Lage is clearly a different coach to Nuno Espirito Santo but he comes with many similar credentials and, most importantly, will be expected to operate within a framework already laid out.
The club has never previously lined up a replacement with the aim of such a smooth transition. Since the birth of the Premier League heralded the modern era of football, managers at Molineux have been characterised by an identity distinct from their predecessor. Each man bringing his own fresh ideology and, very often, a whole new set of problems.
Left behind the elite, structurally and on the pitch, Wolves made a big statement when they replaced long-serving manager Graham Turner with Graham Taylor in March 1994.
It signalled a serious attempt to reach the Premier League with a fresh injection of funds. To this day there has never been quite such a headline-grabbing appointment as the former England manager. There was standing room only at his unveiling, and at his resignation 18 months later.
Taylor’s football was based around pace on the flanks and balls into the box at the earliest opportunity. His successor, Mark McGhee, had an entirely different approach with his possession-based football and three-man defence. It is hard to imagine two more contrasting styles. On it went. Dave Jones, Glenn Hoddle, Mick McCarthy, Stale Solbakken, Dean Saunders, Kenny Jackett, Walter Zenga, Paul Lambert and Nuno. Aside from a couple of internal promotions – Colin Lee and Terry Connor – there was no sense of continuity.
Part of that approach was down to the ultimate failure of each previous incumbent. The Hayward and Morgan ownerships wanted to distance themselves from the previous managerial regimes and herald a fresh start. Changes of manager under Fosun’s ownership have not entirely been due to results on the pitch.
This is Fosun’s fourth appointment, but only the second they have earmarked from long range.
A client of Jorge Mendes, Lage walks into a club stocked with Portuguese talent and with an infrastructure in place to handle the arrival of more. Minimising disruption is an important factor.
Much has been made of Lage’s style of football, with fans already expecting a more gung-ho approach to attacking. But his title success at Benfica in 2018/19, where huge victories were secured along the way, will bear little relation to the task at hand in the Premier League.
When he spoke to the club’s media this week Lage was keen to stress that his first days here would involve ascertaining the areas his predecessor succeeded in. “It’s a good opportunity to understand what Nuno did in his four years,” he said. “My ambition is to continue and improve on what he did in his four years.”
That Primeira Liga title was achieved in just half a season, too short a time frame to make any judgements on what to expect in the Premier League. But working with young players has been a central facet of Lage’s long coaching career, and this will certainly appeal to Fosun. Just a month into the job at the Estadio Da Luz, Lage fast-tracked Ivan Zlobin, Ferro, Jota and Florentino Luis from Benfica B into his first-team.
The Premier League will not be so accommodating. There are no players from the Under-23s at Compton Park ready to make a meaningful step up. This is not a criticism, it is a situation found across the country. As champions, Liverpool loaned out the likes of Ben Woodburn, Harvey Elliott, Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Adam Lewis and many others last season. None are anywhere near the standard required to make an impact.
It would be ill-advised to think that Lage can turn a crop of promising talent into first team regulars in such a demanding division. They may have potential, but Wolves would stand no chance in the Premier League if they suddenly started promoting academy graduates.
Yet, Lage has been installed with a more holistic approach in mind than Nuno ever considered. Jeff Shi wants to remove the absolute control Nuno gained over the first team squad. This is where we can expect change. Where Nuno laid down a blueprint and the club shaped around it, Lage comes into a structure in place that he will work to.
When answering supporters’ questions last month, Shi pointedly referred to the strategy for success being about more than one individual and more than just the first team.
“It is a big challenge to me, even compared to three or four years ago, how to find a way to stay in the elite group in the Premier League for a long time,” the Chairman said. “I do think it is not only about the first-team, it is about the academy, it’s about commercial power, it’s about the fanbase, it’s about the people inside the club, they have to be very intelligent and working very hard, so that takes time.”
With an average age of 27.2 (weighted by playing time) Wolves were comfortably in the bottom half of the table last season when it came to the youngest squads in the Premier League. It will be a difficult balancing act for Lage if he is to succeed in bringing that average age down without compromising success on the pitch.
Nuno to Bruno. If one was a head coach given autonomy to take Wolves where Fosun wanted them to be, the other steps into the role knowing that he must adapt to his surroundings. Progression is still the aim, but this is an appointment who will be asked to work under Fosun’s terms.