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It took Wolverhampton Wanderers six years to hire Julen Lopetegui and he walked out six days before their season started. Lopetegui was the saviour who arrived belatedly – when Wolves first wanted him in 2016, he was instead appointed Spain manager; when they approached him again last year, concern for his ill father meant he initially turned the job down – and had an immediate impact. Wolves had the fewest points before his appointment; only nine teams took more after it.
And yet the timing of Lopetegui’s exit means his rescue act from relegation may only be a one-year reprieve. The Spaniard leaves Wolves in a mess and if his departure was by mutual consent, the blame should be shared around, too: it was evident in May that Lopetegui was unhappy and yet dragging things out until August hampered Wolves. Perhaps Gary O’Neil, the other miracle worker of a mid-season appointment in last season’s battle against the drop, can repeat his heroics then but the Wolves board should not bank on getting that lucky if the Englishman, put in charge at Bournemouth after Scott Parker talked himself out of a job, is parachuted in at Molineux after Lopetegui did likewise.
It is a breakdown of communication made all the more damning by the amount of time Wolves spent courting Lopetegui last autumn; if that ought to have given the 56-year-old time to assess their position, he claimed he was only made aware of Financial Fair Play concerns in May. It is also a glaring failure of recruitment which left him convinced Wolves needed reinforcing after they spent a fortune. It is a consequence of Financial Fair Play, which meant they needed to sell.
Ruben Neves wanted to go anyway, his years of selfless service in mid-table ending and stripping Wolves of their best player. The sales of Nathan Collins, Conor Coady, Ryan Giles and Raul Jimenez meant the outgoings brought in around £90m while the departures of Diego Costa, Adama Traore and Joao Moutinho left the squad looking still more slender. The incomings, meanwhile, number one: the free transfer Matt Doherty.
And yet Wolves have found a curiously expensive way to chase mediocrity. They have spent around £200m over the last 14 months – Lopetegui seemed to ignore that some of it was on his watch – and yet have a squad in desperate need of a quality striker, preferably with a decent back-up, as well as another fine centre-back and central midfielder.
So where has all the money gone? There was £38m on Matheus Nunes, described in his Sporting Lisbon days by Pep Guardiola as one of the best players in the world, but, a stunning goal against Chelsea apart, doing precious little in the old gold to justify that description. There was £27m last summer on Goncalo Guedes, who was so ineffectual he was loaned out in January, looks surplus to requirements now and for whom Wolves may never recoup a penny. There was £15m on Sasa Kalajdzic, the injury-prone striker who promptly got injured on his debut and hasn’t played since. And, under Lopetegui, there was the loan with the commitment to buy Matheus Cunha for £43m, arranged when Wolves needed a centre-forward and a goalscorer. Except the Brazilian was neither; he scored two goals in 20 games and they were compelled to purchase him anyway.
Lopetegui said last month that Wolves needed “cost-effective” players in this transfer window; it is because they have acquired too many cost-ineffective ones. And beyond that, there is the issue about owners Fosun, who have veered between spending and not in recent years, and the influence of agent Jorge Mendes. If Wolves long bucked the trend, being a rare club who seemed to benefit from having a very close relationship with one agency, there are Mendes’ fingerprints over many of Wolves’ worst deals; it is a category that also includes Nelson Semedo and Fabio Silva, who cost a further £72m between them.
Lopetegui nonetheless found a way to win games in a manner that marked him out as a high-class manager. He deemed keeping Wolves up was the greatest achievement of his career and, accustomed to managing Real Madrid, Porto and Sevilla, could be forgiven for wanting rather more than annual attempts to avoid relegation and wondering why his employers had not managed to at least acquire a couple more cut-price additions.
But there is also a reality that this was not simply a question of backing a manager in the transfer market: Wolves needed to make a sizeable profit this summer. They are on course to do that but the losses may not just include a tactician who transformed what had been a hideous season last year, but their Premier League status.