At a Hertfordshire hotel it is the day after the night before. For 72 minutes against Arsenal, Bruno Lage’s Wolves were set for fifth place in the Premier League with a game in hand on Manchester United in fourth. Two late goals changed that.
“We had chances to finish the game,” Lage tells Sky Sports. “That’s football.”
Lage has already previewed the game against West Ham on Sunday – the reason the squad is staying near London – in a Thursday night post-game press conference for the national media. Not easy, as Antonio Conte’s emotional reaction to defeat recently showed.
“I saw it in their faces last night and I see it in their faces this morning,” he says. “They are not happy. That is the positive, the right mentality. That is what we need to become a bigger team with higher standards. They want more. Every time they want more.”
This demand for Wolves to become ‘a big team’ has been a thread since Lage was appointed in June. At 47, this is only his second role managing a senior side. In his previous one, he won the title with Benfica. In fact, he won 36 of his first 38 league games in charge.
“We need to understand what is Benfica in Portugal and what is Wolves in the Premier League,” he says. But the fact that his league defeats there can be counted on one hand is a reminder that this is a coach unaccustomed to settling for less than the best.
His Benfica side scored 103 goals in winning the title, having the most shots on target and the highest passing accuracy. “We broke a lot of attacking stats records.” Indeed, Lage still has a higher win percentage as a manager than Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
It is worth mentioning because when supporters see Wolves sitting back and clinging to leads there might be echoes of the reactive game of his predecessor Nuno Espirito Santo. But that is largely a product of the state of the game. Wolves rarely need to chase it.
Across the past 20 games, Lage’s side have been losing for only 156 of the 1,800 normal-time minutes – even Manchester City have been behind in games longer than that. It has put the focus on a solid defence, led by Conor Coady and the exploits of goalkeeper Jose Sa.
“Here, it is different,” he admits. “We are doing the records in a different way, in a defensive way. It is also about understanding the profile of the players that we have. What is our ability? What are our strengths? Every player has good points and bad points.
“We look at what they did in the past and we try to improve it. That is why, to arrive in the middle of February with 40 points and to have people who know football talking about Wolves, and some of the players who are doing a fantastic season, makes me proud.
“When you win everything is not good and when you lose everything is not bad. The most important thing is what I am seeing. Against Manchester United, we had one point late on and the players wanted more. The players come with that mentality to do more.”
Looking around the team’s temporary home, Lage sees and hears evidence of that mentality. There is some down time. Only those not involved against Arsenal train on Friday. Some have family around. Others play golf. But there is a focus and a togetherness.
After dinner, a large group of the squad play a game called, appropriately enough, Wolf, a variation of the parlour game Mafia. “I think it is similar to Cluedo. Every time it is 15 to 20 players gathered round in a circle. They enjoy spending time with each other.”
But football is never far away from the thoughts even away from the auditorium that Lage installed at the training ground to facilitate his regular meetings. “They push each other. Even in their free moments, I hear them talking about what they are trying to do on the pitch.”