfortunately, Fabio Silva, the teenager asked to deputise more than anticipated, has scored only twice – both goals coming in defeats. Willian Jose, the experienced Brazilian drafted in on loan in January, is yet to find the net in nine Premier League appearances.
The search for alternative solutions has led to more questions than answers. Changes to the formation designed to boost creativity only resulted in compromising the defensive structure. The familiar patterns that had once given Wolves their edge were lost.
Nuno says it is impossible to put the struggles down to one issue.
There have been simply too many.
“It has been a different challenge because of the situations we have faced. A lot of different circumstances that did not happen to us before that have required a different approach.
“This season has not been linear in aspects of team performance, there were different momentums of our season that we need to separate. We have always had small issues that create problems for us. The moment that you fix them, there is another one coming.
“Sometimes you have struggles in defence, you are not so solid or compact and concede easy goals that make your task much harder. We faced that problem during the season that we always conceded first. That always requires a big reaction from the team.
“There was a moment when we were not able to perform as well in the first half as we were in the second half so there was that stigma. We faced those different situations. So it is not about conceding or not scoring goals, it is about finding the balance that we need.
“Players need to improve, realising that we did not perform so well during a part of the season. We cannot repeat that again. This is what we are working on, realising that to achieve things in football you must react, you must bounce back from difficult periods.”
It has tested Nuno like never before. In the past, his team picked itself. When he names his selection against West Ham, it is likely that the number of line-up changes for the season will exceed that of his first Premier League campaign with eight games still to go.
Has he enjoyed the challenge of solving the puzzle?
“Enjoy is not the word. The word is focus. Focus on those small details that can make a difference. It is part of the job. When things happen you have to react. That can only make you better. New solutions are required and it is up to us to find them within us.
“The tasks of the individual have been the main focus because we know we have a talented squad that needs routines in order to produce good football.
“The challenge is to find those aspects in players who we were not expecting to perform so many times and so many times together in such a short period. Players who came already in the space of a pandemic who are struggling with social aspects.
“All of this I am sure will make us better for the future.
“I am very sure of that.”
Indeed, Nuno is at his most forceful when insisting that Wolves’ worst period is behind them. There are a number of reasons for that. Firstly, this three-week gap between games is not insignificant for a club that had only five weeks between seasons in the summer.
“The long weeks of preparation can be useful for us,” he says.
“We have used the time to work on other things.”
Secondly, the team is taking shape once more. The first-choice wing-back pairing of Nelson Semedo and Jonny are finally united. They were joined in the starting line-up for the first time by the returning Willy Boly last time out against Liverpool.
Nuno shrugs off the suggestion that upon Jimenez’s return he might finally be able to name the team that he had envisaged all along – “I never pick a team so early in the season” – but there is a feeling nevertheless that Wolves might look more like Wolves again soon.
“I am truly positive because the players are coming back,” says Nuno.
Of course, that comes too late to achieve much of note this season. The FA Cup exit to Southampton was a huge disappointment given the lack of obvious targets in the Premier League. It even led to some murmurings of discontent among supporters.
Without fans in the stadium, the noisier voices on the internet have gained greater prominence but a recent survey of supporters suggests the vast majority still hope Nuno will stay for the long term. His extraordinary £250,000 donation to local causes resonates.
As for the man himself, he admits that he is missing that direct connection with fans.
“Unfortunately, we have lost that. It is clear that we have lost that. We miss their presence at Molineux. We miss the joy of finishing a game and walking over to them and feeling the real mood of the people. We have lost that. We hope it returns soon. It is all about the fans. Without fans, the game loses its intensity and its edge.”
Does he still pick up on fan feeling? What interaction is there now? “Not as much as I wish because we are inside of a bubble that we have to respect. I get inside my car at my house and I get out of my car when I get to Compton so there is not much chance for contact.
“This is the message that I send to the players because we still have to play football because society needs football to stay engaged so that the people have some joy. I realise that the fans are still waiting for the moment of the game so they can see their team.”
It is why he is adamant that a strong finish is still important.
“What happened before during the previous seasons, we always had different scenarios ahead of us. What did not change is the obligation to compete and perform.
“That is always our obsession. Let’s compete. Let’s play. Let’s demand more of ourselves no matter what. We still have a lot of important matches in which we need to compete.
“It is always important. This is our attitude. But we cannot test ourselves until Monday. That will be the first game. We need to go where we need to go. This is our main focus now.”