Wolves: Can O’Neil inspire a European charge at Molineux?

 | February 27 | 

6 mins read

wolves wolverhampton molineux scaled

After beating Sheffield United 1-0 on Sunday, Wolverhampton Wanderers are now up to ninth in the Premier League table and just one point behind Brighton & Hove Albion who occupy seventh place, which was enough for Aston Villa to secure Europa Conference League football last season. It remains to be seen which positions correlate to the Champions League, Europa League or Europa Conference League for next season, but a top-seven finish would certainly put a side in the conversation for Europe.

Qualification for a continental competition would have been but a pipe dream for Wolves at the start of the 2023-24 campaign. Following a turbulent pre-season full of reports of disharmony behind the scenes, Julen Lopetegui left his role as head coach just days before kick-off against Manchester United. Gary O’Neil, sacked as AFC Bournemouth boss a couple months prior, was subsequently parachuted in to lead the team.

Suddenly, without Lopetegui - who was the mastermind behind the club successfully staving off relegation last year - coupled with the departures of several key players including Ruben Neves and Matheus Nunes, odds of 9/4 for Wolves to be relegated started to look very enticing indeed. Promoted pair Luton Town and Sheffield United were obvious candidates to go down but plenty were picking the West Midlands club to join them.

Wolves 2023-24 Betting Odds:

  • Wolves Top 10 Premier League Finish @ 4/6
  • Wolves Top 6 Premier League Finish @ 22/1
  • Wolves To Win 2023-24 FA Cup @ 25/1

However, six months later and with 12 games remaining, Wolves are 18 points ahead of the Hatters and 25 points clear of the Blades. O’Neil’s side are actually closer to the Champions League places than they are to the relegation zone. In fact, you’re hard-pressed to even find a bookmaker taking odds on Wolves to be relegated.

Instead, focus has shifted onto the prospect of a tilt for Europe, whether that is achieved via the league or cup competition (at the time of writing, Wolves are scheduled to play Brighton at home in the FA Cup fifth-round). So, do Wolves have the durability to go the distance and achieve what was, at the start of the season, the unthinkable?

Wolves to finish top-six in 2023-24 Premier League at 22-1

Sunday’s victory at Molineux was huge for Wolves. They had lost their last two games at home, falling to a dramatic 4-3 defeat to Manchester United before Brentford swatted them aside 2-0. The opportunity in front of them against bottom-club Sheffield United became even greater when Brighton drew 1-1 with Everton and Newcastle United lost at Arsenal a day prior.

Sixth-placed Manchester United also lost at home to Fulham, while Chelsea’s participation in the Carabao Cup final meant they lost ground in the European race and must catch up at a later point. In this context, it was vital for Wolves to win on the weekend, and they did, albeit not by the margin they would have wanted. On paper, there will be no easier game left for them this season, and they will have to raise the levels against superior opposition.

Fixture-wise though, it does look promising for Wolves. Six of their next seven fixtures are against sides currently below them in the table, while their five of their six remaining games at Molineux certainly look winnable. Title contenders Arsenal (H), Manchester City (A) and Liverpool (A) are all waiting in the final five, but there is a real chance to get points on the board before the concluding weeks of the campaign.

Wolves to finish top-10 in 2023-24 Premier League at 4-6

One area of the pitch where O’Neill will feel relatively content is at the back. From seventh down, only Everton (34) have conceded fewer goals than Wolves (40). February was poor by their standards as they shipped nine in five games, but goalkeeper Jose Sa has, generally, been well protected by a three-man defence of Toti, Craig Dawson and captain Max Kilman. 10 other Premier League clubs have been forced to make more saves, while only five sides have made more tackles than Wolves (504).

Midfielders Joao Gomes and Mario Lemina have been instrumental in ensuring danger doesn’t reach their own box with regularity, with both featuring in the top 10 for tackles made. Gomes is third with 80, and Lemina 10th with 65. Right wing-back Nelson Semedo features just behind the Gabon international with 59, and on the other side, Rayan Ait-Nouri has 48. Clearly, there have been some industrious efforts from those in the middle third.

The real stardust, however, comes further up the pitch. Pedro Neto (two goals, nine assists), Hwang Hee-chan (10 goals, three assists) and Matheus Cunha (nine goals, six assists) have been in inspired form this season. The speed of Neto and Hwang allows Wolves to sit a bit deeper before breaking away, while Cunha has been delivering performances befitting of a classic Brazilian number nine, with his silky skills complemented by real strength and tenacity.

The “significant” hamstring injury suffered by Cunha is a real concern, though. Initial reports suggested he could miss the rest of the season, but O’Neil appeared to allay those fears last week by saying that he is ahead of schedule. The Wolves head coach will be desperate to get him back as soon as possible, but in Pablo Sarabia, he has an experienced attacker that can help out in his absence.

Sarabia has scored twice in his last five appearances, including the winner on Sunday, taking his Premier League season tally to three, while his assist for Gomes’ first against Tottenham Hotspur on February 17 was his sixth of the campaign. Wolves don’t quite have the firepower of Brighton or Newcastle, who have scored 49 and 54 league goals respectively, but there are definitely goals and assists in the forward line, who are propped up by a resilient eight behind them.

Wolves to win 2023-24 FA Cup at 25-1

By many metrics, and financially-speaking, Wolves are a mid-table side, so perhaps it’s asking for too much to expect a late run for European qualification. The two clubs directly below them, Newcastle and Chelsea, will believe that better times are ahead for them between now and the middle of May. However, there are political and injury problems at both clubs which may hinder their progress.

There are similar reasons to back against positive ends to the season for Brighton and West Ham. Both are in the Europa League Round of 16 and could struggle to deal with the demands of multiple competitions, particularly the Seagulls who have a lengthy injury list which now includes star winger Kaoru Mitoma, who could be out for the remainder of the campaign. The Irons, meanwhile, beat Brentford 4-2 on Monday to break out of an eight-game winless run, but unless more positive results follow, the heat will remain on manager David Moyes from his own fans.

Wolves, on the other hand, have a relatively healthy squad and are not distracted by any trips to the continent. If they can keep the majority of their players fit for the next two to three months, they have a real chance of cracking the top-seven, which could ultimately lead them to European competition next season.

Who knows, they might not even need it, if they go all the way in the FA Cup…

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