How Wolverhampton Wanderers have become the team to beat this season
After a subpar season last term, Wolves have roared back to become the best side in the Championship
An English club finishes in the bottom half of the table. Then, buoyed by a new manager, starting afresh, they surprise everyone by mounting a title challenge the following season.
No, this is not the tale of Leicester City or even Chelsea after the Jose Mourinho debacle, but of a club who will soon be playing in the same league as them.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves) have taken the Championship by storm this season, and they currently sit pretty at the top of the table.
They are six points clear of second-placed Cardiff City and ten points clear of the six teams battling for the automatic promotion places.
Considering their lowly 15th placed finish last season, what has been behind their meteoric rise?
The Molineux Stadium experienced a major overhaul in the summer which was kicked off with the dismissal of former manager Paul Lambert.
Change is the only constant
In came Nuno Espirito Santo, the former FC Porto and Valencia manager. The Portuguese's appointment was followed by a flurry of transfers, activities that were possible due to investments by the club's Chinese owners; the Fosun Group and their ties with super-agent Jorge Mendes (the agent to stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Jose Mourinho, and many others).
Nuno recruited 12 players in the summer, out of which 7 are his compatriots i.e. Portuguese. Midfielder Ruben Neves was signed from Porto for a record £15.8 million, a record for both, the Championship and Wolves, and has been excellent.
This move was seen as a real statement of intent, and Neves is proving to be well worth the money.
However, another new signing that has arguably bettered him is Diego Jota. The Portuguese winger is on loan from Atletico Madrid; a move which will become permanent in the summer, according to reports from BBC.
Capable of playing anywhere in the front three, he has recorded 12 goals and 4 assists.
The signing of striker Leo Bonatini has proved to be another masterstroke. Plucked from Saudi side Al-Hilal, the Brazilian has been a key performer.
His 12 goals have helped the cause, but he has also shown the ability to find a pass, contributing 5 assists.
Perfect utilization of the transfer market
Nuno has made several other shrewd signings, players who have cost less but have impressed nonetheless. The likes of defenders Willy Boly and Ryan Bennett, left wing-back Barry Douglas and goalkeeper John Ruddy has proved to be gems.
Due to the heavy influx of players, the squad is barely recognizable from the one of last season. Matt Doherty and Conor Coady are the only two regulars who have still maintained their place, albeit with a change of position.
Nuno had a clear idea of how he wanted his team to play, and he recruited the players that can play this system, for which Wolves are reaping the rewards.
The style of play at the Molineux this season has been similar to the change Antonio Conte brought at Chelsea with the 3-4-3 system. This change has a positive impact for Wolves at both ends of the pitch. They have scored the most goals (59), and have conceded the second fewest (28).
This shows that in spite of the talent in the side, they have not compromised on organization and defending. Nuno has drilled his side impressively which have resulted in them completely dominating football matches.
Wolves last tasted Premier League football in 2012 and it did not look like they would make the jump again anytime soon. On the opening day of the season, they secured a victory over pre-season favourites Middlesbrough, and they simply haven't looked back since.
They impressed against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup, losing closely on penalties. Their performance even had Pep Guardiola and Sergio Aguero singing their praises.
Exciting times ahead
Propelled by a new manager, a new philosophy, and new players, they are in pole position to win the league title this season, and the atmosphere around the club is one of optimism.
Thomas Baugh, co-founder of Wolves Blog, says, "The mood is amazing given how many times Wolves come close only to fail to deliver," he said to Sky Sports. "But this is the best Wolves team I have ever seen."
Former Wolves goalkeeper Matt Murray has experienced the hardships himself. "There have been tough times," he tells Sky Sports. "We went right down to League One and there have been some boring football. Now the fans are getting entertained at home and away. 'West Bromwich Albion, we're coming for you' is the chant ringing out. It's fantastic."
Wolverhampton Wanderers finished last season in 15th place. However, odds are that they will get to the grand stage of the Premier League that their team deserves, come next season.