3rd January 2018.
These are strange times at Molineux. Wolverhampton Wanderers, three-time champions of England with a proud and rich history and large fan base within a one-club city, have been underachieving for too long; a sleeping giant of a club. As the English game raced towards the riches and acclaim brought by the formation of the Premier League in 1992, Wolves were largely left behind, making just two brief forays into the top flight in that time. But that's about to change.
A takeover by Chinese conglomerate Fosun, brokered by former Manchester United and Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon, has emboldened the Black Country side with cash. And the new owners' connections with 'super agent' Jorge Mendes has helped Wolves punch way above their weight already in the transfer market as they build towards promotion from the Championship.
The two standout additions of the summer both came from Porto. Mendes leaned on his contacts in his homeland to sign promising international playmaker RÃºben Neves in a shock £13 million deal from the Liga NOS club, and dynamic 21-year-old attacker Diogo Jota joined on loan from AtlÃ©tico Madrid after spending last season with Porto. And both have transformed the previously middling second-tier side into promotion certainties.
Former Valencia boss Nuno EspÃrito Santo, himself a headline acquisition of the new regime, has expertly stewarded his comparatively expensively assembled side to a commanding 12-point lead at the top of the Championship, boasting both the most prolific attack and the stingiest defence in the division. At the heart of the Portuguese tactician's 3-4-3 set-up is 20-year-old Neves.
Once courted by the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool, Neves shot to stardom with Porto while still in his teens, becoming the youngest player ever to captain a side in the Champions League when he wore the arm band in a 2-0 group stage win over Maccabi Tel Aviv in October 2015, aged just 18 years 221 days.
With outstanding technique and a mature appreciation of position, movement and space, the teenage maestro became one of the hottest properties in European football for a time, only for, perhaps inevitably, a dip in form to quieten the hype. Still, when he joined Wolves in the summer, the club's fans and anyone who'd followed the four-cap Portugal international's fledgling career could scarcely believe it.
Some even argued the transfer was indicative of all that is wrong with modern football, where money is king and agents are able to exert an unhealthy influence over clubs and their clients. Maybe the Madrid's and Liverpool's were no longer looking at Neves, but surely the gifted youngster could have landed at a top-tier club at the very least?
That may well all be true, but such suggestions dismiss the project Wolves have implemented, and the steep upward trajectory they currently trace. Now, with hindsight, it appears that Neves' decision to move to the Midlands has logic beyond the fiscal, with their ambitious plans proving mutually beneficial: Wolves get a player of a quality beyond their current level; Neves becomes the mainstay of a club who will be in the Premier League next season, with their sights set higher than mere survival when they get there.
For his part, Neves is the driving force behind Wolves' Championship title charge; the 20-year-old is easily the most gifted player in the second flight. His remit in Nuno's system is to collect possession from the backline and construct the team's attacking moves from deep. With an average of 61.5 passes per 90 minutes, at a completion rate of 84 per cent, Neves is the metronome, setting the tempo and organising those around him through his use of the ball and positioning. No outfield player in the league can match his return of 7.7 accurate long balls per 90, as the Portuguese's tactic of picking the ball up deep, left of centre, and switching play to an advancing runner on the right has become key to the way Wolves attack.
Neves also contributes in the attacking third, chipping in with three league goals to date this term always tending to be screamers from more than 20 yards out. And although he is yet to register an assist, he is often the man to split the opposition open with the pass that leads to a team-mate making the goal-conjuring chance.
"Wolves are not the same side without him," Portuguese analyst Alex GonÃ§alves told Wolverhampton newspaper the Express & Star of Neves' impact at Molineux, "and he's already proved he's worth every penny and more of his transfer fee."
Jota, too, has proved a thoroughly astute acquisition. While it remains to be seen whether Wolves will be able to secure a permanent deal for the ex-PaÃ§os de Ferreira man, the 21-year-old has settled quickly and looks at home in old gold.
Starting on the left of Nuno's front three, the pacey and skilful Portugal Under-23 international has impressed with 11 league goals this term second only to Brazilian striker LÃ©o Bonatini at Wolves while also providing five assists. Less technically refined than Neves, Jota's strengths lie in his improvisation evidenced by a recent goal against Brentford, scored while lying on his back after a scramble in the six-yard box following a corner his ability to link intelligently with his attacking colleagues and his direct dribbling skills.
What is perhaps most impressive, and what will have most endeared the Portuguese duo to Wolves supporters, is their work-rate and willingness to do get their shorts muddy. There would have been fears upon their arrival that Neves and Jota were moving to the Black Country for a short spell in the shop window, but their application and defensive contribution suggests otherwise: both men are producing high numbers of tackles per game for their positions, while Neves (1.9) is second only to centre-back Wily Boly (2.1) when it comes to interceptions per 90 of all the Wolves players with more than 1000 minutes to their name.
At this stage of the season, Wolves already look certainties for promotion to the Premier League. And if they are able to hang on to their two talented Portuguese stars, there's a strong chance their top flight stay will extend far beyond their previous dalliances with the world's most lucrative division.
This article was written by Ryan Baldi for Soccer Box, our blog is a resource of fantastic information and our online football shop stocks a huge array of shirts, kit and training gear for teams around the globe.
Neves And Jota At Wolves: Powering a Push into the Premier League
3rd January 2018.