(Writer’s Note: This is the third of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on Aug. 10. Links to previous teams’ previews are at the bottom of the page)
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo (Hire Date: May 31, 2017)
Tenure Length: 12th/20 in Premier League and 43rd/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 30-9-7, 99 points, 1st in Championship
2017-18 Goals scored: 82
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-43
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 0
Last Promotion: 2018
Last Relegation: 2013 (from Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Round of 16 loss (Manchester City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Third-round replay loss (Swansea City)
Wolverhampton started the season with three victories and never slipped below fourth after its second match. The Wolves grabbed the top spot in the Championship following a 2-0 victory at Norwich City on Oct. 31 and led the rest of the way, clinching automatic promotion on April 14 and the Championship title one week later.
Santo, who arrived at Molineux after a disappointing season at FC Porto, was able to get Wolves to ring up a league-best 82 goals while matching a joint-low with 39 conceded. The forward pairing of Diogo Jota and Leo Bonatini accounted for 30 of Wolves’ goals, while midfielder Ivan Cavaleiro chipped in nine.
Wolves had three players tabbed by the PFA for the Championship team of the season — keeper John Ruddy, central defender Conor Coady and midfielder Ruben Neves.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
Santo was using a 3-4-3 formation by season’s end, and with Wolverhampton able to retain almost its entire nucleus from that Championship-winning side, it is not hard to imagine Patricio as the only notable change from last season. This can also change into a 5-4-1 set-up against the better teams in the Premier League. If Wolves are able to land Joao Mario, he could vie for a starting spot in the attack. Bonatini will likely start the season as the first attacking option off the bench for Wolves.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
Goalkeeper Rui Patricio is the big signing in the offseason, though it has yet to be determined if the Portugal No. 1 is a free transfer from Sporting Lisbon. Patricio terminated his contract with the club with cause after an incident in April in which 50 ultra fans stormed the training grounds. Sporting has filed a complaint with FIFA and estimates Patricio’s transfer fee at £50 million.
For depth at forward, Wolves brought in Mexico international Raul Jimenez on loan from Benfica. He made two substitute appearances for El Tri in Russia at the World Cup but did not score in either of them. Wolverhampton is also reportedly working on a deal to bring Joao Mario to Molineux from Inter Milan, who loaned out the attacking winger to West Ham United last season.
Former Porto academy player Paulo Alves signed with the club after being released from his contract by Liverpool without ever playing a senior match. He will start out in Wolverhampton’s Under-23 side.
The most notable departure was striker Benik Afobe, who was loaned out to Championship side Stoke City. Afobe scored six goals in 16 appearances for Wolves in the stretch run last campaign.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Rui Patricio (GK)
It is not every day a No. 1 keeper from a World Cup team coming off a round of 16 appearance joins a team that just earned promotion to a country’s top domestic league, but that is what Wolverhampton was able to pull off with the signing of Patricio, who is entering the prime of his career at age 30 and also backstopped Portugal to the 2016 European Championship title.
He was part of the exodus at Sporting Lisbon after ultra fans of the side stormed the club’s training ground in anger in April after Sporting finished third in the Primeira Liga and failed to qualify for the Champions League. Patricio was one of nine players to submit a request to terminate their contracts with Sporting, and the keeper signed a four-year deal with Wolves less than three weeks later.
Patricio recorded 17 shutouts in league play for Sporting while conceding 24 goals in 34 matches. At the World Cup, he allowed six goals in four matches while making eight saves and recording one clean sheet.
Ladbrokes oddsmakers are very bullish on Wolverhampton staying in the top flight at season’s end as its 7/1 odds of being relegated rank 12th among the 20 Premier League sides. Wolves are also joint-fourth with West Ham United at 11/10 to finish in the top half of the table and joint-11th with Hammers at 4/6 to finish in the bottom half.
They also are getting 9/1 odds — again along with West Ham — for a top-six finish.
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 11 — Everton (8th) H
Aug. 18 — Leicester City (9th) A
Aug. 25 — Manchester City (1st) H
Sept. 1 — West Ham United (13th) A
April 20 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) H
April 27 — Watford (14th) A
May 4 — Fulham (N/A) H
May 12 — Liverpool (4th) A
Wolverhampton’s last season in the top flight was not a pretty one as it finished last in 2011-12 and started a two-season bottoming out process in which it also finished last in the Championship the following season before a rebuild that was accelerated in 2016 when the Chinese investment group Fosun International purchased the club.
Super agent Jorge Mendes’ fingerprints can be seen throughout the club’s build, from Santo on the sidelines through the large amount of Portuguese players on Wolves’ roster. The signing of Patricio is the latest such example, and getting a world-class shot-stopper following promotion to the top flight is one of those shrewd moves that helps explain why oddsmakers are keen on Wolverhampton staying up.
If the Wolves can play flowing football against the bottom half of the Premier League table against Huddersfield, Brighton and Southampton, they should justify that optimism for staying in the top flight while retaining the confidence to occasionally steal a point from the top six. Wolverhampton spent the last two seasons building to this campaign, now the challenge is finding the little bit of extra in staying in the Premier League.
Patricio is a huge piece of the puzzle, and if Joao Mario also comes on board, it may be enough for Wolverhampton to have consecutive top-flight seasons for the first time since a three-year run from 2010-12. This is a team that should record more than 40 points in the Premier League for the first time in its five seasons playing there.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City