Once more unto the breach. A new Premier League campaign is underway, but unlike at the outset of more recent August dawns, the dreary hegemony of the Big Six elite looks heartwarmingly under threat. Last season, the current top-flight grandees finished as expected: the thoroughbreds of Manchester City galloping first past the post, winning on the nod from Liverpool. Meanwhile, back at the furlong pole, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United duked it out for the minor placings – so no major shocks there.
Chief among the also-rans, ahead of vastly more experienced rivals, came Wolves. New to the Premier League, they were not so prone to a tug of the forelock that they did not biff and bloody a few aristocratic noses. To much surprise, they took an impressive 16 points from those teams who finished above them, gaining many new admirers in the process. Between the league and FA Cup, they registered victories over all apart from Manchester City, before smiting the champions in the recent Asia Cup. A meaningless pre-season friendly it may have been, but for the purposes of this column its importance simply cannot be exaggerated. Wolves are a team who mean business.
Having seen them achieve success beyond their wildest dreams last season, their fans can now be forgiven for hoping for even greater things to come. Chelsea go into the season under a transfer embargo, with an inexperienced manager whose credentials are open to question. After a good start at Manchester United, Ole Gunnar Solskjær increasingly had about him the haggard look of a man who has been asked to mind mice at a crossroads, although yesterday’s victory over Frank Lampard’s men will have put a spring back in his step. Wolves, meanwhile, with their astute, well-heeled owners, talented young squad and charming, streetwise manager look well-placed to take advantage of any high-profile stumbles.
Last season, weirdly, they harvested one more point from their matches against teams in the top half of the table than those in the bottom, pulling off the remarkable feat of losing at home and away against Huddersfield Town. While the Premier League’s better sides may now have figured how best to cope with Nuno Espiríto Santo’s counterattacking style, he and his players will almost certainly be better equipped to overcome the kind of inferior teams who robbed them of so many points last time. Their squad has been bolstered and their prospects look bright, but there is one significant snag.
Back in Europe, they have one foot in a play-off for the Europa League group stages. These are exciting times at Molineux, but while Nuno insists his team’s first foray into European competition in 29 years will have no impact on their top-flight form, recent history suggests he is wide of the mark. Two seasons ago, Sean Dyche led Burnley to a quite remarkable seventh place finish in the Premier League, earning a European berth in the process. Despite failing to advance beyond the qualifiers, they finished the subsequent league campaign with 14 fewer points than they had amassed in the one before. It could legitimately be argued they had hugely overachieved the previous season and were simply returning to Burnley “mean”, but they are not the only side whose league form has nosedived while trying to cope with the distraction of Europe.
A year before, Everton played 10 Europa League matches, before ending the league season with 12 points fewer than they had won during the campaign in which they booked their passage to Europe. Prior to that, West Ham and Southampton buckled under the strain of playing at home and abroad. After qualifying for Europe in 2015-16, both clubs finished the subsequent Premier League campaign with 17 points fewer than their previous tallies. West Ham played one qualifying round but failed to make the group stages. Southampton failed to get out of a group including Sparta Prague, Hapoel Be’er Sheva and Internazionale. It is the disruption of European qualification rather than the number of games teams are forced to play that seems to cause problems.
The previous season, Southampton had proved a rare recent exception to the detrimental effect qualification for the Europa League has on teams from outside the traditional Premier League elite. In 2013-14, they finished seventh with 60 points and subsequently went out to the Danish side Midtjylland in their attempt to make the group stages. They ended the subsequent league campaign in the same position but with three points more. It can be done, but it is clearly more difficult for clubs with squads lower on quality and numbers than those of the traditionally Big Clubs.
Wolves have proved their class and on the face of it appear well-resourced enough to cope with the additional demands of European football without letting it affect their assault on the top six or – whisper it – four. However, it is no secret Nuno prefers working with a compact squad and a settled team. Last season, it did not go unnoticed that he played the same starting 11 in the Premier League in his opening nine games. Should they make the Europa League group stages, one suspects a more flexible selection policy will be required. Last week, his team undertook a 6,370-mile round-trip to Armenia, where they swatted aside FC Pyunik in the first leg of their third-round qualifier, but showed no adverse effects on the subsequent 126-mile equivalent from Molineux to Leicester’s King Power Stadium in a state of affairs that suggests the early omens are good.
There is an old episode of Friends in which Ross is torn between two ladies who love him and an unsympathetic Chandler jokes about the dilemma in which his pal finds himself. “Oh, no!” he sneers sarcastically. “Two women love me. They’re both gorgeous and sexy, my wallet’s too small for my fifties and my diamond shoes are too tight!” Wolves now find themselves on the horns of a similar dilemma. Our thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time.