Wolverhampton Wanderers clinched the best of the rest title in the Premier League last season, pipping Everton to seventh by three points in their first campaign back in the top flight.
The reward for such a stellar season was to be entered into the Europa League qualifying rounds.
It meant Nuno Espírito Santo’s men kicked off 2019/20 in the final week of July as they came up against Northern Ireland’s Crusaders.
The Premier League outfit confidently dispatched of their opponents 6-1 on aggregate to set up a tie with FC Pyunik. The Armenian side were confidently beaten 4-0 in both legs as Wolves progressed into the next round to face off against Serie A side Torino.
Sandwiched between the matches against Pyunik was the Premier League season opener against Leicester City.
Last season, Wolves would’ve picked up all three points. But a change to the handball law meant Willy Boly’s inadvertent use of his hand in the build-up saw Leander Dendoncker’s goal ruled out.
Nuno was able to rotate his team for the second leg against the Armenians but the same luxury won’t be afforded in the return tie against Torino.
Wolves lead 3-2 after an impressive showing in Turin but fielding a weakened side could jeopardise their hopes of getting into the group stage of Europe’s secondary competition.
For Burnley’s visit to Molineux on Sunday and perhaps even the trip to Goodison Park one week later, changes will be required and there is a real possibility that Wolves could head into the international break without a win in the Premier League.
As things stand, two points from matches against Leicester and United isn’t a bad return. But failing to get maximum points from any of the opening four games should ring a few alarm bells for those at Molineux.
They’re immediately playing catch-up.
If they struggle in the league directly after playing in Europe then the group stages may hinder their performances domestically.
Europa League football takes its toll on a squad, especially if it’s their first time competing in the competition.
Wolves effectively played one game every week last term. With the Europa League, not only does that jump to two in certain weeks, it knocks the schedule so you’re playing Thursday and Sunday.
🐺 Diogo Jota scores again in Europe! ⚽
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) August 22, 2019
Success can sometimes come too soon for clubs. Last season Burnley played in Europe and suffered in the Premier League. They simply weren’t ready for it.
Nuno will have been aiming to get Wolves into Europe but perhaps it wasn’t expected upon their return to the top flight. The club invested in the summer to add depth to their squad but new signings are still adapting. It’s not an ideal situation to be in.
Extra games, travel time and having to bed new players into key areas; it’s a transitional period and Wolves may have to decide what is more important to the team, at least in the short-term.
For example, we’re still in August yet Diogo Jota has played 469 competitive minutes. That is the equivalent of over five 90 minute matches. Raúl Jiménez, another key cog in the Wolves system, has 432 minutes under his belt.
For context, Jamie Vardy of Leicester, a team rivalling Santo’s men for the best of the rest crown, has played just 180 minutes this term.
Q: What happens when you give the ball to Raul?
— Wolves (@Wolves) August 23, 2019
Moise Kean of Everton has featured in just 39 minutes and Richarlison in 153 minutes. Down the line, the extra minutes could lead to injuries. Fatigue also plays a part and the Premier League is already one of the busier competitions.
It’s a balancing act and one many coaches have failed to perfect.
If Wolves get it wrong, a mid-table finish and a group stage exit could be the best they can hope for this season. Nuno is going to be earning his salary over the next couple of weeks as Wolves look to reach the international break in a good position.
They need foundations to build off.