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Nuno Espirito Santo: ‘An unquestioned success’ – but what next for club & the Portuguese manager?

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Nuno Espirito SantoNuno Espirito Santo became Wolves' fourth boss in 10 months when he was appointed in May 2017

To appreciate the full scale of Nuno Espirito Santo's impact at Wolves, you have to wind back to July 2016.

The club's new owners, Chinese conglomerate Fosun International, sacked Kenny Jackett a week after taking control and days after saying the English manager's job was safe.

Jackett's replacement, the Italian Walter Zenga, lasted 17 games and 87 days. He won just six times.

Paul Lambert then took over but a 15th-place Championship finish was uninspiring.

He left amid rumours about the lack of input he had into player recruitment – Fosun have a stake in the agency of Jorge Mendes, who looks after the careers of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho among others.

As they looked for a fourth manager in a year, Fosun – and Wolves – were in danger of becoming a laughing stock. Then along came Nuno.

In delivering the Championship title followed by successive seventh-placed Premier League finished and a Europa League quarter-final, Nuno put together the best consecutive three-season sequence for the club since the early 1970s.

By comparison, this season – after which Nuno will leave the club – has been a disappointment but it will still end with them in a league position they have bettered only seven times in 60 years.

The build-up

There has been uncertainty over Nuno's position since the end of last season.

When Wolves' marathon 13-month campaign came to an end on 11 August, the Portuguese manager looked tired.

Not only that, there was no sign of the new arrivals he felt were needed to push the club forward, nor any hint that he was ready to commit to extending a contract due to expire in the summer of 2021.

That all changed in a mid-September flurry, when Diogo Jota was sold to Liverpool and Fabio Silva and Nelson Semedo came to Molineux from Porto and Barcelona respectively. As Matt Doherty had already left for Tottenham, Nuno had addressed the structural faults he felt existed in his squad.

Although Nuno never made any secret of the difficulties he experienced dealing with life away from his family due to the pandemic, he did have his son, who studies in Manchester, with him.

Together with the transfer activity, signing a three-year contract extension on 13 September seemed to settle his future.

After an inconsistent start to the season, Wolves went to Arsenal on 29 November knowing victory would take them into their familiar seventh spot and, yet again, their prospects looked good.

The Jimenez effect

Nuno Espirito Santo and Raul JimenezNuno Espirito Santo brought Raul Jimenez to Wolves on loan in June 2018, before signing him permanently for £30m a year later

It is impossible to overstate Raul Jimenez's importance to Wolves.

With the exception of Jota, no Wolves player scored even a third of the 27 goals Jimenez managed in 2019-20. The season before, only Jota scored more than half of the Mexican's 17.

Jimenez is Wolves' third-highest scorer this season even though he has not played since that night in November at Emirates Stadium that ended his season when he fractured his skull in a clash of heads with David Luiz .

Quite apart from the shock it caused to the squad, it robbed Wolves of their focal point.

Wolves won just one more league game until they played Arsenal again on 2 February. They only scored more than once on three occasions in those Premier League games, and they failed to win two of those.

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Other than four 1-0 wins, they did not score first in a game again until the 1-1 draw at local rivals West Brom on 3 May.

In a desperate search for a striker, £16m Italian signing Patrick Cutrone was recalled from his loan spell at Fiorentina before being sent away again to Valencia, having failed to score in the meantime.

Brazilian William Jose arrived from Real Sociedad in January with a decent reputation – but he scored once, against Sheffield United, and has now lost his place.

As Wolves' struggles increased, Nuno was criticised by some supporters.

Many felt this was unfair but even Nuno described the 4-0 home defeat by Burnley on 25 April as "really bad" and anyone who has attended his news conferences knows the former Porto coach is not one for hyperbole.

What happens now?

Firstly, the word is Nuno has not got another job lined up and merely feels his work at Molineux has run its course.

After four years away from his family in Portugal, he may want to spend time with them before deciding where to continue his career. It is fair to assume he will not be short of offers, both in the Premier League and outside.

For Wolves, it is a very tricky situation. BBC Sport was told in February 2019 there was a succession plan in place should Nuno leave, though they hoped not to have to act on it.

Mendes is bound to be heavily involved and do not be surprised if a Portuguese candidate is preferred given the general make-up of the squad.

But the major question is what resources the new man have to work with.

Jimenez has been cleared to return to training in July but no-one can be sure he will be as prolific as he was before. Contract talks with Spain winger Adama Traore are yet to reach a successful conclusion and other players, such as highly-rated Portuguese youngster Fabio Silva, were attracted by the prospect of working with Nuno.

It has been repeatedly stated that Wolves are unaffected by the financial issues the Fosun Group as a whole have encountered during the pandemic – but that doesn't mean stricter spending limits are out of the question.

BBC Sport was told in February 2019 the ambitions were being pulled back a touch, from an admittedly unrealistic high level. Has Nuno decided even trying to emulate past achievements is now going to be too tough?

For three years, Wolves' story was one of an unquestioned success. This year, they have gone backwards, but not dangerously so.

Now all eyes are back on chief executive Jeff Shi and Mendes. Wolves are no longer a laughing stock but they need to avoid the mistakes that made them so in the first place.

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