EFL Championship

How are Wolves’ star men coping with the move from Champions League football to playing against Burton Albion?

Football in the West Midlands changed forever at the beginning of last season following a wave of Chinese investment into the region’s four biggest clubs.

West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers are all controlled by Chinese owners; it is the powers that be at Wolves, a conglomerate called Fosun International, that are the richest. The owner is called Guo Guangchang who, according to Forbes, is worth £6.4 billion.

One of the companies that Fosun have invested heavily in is a Portuguese organisation Gestifute. It is a player consultancy agency, which was founded by Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes. He is also linked with an entertainment company under Fosun’s wing called Foyo. Anyone that has seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s movie, which documented his life during the build-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, will know that Mendes is a powerful, controlling man. His clients include Ronaldo, Angel di Maria, David de Gea, Bernado Silva and Jose Mourinho.

Mendes’ ties with Fosun means that in return for the investment into his agency, his clients often find themselves at Wolves. Along with the likes of AS Monaco, Atletico Madrid, FC Porto and SL Benfica, Wolves are part of what is commonly known as the ‘Mendes cycle’ – a number of players and staff that are clients of Gestifute have signed for Wolves since Fosun took the reins at Molineux from the often maligned Steve Morgan in 2016. Players under Mendes’ rule often move freely inside his network of clubs, which has been of benefit to Wolves.

But, let’s get one thing straight. Mendes does not control the daily running of the club. That is the job of Fosun’s Jeff Shi, who was appointed as the club’s chairman before the start of the season, and managing director Laurie Dalrymple. Mendes does not even have sole control of Wolves’ transfer activity; not all of Wolves’ signings are his clients, and he only helps to bring a player in when he is called upon by working alongside Wolves’ sporting director, Kevin Thelwell. It is also often suggested that Mendes is only involved with Wolves to make a quick buck; the transfer of Ederson from Benfica to Manchester City last summer earned him £7 million in agent’s fees, more than all of what he has earned helping Wolves sign players in nearly 18 months.

Kenny Jackett was the manager when Fosun arrived in July 2016, but he was sacked almost immediately in favour of Walter Zenga. After he was dissmissed the following October, Rob Edwards took interim charge before Paul Lambert was appointed. Despite the financial backing available, Wolves struggled to a below-par 15th place finish.

Ahead of the 2017/18 season, though, Fosun, particularly Shi, promised an upturn in fortunes. It was well publicised that prior to the appointment of Zenga, Spaniard Julen Lopetegui was almost a dead cert to be appointed as manager. But, when the call came to manage the Spanish national side, it proved to be an offer to good to refuse. This summer, however, Shi got his man after Lambert departed by mutual consent – Nuno Espirito Santo, Mendes’ very first client.

During Mourinho’s time as manager of Porto, Nuno was part of the squad that delivered a famous UEFA Champions League victory in 2004. But, he rarely played – he was known as ‘El Substituto’, literally ‘The Substitute’, because for the majority of his career he rarely played. He appeared in just 199 first-team games between 1992 and 2010.  As a result, he spent the later years of his playing career preparing to become a coach. His first manager role was at Rio Ave; Europa League qualification was achieved for the first time in the club’s history in his second season in charge. Spells at Valencia and then Porto came afterwards before he took over at Wolves last summer.

An influx of signings, with some being controlled by Mendes, followed. Most notably, Ruben Neves signed from Porto for a club-record £15.8 million, and Diogo Jota arrived on loan from Atletico. As any Football Manager fan will tell you, their futures do not lie in the Championship – both are front runners for the World Player of the Year award in the early seasons of last year’s edition.

The pair have arguably been Wolves’ best players in the Championship so far. Jota has weighed in with six goals from the left side of Santo’s 3-4-3 system. He opened the scoring for Wolves in Saturday’s 4-0 drubbing of Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium. After the game, he spoke of how well he has acclimatised to life in the Black Country at the age of just 20.

He said: “Everyone that was already here helped me settle in. We are a team and I think that is clear to everyone. It is all exciting being here and it is a challenge.”

Jota starred as part of a front three alongside fellow Portuguese Gestifute clients Ivan Cavaleiro and Helder Costa, who recently returned from an ankle injury that was sustained at the back end of last season. Cavaleiro has the joint-second highest amount of assists in the Championship with four – and became the first Wolves player in the club’s proud history to dab after making a pass that led to a goal. Nine of Wolves’ 19 goals this season have been scored by Portuguese players.

Saturday’s fixture emphatically quashed the myth that Wolves’ young continental players are not strong or fit enough for the hustle of the Championship. Burton’s game plan was to take the game to Wolves early on, with a high pressing, physical approach. But every time a Wolves player was knocked down, they got back up and got on with it – and did so with some aplomb, finding themselves 2-0 up after ten minutes. They battled through the wind and rain against a side packed with Championship experience, and came out on top.

Jota said: “We want to give the Championship a different game but we know sometimes we must compete with this kind of team, and it is what we will do. It is the manager and his staff’s job to research the other team and a few days ago we saw things about Burton so that today we were not surprised by what we faced.”

Brazilian striker Leo Bonatini replaced Costa from the bench and scored his fourth goal of the season almost immediately – he also has four assists to his name, meaning no Championship player has been involved in more goals so far this season. At the other end of the pitch, eight clean sheets in 14 games in all competitions shows that Wolves are just as tight at the back as they are potent in attack.

Wolves’ starting side on Saturday cost approximately £40m. As a result, it is common to see fans on social media complaining that Financial Fair Play should put a stop to Wolves’ business. Neves’ move in particular caused a lot of controversy.

But, for the purposes of FFP, a transfer fee is not taken into account in its entirety straight away. Instead it is spread across the length of the player’s contract, which is known as amortisation. Neves’ £15.8m fee divided by the five years on his contract equals £3.16m. His salary must be added to that sum – but with his wages being a reported £40,000 a week, that still takes his total fee to a total of just £5.24m for this season. FFP’s stipulations say that a club can make a loss of £39m in a three-year spell.

It is amazing, though, that there are football fans out there that think they have a better business brain than the moguls in charge of Fosun. Should Neves be sold in the near future, the buying club would have to stump up a colossal fee for his services because of the length of his contract. If, or probably when, this happens, Mendes can be called upon to bring another one of his clients in. Wolves’ management are not Mendes’ puppets, as some rivals fans would suggest.

From the way that Nuno talks, it seems that he is here for the long haul. Going into the international break, Wolves are second in the table behind Cardiff.

He said: “We have a long way to go. There is still a lot of hard work to be done. We are building something based on an idea. We have a philosophy, an idea about how we want to play. This is step one. There is a long way to go, but we are on the right path.”

Shi has before said how he dreams of seeing Wolves as one of the best teams in the Premier League. Most Championship fans seem to agree; the Old Gold are the bookmakers’ favourites to win the league in May. But, despite showing delight towards his team on Saturday, Nuno refused to get carried away.

He said: “We cannot control what is being said about us. What you can control, though, is your daily routine and my boys don’t get carried away – they know what they have to do. There is a long way to go from perfection. In fact, perfection doesn’t exist, but we want to achieve the very maximum we can.”

Wolves’ 2-0 win against Southampton in the Carabao Cup in August, in which Nuno fielded a largely rotated side, suggests that this Wolves squad is destined for bigger things. Or, as perhaps Nuno would say, step two.

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