Huddersfield Town manager David Wagner described his side not getting relegated from the Premier League last season as a miracle. Brighton manager Chris Hughton, whose side ended seven points ahead of the drop zone, warned his players of the difficulties of becoming an established Premier League club in their second season. Newcastle, the third promoted side from last season, finished a comfortable 11 points above Swansea City but are now embroiled in a contract battle between manager Rafa Benitez and owner Mike Ashley. And while Cardiff City will likely fight the relegation zone throughout the season, Wolves and Fulham represent two of the most dynamic, exciting sides to earn promotion into the Premier League in recent memory.
Any discussions surrounding Wolves inevitably turns into a debate surrounding the club’s relationship to super-agent Jorge Mendes, going so far as rival Championship clubs calling for an investigation into each side. While big name Portuguese figures such as manager Nuno Espirito Santo and midfielder Ruben Neves surprisingly made their way to the club, it’s estimated that almost half of the players they’ve signed have come from Mendes’ Gestifute agency. The tongue in cheek criticism is that Wolves are trying to build the ultimate Portuguese all-star team, and their summer signings of Diogo Jota, Joao Moutinho and Rui Patricio continue the pipeline. Yet each signing, from Portugal or beyond (winger Adama Traore was purchased for a club record $22 million), raises the side’s quality and expectations for their first season at the top. In fact, Mendes’ connections translated into the club not only having a good transfer window for a promoted side, but perhaps the best transfer window of any team in the Premier League.
Yet that starpower would account for little without an overarching idea. From that perspective, Nuno may be the club’s most important signing in this Mendes era. He showed off his tactical flexibility in the Championship in switching between a 3-4-3 and a 5-4-1 shape depending on the quality of their opponent. And while they averaged 53% possession with the 21-year-old Neves setting the tempo, they were defined by their incisiveness and counter attack. Wolves spent just 25% of their attack in their opponent’s third, tied for the lowest in the Championship. Yet they created 20 more big chances than second place Fulham. Despite their overwhelming quality, there was no possession for possession’s sake as they won the league by nine points, scoring 82 goals.
If Wolves were the best counter attacking side in the Championship, Fulham were their 433 possession-based foil. Similar to Neves and Wolves, Fulham are defined by their center midfielder Jean Michael Seri, purchased from Nice for $34 million this summer. With his passing ability, the Ivory Coast midfielder nicknamed the “African Xavi” was rumored for a Barcelona move at this time last year. Xavi even went so far as to say he had Barcelona DNA as he averaged 87 passes with a 90% completion percentage in Ligue 1 last season. Nice and Barcelona could never agree to a transfer fee. Thus, Seri spent another season in France, and Fulham pounced this summer.
Led by manager Slavisa Jokanovic, Fulham were labeled by Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock as the “Manchester City of the Championship”. They were first in possession percentage, total passes, passing completion, short passes per match, and most goals from open play - and that was before signing Seri. And although the attention is on their passing, midfielder Kevin McDonald says that everything in training is about “winning the ball back”. Fulham are Jokanovic’s seventh club, ranging from Thailand, Greece, Bulgaria, Israel and Spain. His football director at Maccabi Tel Aviv observed that Jokanovic’s wisdom and reading of the game comes through his vast journey.
Both Fulham and Wolves are expected to not only survive relegation, but push into the mid-table and beyond - all with style. Led by the data influenced decision making of football director Tony Khan (also of the Jacksonville Jaguars), Fulham spent over $127 million in the summer transfer window, only bested by Chelsea and Liverpool. And Wolves had the talent to compete in the Premier League last season, and thus, there will be no bunkering, 1-0 matches typical of outmatched sides attempting to survive at the top level. Nuno and Jokanovic will add the array of tactical nuance of Premier League managerial minds in their debut season.
Former CSKA Moscow and Russia national team manager Leonid Slutsky signed with Hull City last year with a goal of eventually earning promotion into the Premier League. Slutsky, with the help of Roman Abramovich, saw the Championship as a way to get used to the English game before his desired Premier League move. Although he left the club in December, Slutsky, alongside Nuno and Jokanovic, present an unique view in the perception of the Championship. We’ve discussed the difficult adjustment of top foreign managers moving straight to the Premier League, yet the resources of the top division have also created a secondary market of foreign managers moving to the Championship as an indirect route into the global stage. The quality of Fulham and Wolves may not be a singular, one off event. Instead, both sides could foreshadow the future of the Championship as a destination in its own right.