Are Wolverhampton Wanderers set for a sophomore slump?
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What Wolverhampton Wanderers achieved in their 141st season as a professional club was rather remarkable. Led by the master tactician Nuno Espirito Santo, an impressive seventh-placed Premier League finish in their first top-flight season in seven years will always be remembered. To follow that up with an FA Cup semi-final appearance was equally admirable (though that loss to Watford would have hurt). The only way is up, right?
Well, not necessarily... Their excellent league finish meant European qualification, which, on the face of it, is an exciting prospect. For the fans the thought of watching your heroes competing across the continent is a special one, even moreso when you consider the same supporters were making trips to Barnsley and Burton Albion around fifteen months ago. However, the rigours that Europa League competition can bring will inevitably take its toll.
First and foremost, Wolves' competitive season started on July 25th in a Europa League second qualification round against Crusaders FC. The Midlands outfit would win the two-legged tie 6-1, they're currently 4-0 up on aggregate in the third qualification round against Pyunik. They've played four 'extra' games already, with a play-off round looking likely. That's six qualifying fixtures in total, before a possible six more group stage matches in 2019...
Continental competition is what hurt Burnley last term, it's also why Everton started sluggishly in the 2017/18 Premier League campaign. Unless you're a 'big six' club with an embarrassment of riches and a super-big squad at your disposal, whether you like it or not, it's a pivotal factor. Those Thursday-Sunday game schedules aren't easy to cope with - particularly when you're undertaking that regime for the first time.
Signings have been made. Espirito Santo has strengthened his squad in terms of quality and quantity. Patrick Cutrone's arrival from AC Milan could be an absolute masterstroke while winger Pedro Neto arrived from the Serie A, too. Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker made their Molineux moves permanent but I'm not convinced that's enough to compete on all fronts - particularly as Jimenez and Dendoncker were regular fixtures in the team last term so they don't necessarily feel like new additions.
I've always believed that second-season syndrome is a real thing for newly-promoted sides. Their often more experienced opponents are now more familiar with Wolves' style of play. It's far less likely that Wolves will be able to hold Manchester City to a 1-1 draw at Molineux while taking four points off Manchester United will be tough to repeat. That's just a couple of several examples I could have used. Again, it's even harder to do when you're travelling back from the far end of Ukraine on a Thursday night in December before back-to-back league games against City and Liverpool...
This is not to say Wolves won't improve as a team. Their players will be more familiar with the speed and tenacity of the Premier League, though there's only so much gas in the tank. Eventually, the squad will be running on empty and they'll be nothing they can do about it. That's just the harsh reality of the modern game.
It sounds pretty daft to say, particularly as an outsider looking in, but maybe losing the qualifying game in the next round of the Europa League could be a blessing in disguise for their domestic hopes. I know you Wolves fans will think otherwise but those are just the brutal facts that take place when you're taking part in the second-most popular tournament in European continental competition.