After twenty minutes of conversation inside his office at Wolverhampton’s training ground, manager Bruno Lage calls out in Portuguese to his colleague in an adjoining room. A sheet appears quickly with accurately written player stats.
Shows win percentages for each individual player in games with small sides that are a regular feature of training. Former Barcelona defender Nelson Semedo leads the standings, not far behind smart-footed Joao Moutinho and former international futsal player Max Kellmann.
It seems to be more than just fun.
“They take it very seriously,” says Lage. Sky Sportssmiling.
“After every match, we do the rankings and put them around the building and you can see if you’re first. The point of the exercise is to create more competition. They fight each other, they complain about the refereeing decisions. That’s what I want.”
The need for this hyper-competitive spirit is Lage’s obsession. He’s speaking after a passionate hour-long press conference and was particularly candid in saying he would not tolerate his players feeling too comfortable.
“I know some people use press conferences, and they have a different strategy. I don’t wear a mask when I’m at a press conference. I have nothing to hide.”
Nuno Espirito Santo was a popular figure at Molino, taking Wolves out of the bottom half of the championship and founding the club in the Premier League. But it was announced that his time expired shortly before the end of last season with his team in 12th place.
The owners wanted more. So is the new coach.
It’s easy to see why winning isn’t often the goal for him. Lage, 45, won the title in his previous job with Benfica and later quit with the club in second place. He’s not here to be satisfied with a safe finish in the middle of the table, he wants to strive for more.
“We try to create a new cycle and we want to improve every day. After 10 or 15 years, when I’m done, it’s time to relax and unwind. But when I look back, I don’t want to waste my time being there. That’s what I want from the guys.”
It helps explain his emotions. Wolves made an encouraging start. But they would have gone into the weekend in fourth place had they held Leeds for what would have been their fourth consecutive first-division win for the first time in nearly half a century.
Lagg makes no attempt to hide his frustration.
In fact, he is still thinking about the goal she conceded against Tottenham in August. “It was five rebounds. Win duels.” So, the passing play that led to the stoppage-time penalty that Leeds equalized is fresh in his memory.
“A guy running the ball 15 meters inside of us? I don’t want anyone to feel comfortable with that. Try to think of what you can do better. Why can’t you do more? A little more detail. Let’s go. Work hard for be better because if you are Better, we will definitely get better results.”
Those with only a passing interest in events at the club may be under the misconception that change has been minimal at Molineux. This is another Portuguese coach, the 3-4-3 method is familiar, and nine of Leeds’ key players have played under Nuno.
But talk to those in her heart and another picture will emerge. The shift was more important, more focus on attacking – “80 per cent of our work is offensive” – and a determination to be a team up front, putting pressure on the opposition, keeping the ball.
The progress was not straightforward. The first three wolves lost, and she put in some great performances. They have since won four of the next six, but the performances have been more mixed. “There have been ups and downs,” Lagg says.
“People probably thought we came here to play 4-4-2 like we did at Benfica. But, at the moment, I don’t want to change many things at the same time. I think more important than the system is the offensive dynamic we are trying to create.”
Gathering attacks record the number of times a team takes a shot or hits the ball into the opponent’s penalty area after a series of 10 or more passes. Nine games in the season and only four games last season have they done it more times than Wolverhampton so far.
“I said to the boys, ‘We can’t spend time defending, we need the ball.’ Well, we don’t always have a chance to go forward, but if we have the ball we don’t defend.”
This mentality starts from the back, with goalkeeper Jose Sa’s handing making a difference. Conor Coady’s ability to switch play has always been an advantage, but he also adds more to his game. “He’s trying to find the men inside now, too.”
Either side of the captain, Kellman and Roman Saiss are able to break out of the defense to create excessive burdens. “Sais starts from the back, finds the midfielders. Max leads the ball and when opponents get close, he finds space.”
There are more risks to Wolverhampton now – Lage knows transfer control will be important against Everton on Monday night – and Cody is not that protected. With Sa serving as a true sweeper goalkeeper, the entire team is yards above the field.
Is this a problem when defense isn’t the fastest? Lage doesn’t think so. “I hear people talking about whether our defenders are fast or not. But when you play, you control the space. It’s not about whether they’re fast or not, it’s a matter of positioning.”
Early evidence suggests he’s right. Being more positive, Wolves have conceded fewer goals than all but the top three teams in the Premier League. Likewise, they defend set pieces better than before by leaving two or three players on the field.
“It’s very simple,” says Lage. “If you put two in front, the opponent needs to leave four people so they don’t have many corpses in the penalty area. It’s that simple. The biggest duels become against the biggest because we leave the little ones in front.”
Outside of the acquisition, the change was more substantial. Statistically, no team pressed the ball less than Wolverhampton last season, with Newcastle only delivering the ball up the field on fewer occasions. It was a containment strategy, a passive approach.
Wolves now rank first on these scales. They’re not exactly leading the way as a pressure team but it turned out nonetheless considering this is a similar squad. These four-for-four matches in training are all part of the plan.
“They don’t realize that they think they’re just competing, but they give us that aggressiveness we want,” explains Lage. “We create a lot of things through competition. We need to create habits in training, and repeat these things over and over again.”
The transfer market helped bring about some change with the arrival of Hee-Chan Hwang who proved to be a huge success. Not only did he score four goals – as many as the rest of the team – but by pressing from the front, he set the standard for others.
“Hwang runs with the ball and without the ball. Raul [Jimenez], The same. These two examples are good. Robin [Neves], The same. Joao is the same. So guys 18, 19, 20 years old, who are in good shape and in good health, why can’t they? When it becomes a habit, it is easy.
“There is a big lie that players use as an excuse. They say, ‘If I run, I don’t have the ability to score then. It’s a big lie because Hwang runs when we defend but he also has the ability to score for us, like Raul, he runs every time, they are the example.'”
“That’s why I want to pay [Francisco] Tough crack. Fabio [Silva] Trying to work this way to become more competitive. This is what I want from him, Adama [Traore] and Daniel [Podence] Moreover. If they understand that it is important to the manager, they will start doing it.”
Traore is still an interesting character in the Wolves. He missed a string of solo opportunities in the early weeks of the season, missed opportunities that led to familiar accusations of not having a finished product. However, he also hinted that more could be achieved.
Lage prefers to use his wide strikers that cut inside, play close to Jimenez and pierce the box, something Hwang has done in a big way. If the Wolves can encourage Traore, and when fit, Pedro Neto, to do the same, he could be a difference maker.
“They know how to do it from the outside. They do it very well. I’m not saying our way of playing is better than before because what they did before was amazing. We can’t forget that.”
“What I want from my team is that now they understand how to play on the outside, how to build with crosses, and now we can be good on the inside because the opponent is saying, ‘OK, they’re good on the outside so we close it from the outside.'”
“So we have to be able to turn inside. That’s what I want from them. It’s a simple game. I have the ball. Where are the spaces? I need to attack those spaces to score goals.”
Listening to Lagee’s talk with such clarity, it becomes clear why even his predecessor’s biggest fans were lavish on their praise – Cowade describes him as “completely different” but also “awesome”. A new voice with new ideas is welcome.
It’s also clear that Lagg is relishing the opportunity to test himself against the best coaches. Last week, Marcelo Bielsa. This week, Rafa Benitez. Is there a ceiling to what he can achieve at Wolves? Maybe. But this mentality will never be his.
“I love what I do,” he adds.
“There will be ups and downs, and the important thing is the direction. I don’t want to waste my time just to be comfortable. I want to look back and be proud of what I’ve done.”
Watch Wolves vs Everton live on Sky Sports Premier League from 7pm on Monday Night Football; Kick-off at 8 p.m