The watcher in the Wolves

Be­hind man­ager Nuno Espírito Santo’s re­mark­able suc­cess are the play­ers he brought, his ef­fi­cient plan­ning and his shrewd tac­tics

Mail & Guardian - - Sport - Luke Feltham

Nuno Espírito Santo may have lifted the 2004 Cham­pi­ons League ti­tle with Porto, but he spent the fi­nal firmly on the bench be­hind an an­i­mated José Mour­inho — and, in­ci­den­tally, next to Benni McCarthy.

This was his perch. In a ca­reer that spanned 18 years, the Por­tuguese made a fee­ble 199 se­nior club ap­pear­ances (for con­text, David de Gea sur­passed 300 long be­fore he turned 27). If we’re be­ing cyn­i­cal, backup goal­keep­ers, along­side third-string quar­ter­backs, are about as close as you can get to a free pay cheque in the sports world. For Nuno, how­ever, it was an op­por­tu­nity that would lay the foun­da­tions for a fu­ture ca­reer, one that has seen him as any­thing but a pe­riph­eral fig­ure.

“This gave me two views, two per­spec­tives,” he wrote in The Coaches’ Voice shortly af­ter Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers won the Cham­pi­onship to se­cure pro­mo­tion. “This al­lows you to see the game, to see space, to see every­thing. It helped me in the way I un­der­stand foot­ball now.”

Since ar­riv­ing in Eng­land last year, Nuno has re­peat­edly demon­strated his abil­ity to read the game sit­u­a­tion be­fore kick-off. He pos­sesses in­cred­i­ble dexterity in be­ing able both to set his team out to adapt to the op­po­si­tion and to main­tain its own at­tack­ing iden­tity. Too of­ten these are con­sid­ered po­lar­is­ing ideals in foot­ball. Ar­guably not since Black­pool in 2010 have we seen a side come into the Pre­mier League af­ter years of ab­sence and have the con­fi­dence not to waiver in their strat­egy in the face of the big boys. Un­like Ian Hol­loway’s rash as­sailants, the ev­i­dence sug­gests Nuno’s shrewd tac­tics will not be eas­ily knocked back down to the Cham­pi­onship. Wolves sit sev­enth as we head into the in­ter­na­tional break and don’t look out of place in their top 10 chair.

It’s his favoured 3-4-3 that has proved to be the nu­cleus of this early suc­cess. Wing backs Jonathan Cas­tro and Matt Do­herty are en­cour­aged to get right on the touch­line, spread­ing play as wide as pos­si­ble. Conor Coady, who sits cen­tre of the same back three that was first choice last sea­son, ful­fills the role of play­maker and is able to ping the ball to ei­ther side from his own box.

Key to this puz­zle are Wolves’ deep-ly­ing play­mak­ers — Rúben Neves and the re­cent coup of João Moutinho — who are able to cy­cle the ball by find­ing a for­ward pass or stretch the field by col­lect­ing pos­ses­sion from one side and lay­ing off a through ball for a zoom­ing wing back on the other.

Up front, Hélder Costa and Diogo Jota create space for Do­herty and Cas­tro by reg­u­larly cut­ting in­side and draw­ing away de­fend­ers’ at­ten­tion. They, along with fo­cal point Raúl Jiménez, have enough in­di­vid­ual tal­ent to worry the op­po­si­tion with drib­bles that force them out of shape and create gaps.

When Wolves lose the ball, the 3-4-3 flu­idly con­verts to a 5-4-1. The wing backs drop back level with the back three as quickly as pos­si­ble while the two wide at­tack­ers flank the play­mak­ers to create a flat back four in mid­field. Nuno then de­mands a high press to deny the op­po­si­tion the chance to set­tle on the ball and ex­ploit their own gaps. The de­fen­sive shape has proved par­tic­u­larly blunt­ing re­cently — they’ve con­ceded only one goal in their last five league games and it came in their first-class draw at Old Traf­ford.

The deadly ef­fi­cacy of the blue­print was en­cap­su­lated in the sole goal at Crys­tal Palace last Satur­day. Left cen­tre back Willy Boly crunched into the tackle from the flank, won the ball back and spread it to Neves in the mid­dle. Do­herty then re­ceived it on the right, played it for Raúl Jiménez to hold in the box, be­fore mak­ing his reg­u­lar in­side run and belt­ing it near post.

Nuno has not only brought the plan to Mo­lineux, but also the play­ers to im­ple­ment it. The qual­ity that he has de­liv­ered to a club with the stature of Wolves can only be de­scribed as re­mark­able. Boly, Jota and Neves ar­rived when Nuno had noth­ing but Cham­pi­onship foot­ball to of­fer them. Ahead of Pre­mier League foot­ball, Moutinho, Jiménez and Cas­tro were shrewdly ac­quired. Which brings us to the be­gin­ning of the story.

In his years of pol­ish­ing the bench in Spain and Por­tu­gal, Nuno was watch­ing, learn­ing and net­work­ing. The re­la­tion­ships he made opened the door for him to be­come a coach in his own right. From there, he’s ex­po­nen­tially ex­panded his list of con­nec­tions that are pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for Wolves be­ing able to se­cure the tal­ent that they have. In a way, Nuno is rewrit­ing the back-up goal­keeper nar­ra­tive and what we un­der­stand it to en­cap­su­late.

How far he can take Wolves? Cham­pi­ons League is prob­a­bly a dream too dis­tant this sea­son — but maybe not in the greater con­text of the project. For now, at least, they’re of­fer­ing some tasty foot­ball for the neu­tral ob­server to de­vour.

Since ar­riv­ing in Eng­land last year, Nuno has re­peat­edly demon­strated his abil­ity to read the game sit­u­a­tion be­fore kick-off

Ah­woooooooooo: Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers’ Nuno Espírito Santo had rea­son to cel­e­brate at the end of the match against Crys­tal Palace. Photo: Reuters/John Si­b­ley

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