Out of the darkness? Interview
Thursday, 26th Oct 2017 19:25 by Clive Whittingham
Top of the league and having a laugh, but big-spending Wolves’ arrival at Loftus Road is timed ironically given what’s happened to QPR this week. We spoke to Molineux regular Dan Lavelle…
Couldn't have gone much better for you so far this season, assess the campaign so far for us...
DL: It's been as close to ideal as you can get. We brought in 12 senior players and with the exception of Phil Ofosu-Ayeh who has yet to play due to injury, they've all done well. It's a fairly unprecedented hit rate. In addition to that, we managed to get rid of a fair amount of dross that I feared would be impossible to shift and as a result the squad now looks very good indeed for this level.
Facing Middlesbrough, Hull and Derby in our first three games looked a tough ask for a new manager taking charge of a squad littered with new players, but we managed to hit the ground running and won all three. The football is good, the feeling around the club is fantastic (we've finally moved on from the Jez Moxey era where fans were customers and Wolves knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing). Absolutely marmalising Villa (Steve Bruce's Villa, at that) live on TV was a treat for the ages and we're regularly getting close to or even hitting full houses, with all but one away allocation sold out so far for good measure.
In fact, it's gone so well that many of our lot are frantically scrambling to work out what could go wrong...
The owners were here last season, but it was a bit of a disaster, what's changed for this season? Simply a case of splashing loads of cash?
DL: It's really a case of getting a manager they actually wanted and trusted. Walter Zenga was a panic appointment given our takeover didn't go through until around a fortnight before the start of the season and Kenny Jackett evidently wasn't part of the plans. We had Julen Lopetegui lined up (and while it sounds far fetched that the current Spain manager was willing to come here, he's actually on record as saying that he was ready to do it) but as the deal dragged on, he decided that planning to win the World Cup back was a bit more attractive than Portman Road on a Tuesday night and that was that.
With us hurtling towards the relegation zone, we appointed Paul Lambert in what seemed to be a move very much instigated by sporting director Kevin Thelwell in an attempt to go back to a “British” style, which I suppose was understandable enough but seemed at odds with what the ownership ultimately wanted. Despite some encouraging form in December and January – including our FA Cup wins at Stoke and Liverpool – the football overall was fairly uninspiring and Lambert's philosophy never seemed to quite fit with the ambition that Fosun have openly advertised since they arrived. As much as he tried to push the media narrative that this was a clash regarding recruitment, he was binned because neither the football nor the results were good enough.
They now have their own man in Nuno and all of our signings have been based around exactly what he wants, explicitly signed to fit into our system and meticulously looked at over a period of time. There's been no need for a trolley dash and there are very few players here now who aren't wanted (poor old Prince Oniangué is probably the only exception). That really is the key difference. I wouldn't pretend that we're doing this on a shoestring – we have spent a lot of money, and as such you would expect us to be competing near the top of the league – but the determining factor is that we've had time to work out a proper strategy rather than doing everything on the fly.
DL: Nuno arrived with serious pedigree – you don't manage both Valencia and Porto in your early 40s if you're a chancer – and it was clear that he would put his own stamp on this team. He predominantly played a variant of 4-2-3-1 at his former clubs so it was a surprise that we lined up in our first pre-season game with a back three. Particularly as we haven't played that with any regularity since the unlamented days of Mark McGhee; a time which has left me with a long-standing mistrust of anyone playing that system. However, it's worked fantastically for us.
Conor Coady has been transformed from a terrible central midfielder and a steady enough if rather humdrum ersatz right back into a composed sweeper. The wingbacks play a very attacking role and are frequently pushed right into the final third. Ruben Neves and Romain Saiss patrol the centre of the park while two inside forwards support the lone striker. The emphasis is very much on possession; even when pressed high up the park, we will try to play out from the back. The centre forward is asked to link play which sadly meant that the days of Nouha Dicko hustling defenders down the channels were no longer required – we simply don't even try to play that way any more.
It's a big departure from what we're accustomed to but the reception has been good (helps of course that we're winning regularly) and part of that is down to how Nuno himself comes across. I'm not sure I've ever seen a manager with so much zen calmness. Everything he says is very measured and reasoned. I think if he wanted to, he could convince me to walk into a furnace, assuring me that it's the right thing to do. Much like a couple of members of our squad, he doesn't really have any business operating at this level. He's a very good manager indeed.
Any concerns about what happens 18 months/two years down the line regarding FFP if promotion hasn't been achieved?
DL: Clearly the ambition is to go up this season and then we cease to have any kind of meaningful issue. But even if we did get stuck in this league: we have tangible assets to sell. Neves won't be sticking around in the Championship for any longer than a year and we could easily get our money back on him, at very least. Helder Costa is worth more than we paid for him and so is Ivan Cavaleiro. The wage bill has increased greatly, but is still under control. The likes of Diogo Jota, Willy Boly, Leo Bonatini and Alfred N'Diaye are only here on loan so at present, we aren't on the hook for any transfer fees regarding them (although we will doubtless try to sign a couple of them up in January permanently given the prices we have negotiated and that we should be in the top six at least come the turne of the year). Furthermore, we somehow managed to bring in over £8m this summer when selling Jed Wallace, George Saville, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Dave Edwards and Nouha Dicko, which seems impossible given how they performed last season but really, it actually happened. You compare us to Aston Villa who have precious few assets and have wasted their money on players with zero residual value (and a big fat hello to big fat Ross McCormack here...), well. The focus should really be further down the A38 when we talk of breaching regulations.
If we ever do run into problems with FFP, my issue really will be with how we've allowed ourselves to get stuck here despite the resources thrown at the club. That will be far more concerning than any punishment the Football League can throw at us.
Stand out players...
DL: Neves and Jota are the two obvious stars and it's incredible that both are playing at this level. Both played Champions League football last season. Outside of that, Romain Saiss has made a huge step up from last season's lumpen showings while John Ruddy is the keeper we've needed for at least five years, probably longer. Ruben Vinagre is a superstar in the making on the left hand side. Leo Bonatini has seven goals and four assists so far, not bad for a guy signed from the Saudi Arabian league literally two days before the season kicked off.
Weak links in the side...
DL: The formation we play largely covers Matt Doherty's deficiencies but if you do attack down our right, he still hasn't learned to defend, nor will this ever happen. Barry Douglas had a poor game last time out against Preston which was exacerbated by Roderick Miranda also not being at his best as the left sided centre half. We have been caught out from time to time with a ball over the top and set pieces were a weakness early on, though this seems to have been eradicated since the international break.
Will this be a happy ending or crash and burn?
Links >>> Dan’s Blog
The Twitter @OscillateWWFC, @loftforwords
Pictures – Action Images
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