In Focus: Lage masterminding Wolves' European hunt
Bruno Lage has quietly been going about his business with a Wolves side that has gone under the radar this season.
But a 1-0 victory at Manchester United on Monday was a statement win, exemplifying all that has been good about Lage's men this term.
The former Benfica manager has the Midlands club sitting eighth in the Premier League, in touching distance of the European places.
We take a look at the Portuguese's methods to explain the secret behind the Molineux outfit's success.
Consistency is key
To party with England's top teams, you must show a high level of consistency throughout the domestic campaign.
And Wolves seem to be doing just that. Lage has made his team extremely competitive, with just three of their 19 encounters ending in a two-goal winning margin.
What is more impressive about this Wolves side is the manner of their victories — they have secured 28 points having scored just 14 goals.
This suggests both a consistency and efficiency to Lage's men — able to make the most of their opportunities to earn the decisive edge in tight encounters.
Their low goalscoring return — only Norwich have scored fewer — should not be confused with an overly defensive approach, however.
Wolves have also proved that they can play on the front foot, as seen on Monday night when they racked up 19 shots at Old Trafford.
Their narrow victory was emblematic of a style that has worked well this term, notably in wins against fellow top-half rivals West Ham and Brighton.
Finding a spark
The lack of a prolific marksman means Lage has had to find creative solutions to solve his goalscoring conundrum.
In the attacking third, the former Sheffield Wednesday assistant coach has juggled his forward options in an effort to provide a headache to opposing defences.
If Lage believes a more direct approach is needed, Raul Jimenez has been effective in the No9 role on his return from long-term injury — the Mexican is able to dominate in the air and has a physical presence on the pitch.
In addition, Hee Chan Hwang, the club's top scorer this season, and Daniel Podence, who has chipped in with a couple of Premier League assists, offer variety in the final third.
Adama Traore has not delivered on his undeniable potential — failing to provide a league goal or assist this season — yet still poses an attacking threat, notably from the bench.
With more end product to come from inconsistent youngsters Trincao and Fabio Silva and a higher creative output expected from midfield maestros Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, you would not be surprised to see an increase in Wolves' goal tally in the coming weeks.
During Lage's time at Benfica, the Eagles scored 103 goals en route to the league title in 2019, including a 10-0 win against Nacional.
This would suggest the 45-year-old knows how to find a way to produce attacking football once things click into gear.
After their deserved win over United, Lage explained exactly why his side were able to dismantle Ralf Rangnick's 4-2-2-2 formation.
He said: "It’s important to keep the ball, get the opponent running.
"Top teams, sometimes they have more problems when they don’t have the ball.
"If you spend more time with the ball we will find our space and create chances.
"When you look in the end the way we pressed, controlled the game, the chances we created, we deserved the three points."
Even when they are not finding the net regularly, this control of midfield areas and the tempo of games is a crucial element of Lage's approach and will help the Black Country side continue to rack up points.
Europe on the horizon?
While Lage attempts to fine tune a winning formula in the final third, it is imperative they maintain their defensive solidity.
Only Manchester City can boast a better defensive league record this term, while Jose Sa has impressed in goal, keeping eight Premier League clean sheets.
With the likes of United and West Ham conceding almost twice as many goals as Lage's team, preserving a strong rearguard could be the key to pipping their rivals to a European place.
Their last appearance in Europe came under Nuno Espirito Santo in the 2019-20 campaign, where they were eliminated by Sevilla in the Europa League quarter-finals.
But for that aspiration to become a reality, the Wolves boss has openly stated that the squad needs improvement in the January transfer window.
He said: "We have two or three situations we can improve to better manage our squad.
"We need some players and some positions. I want more competition in the team."
Reinforcements to boost Wolves' forward options, aligned with their midfield dominance and defensive strength could create a powerful blend as we move into the second half of the campaign.