Johnny Phillips: Wolves opener provides only brief respite from hysteria

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Ruben Neves on the pitch after the Premier League match at Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton.  Picture date: Sunday May 15, 2022. PA Photo.  See PA story SOCCER Wolves.  Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire.  RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services.  Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation.  No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Ruben Neves on the pitch after the Premier League match at Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton. Picture date: Sunday May 15, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER Wolves. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or “live” services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

The opening weekend brings a welcome shift in conversation, if only for a few hours.

Sitting down for a lengthy in-house Wolves TV feature, Bruno Lage declared himself happy after ‘one of our two big targets for pre-season’ was met. Namely, the successful implementation of a different playing system.

He did not mention the other target, but it might have involved squad strengthening.

Supporters – and agents, for that matter – did not envisage Wolves heading into the 2022/23 season with only one significant addition to the first-team squad.

Ruben Neves has been the key figure in the transfer landscape.

Back in May, as the 25-year-old wandered around Molineux with tears in his eyes at full-time after the final home game, the player and his representatives – and this columnist – believed his days at Wolves had ended.

A deal with Barcelona had been arranged and his departure would be the catalyst for some early summer activity in the transfer market.

Joao Palhinha had been earmarked as a replacement, with Jorge Mendes facilitating the player’s move to an English club on Sporting Lisbon’s instruction. Other moves were in the pipeline.

But there are so many moving parts to any transfer plans, particularly involving European clubs and Mendes, and when the Frenkie De Jong saga dragged on at Barca it became apparent that Neves’s departure was not a formality.

A move to the Catalans would have suited all parties, with no Premier League rival securing Neves’s talents.

With more than three weeks remaining in the transfer window, he may still leave, but he will certainly play another game for Wolves, which seemed impossible just two months ago.

If the midfielder stays, anyone fearing he will run down his remaining contract, holding all the cards in the future, need not worry.

It is hard to overstate the mutual trust and respect that exists between Wolves and Neves.

Contracts are a form of protection for club and player. He is open to a new deal if it has a release clause, with the assurances of a clean departure.

Handshake deals are rare but there may be similarities with Cristiano Ronaldo giving one more year of service to Manchester United after an agreement with Sir Alex Ferguson in the summer of 2008, when it seemed certain he would leave Old Trafford.

Neves is likely to captain the side today, which brings us to another player who has been so pivotal to Wolves’ success.

Conor Coady no longer appears to be first choice in defence.

It must have been incredibly difficult for him to play what were essentially second string matches on tour.

Coady has been an inspirational leader, up there with the very best in Wolves’ history, but leaders need to lead from a place on the pitch.

He knows how this situation might play out after eventually taking the captaincy from Danny Batth, who cut a peripheral figure as club captain when it was Coady who drove the performances on the pitch during the 2017/18 Championship-winning season.

His first thought will be to find a route back into the team.

The Liverpudlian is still a key figure and if Wolves switch between formations then he becomes even more valuable. But the World Cup will play a big part in what happens next.

Coady, and his representatives, are acutely aware that he needs to make the England squad for Qatar – likely his only shot at a World Cup finals.

If he does not kick a ball in the opening games of the season, it is not unthinkable that a move will happen, with more than one Premier League club monitoring the situation.

After everything the 29-year-old has done for this club, Wolves will not stand in his way even if there is a strong preference that he stays on as an important member of the squad.

The new defensive formation of four at the back has been relentlessly worked on during the close season, with regular double training sessions at Compton and abroad being used to finely tune this preferred system.

Lage knows the squad is comfortable with three at the back but he wants the flexibility to go with four more often this season.

While the commercial department will have been tearing their hair out at the scrapped lucrative plans to visit the USA, the head coach has been pleased with the intensive work done as a result of staying closer to home.

The injury to Raul Jimenez is a significant blow, with a three-week lay-off now looking likely.

Wolves were in the market for a new striker before the injury so in a transfer sense nothing changes but it means the front three today will have little physical presence and be more of a technical, fleet of foot, trio.

The need for a traditional number nine appears pressing. A focal point for the attack who can supply goals has been missing since Jimenez suffered his head injury.

Lage may not see it this way, preferring the mobility between the lines that the smaller, technical players offer.

Morgan Gibbs-White has been reintegrated successfully and Lage is pleased with what he has seen. Nottingham Forest and Everton are keen, though.

Wolves would like Gibbs-White to sign a new contract, the theory being that with a bit more development they can turn a £25million-rated player into a £50m talent.

That fits with Fosun’s strategy, but a sale to immediately facilitate other business before the summer is out remains an option.

It is unsatisfactory that the window will be open for the rest of the month.

Wolves are certainly suffering from the situation created by so many plans hanging on Neves’s proposed switch to Barcelona, ​​but the habit of doing late business which has characterized their Premier League transfer windows is destabilising.

Supporters will be unimpressed if the window ends with a couple of Trincao-esque makeweight captures to bolster the squad, giving the impression that all eggs were placed in the wrong basket.

It has been a difficult summer in other respects, too.

The canceled tour to America’s west coast hit financial and marketing targets.

Instead, the unexpected big winner of pre-season was the Rose & Crown pub in Benidorm.

The appearance of Fosun chairman Guo Guangchang at Wolves’ game against Sporting Lisbon last weekend was appreciated by the staff.

With restrictions lifting in China after the pandemic, he has been able to visit Europe on business and was in Lisbon for a conference so took the opportunity to travel down to the Algarve for the match.

Any optimistic supporters hoping he was there to throw weight behind some late transfer business will be disappointed to learn he plays no role in that side of the club’s activity.

However, as an investor and supporter, the chairman genuinely loves having Wolves in Fosun’s huge portfolio and is expected to be a visitor at Molineux again now he can travel more freely.

Today’s match is a first chance to see Lage’s summer work with the team shape, but supporters are nervous about the size of the squad, particularly now five substitutions are available.

There is plenty of class in the starting XI but it would also be true to say Wolves are only ever one or two injuries away from a genuine crisis.

Strength in depth is more important than ever before.

It would be an untenable argument for the hierarchy to defend a transfer window which ended with the sole acquisition of Nathan Collins.

More business will be done, but it is disconcerting when everything is left this late. In that sense, there is not a great deal to read into today’s opener in terms of where the season is heading, especially as Leeds are such an unpredictable force.

All eyes will be on the Elland Road pitch at 3pm, but only when the window shuts will supporters be able to make a proper assessment of the summer’s work.

It was great fun turning out for the Wolves All Stars last weekend.

The Wolves former players’ team was helping raise funds for the mental health charity Mind, in memory of Stuart Stokes.

Around 200 spectators turned out at the Telford Langley School for the match against Stokesy’s Dawley Mon, with the All Stars running out 5-2 winners.

Post-match drinks at Dawley Social Club followed, with more than £2,000 raised throughout the day.

A return fixture next year is already in the planning.

England Women seized the initiative in the wake of their fantastic European Championship win last Sunday.

An open letter has been penned to the government urging the next Prime Minister to help them achieve the goal of having access for every girl in the UK to play football at school.

Currently only 63 per cent of girls can play football in PE lessons and if there is to be a genuine legacy from the Lionesses’ success then surely there needs to be greater access to the game for the next generation.

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