There are some things that are inevitable in the Premier League. Wolves’ starting XI is more or less one of them.
Nuno Espirito Santo rarely wavers from his tried and tested 3-5-2 and the personnel that it comprises of, but cracks have begun to show in the well-oiled machine of late, as the strain of the packed schedule takes hold. Defeats to European rivals Arsenal and Sheffield United have left them in danger of slipping out of the top six, and automatic European qualification.
Could the solution simply be that the manager should utilise his squad resources a little more freely? As things stand, the Midlands side are the among the lowest users of the five-sub bonus feature thrown in to assist the sides after the restart.
It’s easy to forget that Wolves have a plethora of talented youngsters on their books who have been waiting in the wings for what feels like the entirety of the club’s return to the Premier League. Yes, the occasional player gets a substitute appearance but how often have we seen Pedro Neto and Daniel Podence starting games for the Wanderers? What has happened to the much touted Morgan Gibbs-White and Ruben Vinagre, who have found themselves largely out in the cold this season?
To be fair to the manager, Wolves do not have the largest squad in the league and there aren’t too many experienced options to come in to the side from outside the regular starting XI – but that’s a by-product of the rigid lineup. Established players do not want to sit on the bench for weeks on end with no prospect of breaking into the starting XI.
That leaves youngsters as the best option Santo has at the moment – but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Pedro Neto has proven that this season, albeit in very short spurts.
Neto has been the most successful of the reserves – largely due to the injury to Diogo Jota earlier in the season – but since Jota’s return, the Portuguese Under-21 international has found starting opportunities nearly impossibly to claim despite his presence almost always having an instant impact, including an absolute screamer against West Ham just after the restart.
The growing feeling from the Wolves fan base is one of frustration that their side have spent significant money on players to improve the squad this season, and then just left them wasting away on the sidelines. It seems unlikely to be a matter discord between manager and boardroom on recruitment, as the club have been shrewder than most in the market over the last two seasons.
The introduction of youngsters is working for some of the other top six sides, most notably Chelsea and Manchester United, so why isn’t it being utilised at Wolves, especially in this fixture heavy period where an element of rotation is key to squad freshness?
Podence, 24, used social media to hint at unrest with some subtle agreements on Wolves fan sites earlier this week. The highly rated Portuguese winger joined from Greek outfit Olympiacos in January of this year for a fairly hefty £16.9m, but has featured just five times from the bench in the Premier League and played 90 minutes once in a Europa League tie since. Despite the absence of Neto, he wasn’t utilised for the closing stages when Adama Traore went off with his fourth dislocated shoulder of the season in the defeat to Sheffield United.
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement from the manager or indeed the club, who look to be falling into the same habit that prevented two other highly rated European youngsters, Jesus Vallejo and Patrick Cutrone, having careers at Molineux.
Then there’s the curious case of Ruben Vinagre and Morgan Gibbs-White, who were both in Nuno’s plans last season but have largely been sidelined this campaign. For Gibbs-White in particular, it presents a difficult conundrum. The 20-year-old local boy featured over 30 times last season, impressing many, and was touted as a future England international – but he has managed just shy of a dozen games this time around, despite Wolves featuring in four competitions.
He hasn’t helped himself by falling foul of lockdown rules recently, much to the dismay of his manager, but he has been assured of another chance and a new contract is being discussed. He does face stiff competition in midfield from Ruben Neves, Leander Dendoncker and Joao Moutinho; but Moutinho is no spring chicken and Neves plays virtually every game, which is starting to catch up with him in recent outings.
So as Wolves’ restart form stutters, Nuno faces the latest test in his largely successful tenure at Molineux. He has rarely put a foot wrong thus far, but his reluctance to change his lineup could come back to bite him during this crucial run-in. Wolves’ youngsters are up to it, they’ve largely proven they belong at this level. Surely with results slipping and senior players tiring, Nuno has to trust them now. If not, will he ever?