Wolves’ progress has been nothing short of astounding, since securing Premier League promotion two years ago.
While other promoted clubs aim to maintain their English top-flight status by achieving the so-called safety buffer of 40 points, the Midlands side ended their first campaign back in the English top-flight in the top-half of the table, in seventh.
Wolves’ 2018-19 campaign: back in the big time
The club defeated four of the top-six sides on course to securing seventh. They took 16 points off the top-six, boasting an unbeaten-record against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, all of whom were beaten at Molineux and were held by Nuno Espírito Santo‘s men at their respective grounds.
Their seventh placed ranking was the highest of any newly-promoted side since the 2000-01 campaign, when Ipswich Town finished fifth. It was also enough to secure European involvement for the first time in 38 years, via the Europa League’s second qualifying round.
Wolves’ 2019-20 campaign: a 383-day season
Europa League pre-lockdown
Wolves officially began their competitive campaign in July 25 2019, in the Europa League against Northern Irish opponents Crusaders. It would be the first of 59 games the Wanderers would have to play in the season, blighted due the coronavirus pandemic.
The Midlands side overcame Crusaders and then Armenian representatives in Pyunik, before defeating Serie A outfit Torino to advance into the tournament proper.
Europa League – the business end
The Wanderers were drawn alongside Portugal’s Braga, Turkey’s Beşiktaş and Slovakia’s Slovan Bratislava in Group K of the tournament.
The club’s prominent Portuguese contingent were pleased to travel to their native country to face Braga in their opening match, but were beaten by Os Arcebispos, who also drew the reverse fixture at Molineux.
With victories home and away against Beşiktaş and Slovan Bratislava respectively, the side finished directly a point behind group winners Braga, and qualified for the knockout stages.
In the Last-32, they triumphed over Espanyol courtesy of a 6-3 aggregate scoreline. The Spaniards won the second-leg 3-2, but Wolves’ 4-0 win at home, proved to be the difference – seeing them advance into the Last-16 with a date against Olympiacos.
The English side earned a 1-1 draw in the first-leg, behind closed-doors in Piraeus: the last competitive match to be played by the side, before lockdown measures took place.
Wolves’ start to domestic football
Wolves were winless in their first six league matches, but were fifth at the half-way stage (matchday 19), marking the milestone by completing a domestic league double over then-champions Manchester City.
The Wanderers were eliminated from the EFL Cup by Aston Villa in the fourth round and also exited the FA Cup at the third round at the hands of Manchester United.
The side had lost six league matches between the start of the campaign and lockdown, but the postponement of the season as a result of the pandemic in March, came as a blessing for Espírito Santo’s men. It provided a much-needed break after eight months of continuous high-octane football.
Wolves’ domestic campaign post-lockdown
The side were sixth going into the final nine league matches when the season eventually reconvened, but despite winning their first three games, successive defeats against Arsenal and Sheffield United, saw a three-point gap separate sixth from tenth.
Wolves entered their final league game of the season in sixth against Chelsea, and were required to match Tottenham Hotspur’s result. However, the Wanderers were beaten 2-0 by The Blues, with Spurs’ point against Crystal Palace, enough to leapfrog Espírito Santo’s side.
Wolves ultimately concluded their Premier League campaign consistent with their previous one, in seventh. Despite failing to better their numerical position, they were able to gain two points more than the previous term – recording a new club-record points tally of 59 in the competition.
European football uncertainty
The club’s hopes of Europa League qualification were in the balance, following their seventh placed finish. They relied on Chelsea to defeat eighth placed Arsenal in the FA Cup Final to guarantee a berth in the second qualifying round.
However, it was The Gunners who triumphed in the Final – thus clinching a spot in the Europa League Group Stage, all-but ending Wolves’ hopes of European football.
The Wanderers’ last-resort for European football came via the unfinished Europa League route. The side were required to win the competition in its entirety to qualify for the tournament’s more-prestigious sister competition in the Champions League.
Europa League conclusion
Espírito Santo’s men scraped past Olympiacos in the second-leg of their Last-16 tie. The side progressed courtesy of a penalty from their club’s Premier League top-scorer Raúl Jiménez, whose 27th in all competitions, saw a below-par Wolves win 2-1 on aggregate.
Due to restrictions caused by the pandemic, the tournament’s format was altered to a single-leg knockout competition to be played in Germany. The team’s Last-16 victory meant they would face five-time competition winners Sevilla, in what would be Wolves’ first Quarter-final appearance in 48 years.
The team initially started on the front foot and had a great opportunity to go in front from the penalty-spot in the 12th minute. However, Jiménez saw his spot-kick saved by ‘keeper Bono.
To make matters worse, the Wanderers were made to rue the penalty, as the Spanish outfit found the winner in the 88th minute through Lucas Ocampos.
The defeat eliminated the Premier League side and ensured that Wolves would be without European football next season.
Silver linings for The Wanderers
Progress under the Portuguese
Espírito Santo should take great pride from his side’s display this campaign. They managed to surpass their club record points-tally of last season, while also improving on scoring and conceding figures. They scored four goals more and conceded six less (51 and 40) than in their previous season (47 and 46).
His side’s current Premier League top-scorer Jiménez, added ten more goals in all competitions than in his previous term, reiterating their attacking growth. While ‘keeper Rui Patrício kept six more clean sheets than in his previous league season, exemplifying the team’s defensive developments.
They also lost four games fewer than the 13 in the 2018-19 league season, and recorded the same number of league defeats as second-placed Manchester City (nine). The number was also the fewest among the sides ranked between fourth and eighth.
Wolves were underdogs in their first European competition since 1981 and performed as though they were tournament regulars, defeating clubs with vast European pedigree in Torino, Beşiktaş, Espanyol and Olympiacos on the way to the last eight.
Although events could have played out very differently had Jiménez scored the penalty against Sevilla, the side shouldn’t be too disheartened, having lost to the tournament’s most successful club.
The tournament experience will certainly benefit the players in the future. It has given them the opportunity to come up against more high-profile players and different styles of play to the ones they are used to in the Premier League.
It also gives them a target to work towards, if they want to play in the competition again, Wolves now know what is required of them to compete with Europe’s big boys.
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