Bruno Lage finds right connections at Wolves to shrug off Portuguese struggles | Wolverhampton Wanderers

The temptation when Bruno Lage was appointed by Wolves was to assume it would just be more of the same: another Portuguese manager, another Jorge Mendes client, at a club with a strong Portuguese core. If managers from the German school of hard-pressing are the most modish appointment for an aspirational modern club, Portugal’s disciples of Vítor Frade and periodisation are not far behind.

While Lage is very much of that school – to the extent that in 2012, despite being a youth coach at Benfica at the time, he co-authored a report with the former Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea coach Carlos Carvalhal on the latter’s implementation of periodisation at Besiktas – this has been a season of change at Wolves.

The result is that, even after defeat at Arsenal on Thursday, Wolves go into Sunday’s game at West Ham with four more points than they have had at this stage of a Premier League season. Even if they do not finish in the top four, a club that had seemed to be stagnating have been reenergised and have a good chance of their best finish since coming fifth in 1972-73.

Lage’s report on Besiktas, Soccer: Developing a Know-How, starts in the language familiar to anybody acquainted with Frade’s work, rejecting the “reductionism” of Cartesianism and those thinkers who “having an object of study … separate its various components and attempt carefully to study each one with the goal of understanding each component better”. In football, that means separating the game into four basic components: tactical, technical, physical and psychological.

“In Tactical Periodisation,” the report explains, “the understanding of the tactical is different – it’s a dimension that assumes the coordination of the whole process involving with it all other dimensions that assume equal importance. It demonstrates itself in a specific form depending on the choice of exercises so to model our style of playing. Basically, speaking of this dimension is to assume as a team culture that brings out a specific style of play, that is, the creation of a dynamic collective identity that has individuals’ intents but related to the collective idea.”

Max Kilman, Wolves
Max Kilman’s emergence has helped preserve the stability of Wolves’ back three. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

It’s little different to the theories José Mourinho used to espouse in the days when he still talked about football and we’ve heard similar from various Frade-inspired coaches. It explains why, when Wolves had a run of eight games in November and December when they scored two goals, Lage was relatively unruffled. For him, it was not as simple as the defence working and the attack being blunt; the whole was good and therefore the goals would come.

Yet there had been a sense over the past couple of seasons that periodisation had had its day. It is a long time since Mourinho felt fresh. Nuno Espírito Santo went into decline at Wolves. Marco Silva disappointed at Everton. Carvalhal is at Braga. Leonardo Jardim has just left Al Hilal. Vítor Pereira, after being relegated with 1860 Munich, moved to China and, after being drummed out of Everton before he had been given the job, has just been named manager of Corinthians.

Having won Euro 2016 with Portugal, the caution of Fernando Santos looks as though it may be restricting an emerging generation. It is not entirely clear whether André Villas-Boas is a resting football manager or a resting rally driver.

But periodisation is a broad church: it describes a general method rather a specific style of play. There is no reason why a basic sense of the interconnectedness of things – which is certainly not unique to the Portuguese school – should necessarily result in the sort of stifling football that managers such as Mourinho, Santos and even Carlos Queiroz tend to produce.

Lage spent a long time as an assistant at various smaller Portuguese clubs before eight years in the youth department at Benfica. After a stint in Dubai, he worked as Carvalhal’s assistant at Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea. His experience is broad-based. In his season and a half as head coach at Benfica, his side were notably attacking, averaging 2.38 goals per game.

Initially, he seemed to be attempting something similar at Wolves and the story of the early part of their season was of promising performances that didn’t quite produce the results they deserved. Lage instituted a more reactive approach, more akin to how Wolves had played at their best under Nuno. José Sá has proved an upgrade on Rui Patrício, while the emergence of Max Kilman has meant that, even in the absence of Willy Boly, the back three has been solid.

Lage, who spent much of his career scouting opponents, had a video analysis room installed and the benefits of that have been seen in the more targeted pressing which yielded both goals against Tottenham (the free-kick that led to the first came from possession being won high) and the goal at Arsenal.

Wolves’ Derek Dougan taking on Leeds’ Gordon McQueen in 1973
Wolves could better their fifth-place finish of 1972-73, when Derek Dougan (second left) was taking on Leeds’ Gordon McQueen. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

Wolves have also become more conservative with the ball. No side in the Premier League crosses less often than Wolves; they had been sixth in that metric last season, albeit it many of them were delivered by Adama Traoré, now on loan at Barcelona.

They hold possession better, which increases the importance of Rúben Neves. As Tottenham, having gone 2-0 down, showed in the final hour two weeks ago, if you shut him down you can disrupt Wolves but, more generally, that change has given Wolves more control and should make them less dependent on Raúl Jiménez.

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Ideally, they need a little more creativity in that front three. Hwang Hee-chan has shown his promise and Pedro Neto is returning after 10 months out with a fractured patella, but Wolves might have hoped for a little more from Daniel Podence or Trincão. Only Burnley and Norwich have scored fewer goals in the Premier League this season, but there is reason to expect that to improve, at least to an extent, without major tactical changes.

The dream of a top-four finish probably is now beginning to fade, but that can not reasonably be seen as failure. Wolves have the 14th-highest wage bill in the Premier League; they will comfortably outperform that this season. Lage’s tweaks, his version of periodisation, have led to distinct improvement.

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