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Wolves: BTSport.com's Premier League 2019/20 season preview

Wolves arrived in the top flight as perhaps the greatest newly-promoted team the Premier League had ever seen. Seventh in 2018/19, Nuno Espirito Santo's men don't look set to suffer from second-season syndrome this time around.

Wolves are targeting the top six in 2019/20

Last season's Premier League finish: 7th (W16 D9 L13 - F47 A46 - Pts 54)

Last season's top scorer: Raul Jimenez - 13 (17 in all competitions)

To finish in the top six*: 7/2

First five fixtures: Leicester (A), Manchester United (H), Burnley (H), Everton (A), Chelsea (H)

Predicted finish (BTSport.com writers' combined prediction): 10th

Predicted finish by The Script8th

Transfers in: Renat Dadashov - Estoril (undisclosed), Raul Jimenez - Benfica (£34m), Patrick Cutrone - AC Milan (£16m), Jesus Vallejo - Real Madrid (loan), Leander Dendoncker - Anderlecht (£12m), Pedro Neto - Lazio (£10.8m), Bruno Jordao - Lazio (£7.2m), Raphael Nya - PSG (free), Hong - Yeovil (undisclosed), Tsun Dai - Oxford (undisclosed), Meritan Shabani - Bayern Munich (undisclosed), Flavio Cristovao - Aves (free transfer)

Transfers on: Renat Dadashov - Paços de Ferreira (loan), Ivan Cavaleiro - Fulham (loan), Helder Costa - Leeds (loan), Kortney Hause - Aston Villa (£3m), Ethan Ebanks-Landell - Shrewsbury (free transfer), Jack Ruddy - Ross County (free transfer), Kevin Berkoe - Oxford (free), Michal Zyro - released, Joe Mason - MK Dons, Christian Herc - Viktoria Plzen (loan), Ryan Giles - Shrewsbury (loan), Pedro Goncalves - Famalicao (undisclosed), Joao Dias - Famalicao (undisclosed), Helder Costa - Leeds (loan), Sherwin Seedorf - Motherwell (free), Ryan Leak - Burgos (free), Aaron Hayden - Carlisle (free), Rafa Mir - Nottingham Forest (loan), Will Norris - Ipswich (loan), Niall Ennis - Doncaster (loan), Bright Enobakhare - Wigan (loan)

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Reasons to be optimistic

“We are very ambitious for long-term success,” executive chairman Jeff Shi said as early as May 2018, with Wolves still to clinch promotion from the Championship. “Everything we do is for the long term. It’s not our ultimate target just to have a small Premier League team.”

It was a clear message from Wolves’ Chinese owners that they wanted to build something special at Molineux. When Burnley finished seventh in 2017/18 and qualified for the Europa League it felt like the pinnacle of the Clarets’ ambitions. Wolves’ seventh-placed finish last season is just another stop on the journey.

Fosun International has assembled an impressive structure at Wolves. The influence of Jorge Mendes has brought a series of Champions League-level players to Molineux to feature under a Champions League-level coach. Clear progression was reflected in Wolves’ return of 57 points last season, the highest-points total of any newly-promoted side since Ipswich in 2000/01.

Yet Wolves are hungry for more. The next target will be to overcome the nine-point deficit between themselves and Manchester United and haul in one of last season’s top six.

With quality throughout Nuno Espirito Santo’s starting XI, bet365 have made them 7/2 joint-favourites to be the outsider who bridges the gap in 2019/20.

Arsenal, Chelsea and United, the three top-six sides who appear most vulnerable, can look on enviously at the likes of Raul Jimenez, Ruben Neves, Diogo Jota and Willy Boly. The purchase of promising Italian forward Patrick Cutrone looks a real coup - the 21-year-old will remove at least some of the goalscoring burden from Jimenez and Jota. 

Encouragingly, they seem to have the hard part sussed out after registering wins over Arsenal, Chelsea, United and Tottenham last campaign.

Instead, Wolves’ undoing was shock defeats to Huddersfield (twice), Cardiff and a draw away at Fulham. Claw back even eight of those 11 dropped points last season and Santo’s men theoretically would have finished in the top six.

Reasons to be fearful

Unfortunately, football doesn’t work like that. Wolves are strongest when playing on the counter-attack and it’s one of the reasons they thrived against the Premier League’s big boys.

When the league’s smaller sides visit Molineux they show less interest in the ball and remain compact. The onus is placed on Wolves to break them down and seven points from a possible 18 against the bottom three suggests they are much less comfortable doing so.

Wolves were the surprise packages of 2018/19 but heading into their second season back in the big time, the Premier League will have wised up to the threat posed by Santo’s men. More sides will head to Molineux ready to concede possession, frustrate Wolves and play for a point.

The club's campaign was underway on July 25 and with more Europa League qualifiers to come, there is concern an already small group of players could get overstretched by competing on four fronts.

Santo prefers to operate with a close-knit group and used just 21 different players last season in the Premier League. While Cutrone and Jesus Vallejo have since arrived, the puzzling departures of Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro further weakens his attacking options on the bench. New trio Pedro Neto, Bruno Jordao and Renat Dadashov are all 20 or under and cannot be expected to contribute right away.

A tiring Thursday-Sunday schedule to begin the campaign will push Wolves’ squad to its limits. With Leicester, United, Everton and Chelsea to play all by mid-September, a slow start could seriously damage Wolves’ ambitions of breaking into the top six.

Key man: Joao Moutinho

In a midfield packed with impressive performers, last year’s Player of the Season, Moutinho, was was the most consistent. A snip at just £5m last summer, the 32-year-old is the calm head required alongside the more energetic Neves and Leander Dendoncker.

Moutinho is the key cog in the Wolves machine. Always finding space to make himself available, he specialises in dropping deep to receive possession or to break up opposition attacks.

When on the ball, he knows when to either spring counter-attacks with quick through balls or slow the pace of the game down with shorter passes.

Moutinho was fundamental to the transition game that proved so fruitful for Wolves in their first season back in the top flight. His two assists in the win over Leicester and his sublime equaliser in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford were two highlights of a memorable debut campaign in the Premier League.

He’s not lacking in fight either, as indicated by a clash with Bournemouth’s Jefferson Lerma that left him with a bloodied mouth. “Moutinho was not happy at all,” his manager said of the incident. “And when a short, angry man is angry it is tough.”

As Santo looks to seize a firmer grip on matches next season, Moutinho’s ability to retain possession and dictate the pace of the game will make him invaluable once again.

The manager: Nuno Espirito Santo

Everything about Wolves last season felt Premier League-ready and their manager was no different. Since arriving in May 2017, Santo has been a huge part of the shift in culture at Molineux.

After breezing through the Championship, the 45-year-old maintained that momentum in the Premier League as Wolves took to top-flight life like a duck to water.

Winning 16 points from 12 matches against the top six perhaps underlines the tactical nous of a manager who coached in the Champions League as recently as 2017 with former club Porto.

Santo has designed a system that extracts plays to the strengths of his talented squad and the former goalkeeper is steadfast in his philosophy. Wolves deploy a 3-5-2 or 3-4-2-1, with responsibility on the centre-backs and Moutinho to start attacks from deep.

Consistency with team selection ensures effective chemistry on the field. Santo used just 21 different players last season and three of those were goalkeepers.

And like his side on the pitch, Santo has brought energy and excitement from the touchline. Jota's last-minute winner in the incredible 4-3 win over Leicester in January saw Santo embark on a wild Jose Mourinho-esque dash to join his players’ celebrations.

Fans' view - Mark Hadley - Telford Wolves Supporters' Group

"A top-six place is now well within our reach. I’m looking at Arsenal and Manchester United as the two teams we should try and catch up to.

"In the Championship, the style of football we played was suited to the Premier League and that’s why we were able to repeat our success once we were promoted.

"Teams eventually saw how we played and they tried to counter it but not many had an answer for it. You can see from how we beat Tottenham at Wembley and smashed Arsenal – actually stopping us is another matter.

"The one thing Nuno needs to sort out is how to break down teams like Huddersfield. I have no idea how they beat us home and away - my only explanation is that they just outworked us.

"That’s our Achilles heel. Our game is based on containment and counter-attacking at pace. Generally the teams in the top half come to play football and we are able to attack them. But the teams down the bottom look to outhustle us and aren’t interested in possession.

"We’ve seen in the last two seasons that Nuno has been there that we’ve improved each year. The way the club is heading, if we get some real quality in the summer I can’t see us missing out on the top six.

"The Premier League should be the priority because our squad isn’t big. Perhaps the Europa League can be a chance for the Under-23s or the players struggling to get a game to play in."

*All odds correct with bet365 at time of writing

**BT Sport will show every Wolves match in Europe from the group stage onwards.

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