By Tom Nash.
This time last year, Wolves were very much the novelty of the top half of the Premier League, a title they have passed on to Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United this season as, this time around, nobody is surprised to see the West Midlands club in the chase for European spots.
They have continued to upset the richest clubs in the league and looked very comfortable in the Europa League, where they have beaten the likes of Torino and Besiktas home and away, but in recent games, their lack of depth has really taken its toll.
With their Europa League campaign beginning back in July, Wolves have now already played nearly 40 matches this season in total.
An unexpected defeat at Watford and failure to overcome Newcastle at home has left the side eight points off fourth.
Just three weeks ago, they completed an extraordinary double over champions Manchester City which left them in the fight for a Champions League place, but without a win in the following four games, their season has lost some momentum since that memorable night.
The first and most obvious place Wolves lack cover is at No. 9.
Mexican hitman Raul Jiménez has become one of the best strikers in English football and made the shirt his own, but the fact Patrick Cutrone’s move to Molineux was ended after only five months now leaves Wolves exposed. The young Italian striker has just returned to his homeland and signed on loan for Fiorentina.
Against Manchester United in the third round of the FA Cup, Ashley-Seal stepped in for Jiménez. The youngster looked slightly out of his depth, though, and the Mexican was called on in the second half as Wolves posed a much bigger threat as a result. It’s no exaggeration to say he’s indispensable to Nuno Espírito Santo.
They need cover for Jimenez urgently, and will almost certainly bring in a no.9 in the coming weeks, if only on loan.
The risk of burnout is particularly acute in the case of the former Benfica striker as he played for Mexico in the Gold Cup in July before joining up with his club just as the Europa League qualifying rounds started. His summer break was very brief.
In defence, another summer arrival from the continent failed to work out for Nuno Espírito Santo.
Real Madrid defender Jesus Vallejo arrived on loan, but he has not proven good enough for the job and his stay was cut short.
Santo was already handed one headache this season after French centre-back Willy Boly broke his ankle in October.
He is still not close to a return, but fortunately for Wolves, Leandro Dendoncker has adapted well to the back three, no doubt aided by the calming experience of Conor Coady at sweeper and Rui Patricio in goal.
The emergence of youth player Max Kilman also gives the team another option, albeit inferior to that offered by Boly.
Santo may choose not to make any additions to the back line but don’t be surprised if a new defender does arrive in Wolverhampton.
Another area where Wolves look desperately short is in central midfield.
There is no doubting the quality they possess in that area with Portuguese wizard João Moutinho accompanied by his talented young compatriot Ruben Neves, but there are few options when rotation is needed.
This was obvious in the final minutes of the recent game at Anfield which ended in a 1-0 win for the home team.
Moutinho played 180 minutes against the Premier League champions and European champions within 48 hours, and when a good chance fell his way in the final minutes against Liverpool he blazed it way off target wearily.
This was a sign that those experienced but ageing legs need a rest from time to time, but the truth is Santo has no other option of even similar style or standard. He can shuffle things around and put Saiss or Dendoncker in midfield, but the team loses significant attacking impetus.
Then there is the case of Wolves star player this season, the unstoppable Adama Traore.
The Spaniard was a disappointment last season but has added quality final balls and shots to his superhuman athleticism. Even Tottenham and Manchester City could find no way to subdue him.
He is currently occupying the right side of a three-man attack, and without him Nuno’s men would be in trouble as there is no like-for-like replacement in that position.
A prolonged absence might even force Wolves back into the 3-5-2 formation they used for most of last season, such is his importance to the team on the right flank.
Right wing-back is another area where the team can be stretched. While Ruben Vinagre and Jonny Otto can be interchanged on the left quite easily depending on the opponent, Matt Doherty has no real competition on the other wing.
This has been notable several times during the season as the Irishman has mixed brilliant performances with lethargic ones.
Since Fosun took over Wolverhampton Wanderers in June 2016 they have proven they have both the funds and the intelligence to make their project very successful.
The inconsistency of every side outside the top three is glaring, so with a Champions League spot and a run in the Europa League both within Wolves’ grasp, now is the time to make those two or three signings which may tip the balance in the team’s favour come May.
Another top seven finish would be satisfactory, but an appearance in either the Europa League final or next year’s Champions League would be a dream come true for the fans at Molineux.