By Paula Marcus
If August and September are too early to start looking at the table, then mid-October is probably the turning point. By now teams have settled into their stride (for better or worse) and over 30 points have already been on offer. October is also the time that the major talking points are starting to come out, and this year one of those big stories is Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Last weekend’s 2-0 win over local rivals Aston Villa was enough to push Wolves to the top of the table, not bad for a club that has spent the last few years languishing around the middle of the pack with poor performances and issues with new signings. In fact, with just 12 games played so far they only need two more wins to equal their end of season points total for the last two seasons. So how has this turn around happened?
It would be nice to be able to say this is the result of careful investment and a lot of hard work over the past few seasons, but sadly that is far from the case. A change in ownership, and attitudes, has turned Wolves into the new big spenders. At the start of the new season their deal to bring Porto’s Ruben Neves (above) to England grabbed all the headlines as it broke the Football Leagues record signing fee.
Whilst around a third of the money has been paid so far, the overall deal is thought to be just under £16 ($21) million and the total amount eventually has to be paid in full (although it is unclear exactly how the deal is structured). If this signing was supposed to signal intent for the club’s ambitions, it certainly made others in the league take notice.
Aside from the questions of where this money is coming from, this is just another in a long line of ‘pay now, ask questions later’ deals that Championship clubs have been part of in the hope of finally making the Premier League. Without getting into yet more discussions on the worth of the EFL Financial Fair Play (FFP) system, it is a big gamble for a club that may see a failure to win promotion coupled with a transfer ban next season. It is also a deal that raises questions of salary, as any player signing for a fee like that is likely to be on a larger salary than many at the club.
Excessive investment in the team is usually a good way to appease less than happy fans, but is it actually possible to pay your way out of the Championship? For every club that managed to use heavy investment to gain promotion, there is another where it failed. QPR became famous as the first team to breach FFP and win promotion. Leicester City and Middlesbrough also used excessive spending to move up, and Newcastle United spent everything they received last season to good effect. However, big money spending has done little to help Leeds United, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, except cause issue for FFP.
If Neves was the headline grabbing Wolverhampton signing, he certainly wasn’t the only one. Including Neves, Wolves Portuguese manager Nuno Espirito Santo added four of his compatriots to the Wolves side over the close season. There are always question marks how long it will take international players to adjust to life in England, even more so when they join lower league teams and have to deal with the increased physicality of the division. For Wolves, at least, there seem to have been no issues.
This is why, for me at least, Wolves signing of the season is actually a player they signed for free, goalkeeper John Ruddy. With the shocking news pre-season that current keeper Carl Ikeme was starting chemotherapy for acute leukemia, the club needed a strong player to replace him for the season and Ruddy was a perfect fit. Not only does he have almost 400 appearances, he is also no stranger to the Championship, or promotion. In his seven years at Norwich City he featured in two promotion winning sides, as well as amassing over 100 Premier League games. Whilst no player can replace Ikeme, he is certainly the best person to help out.
New players aside, there is one thing that really seems to be behind Wolves current success and that is goals. In the previous two seasons they ended with 54 and 53 goals scored, an average of 1.17 goals per game. This season they have already managed 21 goals, a return of 1.75 per game. Ironically this improvement has come with just a single new striker added to the team, although midfielder Diogo Jota’s seven goals have certainly helped.
What Wolves have done is add more creative players to the middle of the pitch. Their defence might not be the strongest despite the addition of multiple defensive players, but it is solid enough behind the best attacking team in the division, and they are playing a brand of football their fans are certainly enjoying watching.
After the infamous double relegation, and a few seasons of mediocre signings and below par performances, this season is certainly something Wolves fans can cherish. With another 30 plus games, and another transfer window, to get through before the end of the season, the question of how long they can stay at the top remains. Their fans, however, will be enjoying every minute, whatever the season brings.
Listen to Paula’s latest Championship podcast at Premier Punditry.