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Are Wolverhampton Wanderers set for Premier League relegation?

Wolverhampton

Julen Lopetegui swooped into Molineux on November 14 during the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournament break, taking over as Wolverhampton Wanderers manager to fight a relegation fire. With Wolves in last place, Lopetegui entered a job very different from any of his previous in management.

Just a few seasons earlier, Lopetegui was celebrating a Europa League title win as Sevilla’s manager. His time with the Spanish club ended just a month before joining Wolves, having done all he could with the club.

The club wanted Lopetegui above all other managers available. Promises were made to the former Real Madrid and Spanish gaffer. Plans were put in place to see Wolves progress up the table under Lopetegui’s guidance. Lopetegui led Wolves to safety, providing some exciting football along the way. The future looked bright when the 2022-23 Premier League season ended.

The relationship between the manager and club looked progressively rocky as the summer wore on, however. Finally, with days until the kickoff of the 2023 Premier League season, Lopetegui walked away from Molineux. It is claimed Lopetegui was made certain promises by the club that weren’t held up. He was also not told of some of the money issues Wolves faced in terms of Financial Fair Play.

In an interview, Lopetegui stated: “We came here believing in a different project.” Lopetegui also claimed the club’s Plan B couldn’t be instituted this season due to financial restrictions.

Lopetegui out, O’Neil in

Lopetegui’s departure has left the club in crisis ahead of their first match of the Premier League season against Manchester United. Former Bournemouth manager Gary O’Neil was quickly brought in to take the reins of the team.

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If there is a manager who could steer Wolves away from crisis and potential relegation from the Premier League, it is O’Neil. The former Premier League midfielder took charge of Bournemouth following a 9-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield in August 2022.

Scott Parker was dismissed after the loss, with O’Neil moving into an interim managerial position. He adapted quickly and improved the team defensively, something Parker was unable to do.

Bournemouth went unbeaten in their next six games, conceding just six goals. O’Neil led the Cherries to Premier League safety in April, with games to spare. Bournemouth owner Bill Foley has high expectations, and the club ruthlessly dismissed O’Neil in June in favour of Andoni Iraola. The Spanish manager is the new exciting, up-and-coming coach in European football. O’Neil isn’t, but Wolves are hoping the ex-Bournemouth manager will be safe hands.

Is Wolves’ squad good enough?

O’Neil’s job at Wolves won’t be too dissimilar to his work at Bournemouth. He must get the best out of a squad to achieve safety. Despite spending heavily last season, the players brought in did very little to improve the team.

Matheus Nunes was the biggest of the disappointments. The midfielder arrived from Sporting Lisbon for £38 million amid rumours some of the biggest clubs in the world wanted to sign him. Nunes produced just one goal and one assist in 39 matches in all competitions.

But to put the blame on Wolves’ poor season just on Nunes would be wrong. Hwang Hee-Chan joined from RB Leipzig on a permanent deal following an initial loan. He scored four times in 32 games in all competitions.

Goncalo Guedes and Matheus Cunha, two exciting players with loads of potential, scored a combined four goals. The only Wolves signing from 12 months ago that gets a pass is Sasa Kalajdzic, who suffered an ACL tear on his debut.

Financial Fair Play has fuelled Wolves’ problems this summer. Wolves lost £46m in 2021-22. The accounts for 2022-23 have not been published yet. But the likelihood of similar or more losses is high.

The club needed to bring in money this summer, and over £88m has been brought in thus far through player sales. Along with player sales, Wolverhampton have allowed high earners to leave Molineux to lighten the wage bill.

The club said goodbye to 19 players in the offseason via sales or free agency. More could still leave in August before the transfer window closes. Not all 19 players were established first-team members, but the likes of Joao Moutinho, Adama Traore, Raul Jimenez, and Nathan Collins were.

Player Transfer fee
Ruben Neves £47m
Nathan Collins £23m
Conor Coady £7.5m
Jimenez £5m
Ryan Giles £5m
Joao Moutinho Free
Adama Traore Free
Diego Costa Free

Who have Wolves signed?

Additional fringe players like Hayao Kawabe and Matija Sarkic were also sold to help bring in some funds this offseason. The players brought in to replace those who departed have likely disappointed fans. Cunha’s loan from Atletico Madrid was made permanent for £44m.

Wolves spent nearly their entire summer 2023 transfer kitty to sign players last January to prevent relegation. Cunha was one of those players brought in, with the expectation that he would fulfil the potential he has had since arriving at RB Leipzig in 2018. Boubacar Traore’s loan from Metz was also made permanent.

Perhaps the most interesting summer signing, and one that shows just how precarious Wolves’ Financial Fair Play situation is, was right-back Matt Doherty. The defender was sold to Tottenham in 2020 before being released from his contract midway through last season, allowing him to join Atletico Madrid. Once again, a free agent, Doherty was offered a contract with Wolves, which he signed.

Despite the departures, Wolverhampton still have a strong enough squad, on paper, to retain their Premier League status in 2023-24. Bookmakers have Wolves at odds of 3.25 to be relegated before their opening match away to Manchester United. The club has the third-best odds to go down to the Championship. Only Luton Town and Sheffield United have better odds to be relegated.

O’Neil proved he can work magic at Bournemouth last term, and he could do it once more. If there are no further player sales, Wolves would still have one of the best squads of the teams expected to battle relegation.

Goalkeeper Jose Sa has proven himself as a strong Premier League shot-stopper. Pedro Neto is electric down the wing and Daniel Podence has the potential to provide strong performances from time to time.

Striker Fabio Silva, who Wolves spent £35m on in 2020, has returned after loans with Anderlecht and PSV Eindhoven last season. He scored a combined 16 goals in 51 matches and helped PSV Eindhoven win the Dutch Cup. He could have a breakout season wearing Old Gold.

It is easy to forget that Conor Coady didn’t play for Wolves last term. He spent the campaign at Everton on loan, battling against relegation. Collins wasn’t a regular in the second half of the season, with January’s arrival Craig Dawson getting the lion’s share of minutes.

Jimenez hasn’t been the same since suffering a traumatic head injury in 2021. His departure from Molineux made sense. Neves’ absence from midfield is the most obvious hole in the side.

Wolverhampton Wanderers may not look like they are in a good place right now. The team will take its lumps throughout the campaign, too. But this Wolves team under the management of O’Neil may surprise supporters by securing their Premier League status despite Financial Fair Play issues.

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