At a Hertfordshire hotel it is the day after the night before. For 72 minutes against Arsenal, Bruno Lage’s Wolves were set for fifth place in the Premier League with a game in hand on Manchester United in fourth. Two late goals changed that.
“We had chances to finish the game,” Lage tells Sky Sports. “That’s football.”
Lage has already previewed the game against West Ham on Sunday – the reason the squad is staying near London – in a Thursday night post-game press conference for the national media. Not easy, as Antonio Conte’s emotional reaction to defeat recently showed.
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Now, on Friday afternoon, after lunch at the hotel, Lage has already moved on, encouraged by the reaction of his players.
“I saw it in their faces last night and I see it in their faces this morning,” he says. “They are not happy. That is the positive, the right mentality. That is what we need to become a bigger team with higher standards. They want more. Every time they want more.”
This demand for Wolves to become ‘a big team’ has been a thread since Lage was appointed in June. At 47, this is only his second role managing a senior side. In his previous one, he won the title with Benfica. In fact, he won 36 of his first 38 league games in charge.
“We need to understand what is Benfica in Portugal and what is Wolves in the Premier League,” he says. But the fact that his league defeats there can be counted on one hand is a reminder that this is a coach unaccustomed to settling for less than the best.
His Benfica side scored 103 goals in winning the title, having the most shots on target and the highest passing accuracy. “We broke a lot of attacking stats records.” Indeed, Lage still has a higher win percentage as a manager than Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
It is worth mentioning because when supporters see Wolves sitting back and clinging to leads there might be echoes of the reactive game of his predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo. But that is largely a product of the state of the game. Wolves rarely need to chase it.
Across the past 20 games, Lage’s side have been losing for only 156 of the 1,800 normal-time minutes – even Manchester City have been behind in games longer than that. It has put the focus on a solid defence, led by Conor Coady and the exploits of goalkeeper Jose Sa.
“Here, it is different,” he admits. “We are doing the records in a different way, in a defensive way. It is also about understanding the profile of the players that we have. What is our ability? What are our strengths? Every player has good points and bad points.
“We look at what they did in the past and we try to improve it. That is why, to arrive in the middle of February with 40 points and to have people who know football talking about Wolves, and some of the players who are doing a fantastic season, makes me proud.
“When you win everything is not good and when you lose everything is not bad. The most important thing is what I am seeing. Against Manchester United, we had one point late on and the players wanted more. The players come with that mentality to do more.”
Looking around the team’s temporary home, Lage sees and hears evidence of that mentality. There is some down time. Only those not involved against Arsenal train on Friday. Some have family around. Others play golf. But there is a focus and a togetherness.
After dinner, a large group of the squad play a game called, appropriately enough, Wolf, a variation of the parlour game Mafia. “I think it is similar to Cluedo. Every time it is 15 to 20 players gathered round in a circle. They enjoy spending time with each other.”
But football is never far away from the thoughts even away from the auditorium that Lage installed at the training ground to facilitate his regular meetings. “They push each other. Even in their free moments, I hear them talking about what they are trying to do on the pitch.”
What Lage is trying to do is change Wolves’ style in a subtle way. The system, one his players have been comfortable in for years, has remained the same. But the passing angles have changed, a switch from what he calls ‘the outside game’ to ‘the inside game’.
Wolves ranked third for crosses last season, now they are 19th. “It is the profile of the players,” Lage explains. “Our team is not tall.” Adama Traore, now departed, would loft balls into the box where only one or two players would be waiting. It was inefficient.
“Against Arsenal at home, we did a lot of crosses.” Thirty-five from open play, a Premier League high for Wolves since their return. It did not work. “We have two or three guys who are good. The other guys? No. So we need to find a different way to score our goals.”
It is demanding a different skill-set from Raul Jimenez. No striker scored more Premier League goals with his head in the 2019/20 season. He has yet to score from a header since the horrific skull fracture suffered at the Emirates Stadium in November of 2020.
“Raul remains the same player. He is a top striker. He does not feel any different inside. But the [head]band does not give him the same power and direction. Sometimes he touches the ball and it goes in a different direction. It is a big change. We cannot forget that.”
Perhaps that is another factor that is encouraging Lage to pursue goals from other sources. “We know Raul scored a lot of goals from heading,” he adds. “But with the wingers inside, now he knows he can link inside more. It is time to adapt to a new reality.”
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That means threaded passes between the lines of defence and midfield to the diminutive Daniel Podence. He has created the second most chances from open play per 90 minutes of any Premier League player outside of the top three teams this season.
Against Arsenal on Thursday, his clever reverse pass to Hwang Hee-Chan almost resulted in Wolves doubling their lead. “That is it. Look at Hwang’s goals against Newcastle too. They are the moments we are looking for. The players are good at that, so we must continue.”
The return of Hwang, a scorer on Thursday, offers something different. “He is very good at attacking the space on the diagonal in short bursts.” Pedro Neto’s comeback after 10 months injured due to a fractured kneecap is even more significant for Wolves.
“He can play very well in between the lines but he can also have that impact that Adama had also with the runs in behind,” explains Lage. “That is the most important thing. We have players available to change the game now, wingers with different profiles.
“Every opponent offers possibilities to play in different ways. Some offer space between the lines, some offer space in behind. For some, we need guys like Daniel to create situations one-on-one. We try to find where our chances will come and make the best decisions.”
There will be greater scrutiny on Lage now that he has those options. He recently had a full squad to choose from for the first time since his arrival. Jonny Otto, Leander Dendoncker and Francisco Trincao were alongside Neto on the bench against Arsenal.
“It is about that competition,” he says.
“This is the best way to put pressure on the players.”
Youngsters also providing depth
The squad also looks stronger for the emergence of Toti Gomes, the Portuguese defender who returned from a loan spell at Grasshoppers to start back-to-back Premier League wins in January. Luke Cundle made his full debut in the win away at Tottenham.
“It was not a surprise what Luke did,” says Lage.
The Portuguese has pushed for signings during the transfer windows but that should not mask a commitment to youth.
“I came from a club that always has that support from the academy. Wolves has that same idea. I can see the work they are trying to do here. It is better for me after eight months because I understand our squad, our academy and what we need for the future.
“It is a balance. We need to find a good base in our squad. We need to understand which players from the academy have the skills and the personality to come in. And, when we do not have the players in the academy, we need to bring in top players from outside.
“That is our vision for the future.”
The club’s medium-term future is likely to be dictated by what happens in the coming games. Wolves are mixing it with those that were eyeing a European Super League not so long ago. They are at their limit just to compete but Lage wants more.
Sunday 27th February 1:00pm Kick off 2:00pm
Victory at West Ham would take them above their rivals and make Wolves favourites to secure at least seventh – enough to earn European football in six of the last seven seasons.
Supporters enjoyed their recent trips to Turin and Braga, Istanbul and Barcelona. They want more. And so does Lage.
“These are the games we want in the Premier League. It is going to be hard for us but it is also going to be hard for them because we are a strong team. We showed that against them at Molineux, when we beat them, Raul scored, and we did a fantastic game.
“That was the game that showed us the level we could play against strong teams and that we now had to find that consistency. That is what we have done over the past three months. We go to West Ham with that ambition, mentality and character.”
Watch West Ham vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League this Sunday from 1pm; kick-off 2pm