Wolverhampton Wanderers were the story of the season when Nuno Espirito Santo’s men hit the Premier League, but where did it all go so wrong?
Wolves arrived as champions of the Championship having battered the second-tier opposition out of their way to top the table by nine points, narrowly missing the century on 99.
30 wins, nine draws, and seven defeats – a stellar record with a star-studded line-up including the fabulous Ruben Neves, only strengthened by the arrival of the 113-cap Portugal star Joao Moutinho and fellow international Rui Patricio during the summer. It was like a newcomer hit the top-flight as a mid-table side before a ball was kicked.
When the Nike ball did start to roll at Molineux again, it was the gold and black kitted men revelling in delight, as Everton and Manchester City both came knocking but left with points shared.
Espirito Santo then tasted glory against West Ham and Burnley, while setting a new Premier League record for starting their first nine games with an unchanged XI.
Jota, Raul Jimenez and Helder Costa at the front, Willy Boly, Conor Coady and Ryan Bennett at the back – the good times were flowing with 15 points on the board and ninth place theirs, sitting pretty above Manchester United.
The opening run of fixtures even spanned the first international break of the season, an early hurdle for a side brimming with confidence. Wolves, however, remained unchanged and went on to draw at Old Trafford and beat Crystal Palace.
The next pause in play, though, would not see the Wanderers fare so well, as Santo’s side returned in mid-October and have not won since.
Matches Wolves would have won are now going against them, and the Molineux outfit have secured just the single point since beating Palace – relying on early form to remain in a mid-table position.
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The XI the former goalkeeper had heavily relied on was no longer there to call on, and changes were made for a trip to Brighton – a side they should have beaten, but instead left crushed.
It was not about to get easier for Wolves, either, with back-to-back clashes against both north London sides on the horizon. But, after a poor start at home to Tottenham, the Wanderers rallied to pull within one goal and deserved a point.
They may not have put any more points on the board after the Spurs game, but the momentum in the squad was back in time for the trip to Arsenal.
Quick out the box, Wolves grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck to punish the Gunners’ hapless errors. This time, if it were not for Henrikh Mkhitaryan firing home from outside the box five minutes from time, Santo would have secured their best result of the season to date.
Unfortunately, the highs from the Emirates were smashed into the ground as the team boarded their respective planes to link with their countries once more. The recurring event that kills their momentum was back.
The final international break of 2018 came and went, but the signs of post-national team duty hangover were evident again for the visit of Huddersfield – a side who’d won just the single match in 12 and sat two points from bottom before playing Wolves.
You could not tell that from the game, though. The visitors had more shots, more efforts on target, more possession, more touches, near enough more of everything. Wolves were a shadow of their early-season-selves.
Santo’s men lacked a defensive edge even when they crowded their box to deal with the Terriers’ attack. And yes, they were better in the second half, but had goal-line technology not kept Jimenez off the scoresheet – with all but 1.8cm of the ball crossing the line – Wolves would have been dragged into a false sense of hope that they could go on and win.
After the Huddersfield defeat, a downhearted Santo opened up to BBC, bemoaning his side’s performance as one of their worst displays so far.
The Portuguese coach noted how his men lacked togetherness and played too far apart whether it was in attack or defence, bringing himself to joke that his job was easy as all he needs is to “find the why.”
Luckily, the November break is the last of 2018, and the next is not until March. In the meantime, the Wanderers will play 18 league games – just shy of half the season – and when the “why” is found and the togetherness returns, Wolves can hopefully be the side they were at the start of the season.