It was supposed to be a tease. “Erling Haaland, he scored more than you,” Manchester City fans said in chorus in Molineux on Saturday. It would be crueler to point out that Aleksandar Mitrovic scored twice as many goals as Wolverhampton Wanderers, which Ivan Toney, Rodrigo, Alexis Mac Allister and Wilfried Zaha scored more. Or, indeed, to note that all top division teams except West Ham have it.
Some of the more hard-hitting stats might not easily fit into a corner. Kevin de Bruyne was Molineux’s top scorer in the Premier League last season. Since 3 April, City have scored twice as many goals in Wolves’ historic home as Wolves themselves. On Saturday, the substitute striker who started was Daniel Podence, whose 226 career league games have yielded just 29 goals. He works at one in 7.79, although his ratio to Wolves, one in 8.25, is even worse.
The worrying part for Wolves is not that they failed to score against City on Saturday, especially as they played for an hour with 10 men.
It’s just that they don’t score against anyone else either: they have an average of less than one goal per game in Bruno Lage’s reign, as in Nuno Espírito Santo’s final season. They seem to have acquired a unique distinction as the most technically successful and goalless team in football.
It’s part misfortune, part quixotic recruitment, but Wolves’ enduring helplessness is starting to look like a puzzle Lage can’t solve.
He arrived with a reputation as a coach whose Benfica was so offensive that he scored 103 league goals in one season, inherited a defensive team and, for much of his rookie year, made him one of the most frugal teams in Europe. He exiled Conor Coady to change shape, remove a quarterback and try to make Wolves more progressive.
Only parts of the plan are working. Wolves had the third lowest number of shots and the second lowest number of expected goals last season. Now he is seventh in shots, but only two clubs have fewer shots on goal. His expected goals are fourth lowest, but still more than double his actual goal count. Its chance conversion rate, with a mere three out of 82 shots, is just 3.6%.
And if this indicates that a disproportionate number (38) of their attempts come from far away – also known as Ruben Neves territory – there are few clear chances. Which, as their seven opponents so far include four potential bottom-half finishers in Leeds, Fulham, Bournemouth and Southampton, doesn’t offer much incentive.
A two-year unease in front of goal highlights how any successful goal strategy revolved around Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota. Portuguese is gone. The Mexican was first sidelined by a fractured skull and has since been a shadow of his former self. Wolves never paid off.
There is a disconnect between Lage and the club in the transfer market. The forwards have become an afterthought: a late play on deadline day for injury-prone giants Sasa Kalajdzic bought a player who was injured on his debut.
The subsequent signing of Diego Costa meant they acquired a player who is not in shape. You can see that Fabio Silva has seven goals on loan to Anderlecht. He was supposed to be part of Wolves’ succession planning, but for now, he’s the £35m failure.
But much of Wolves’ spending was devoted to other parts of the team. Resources may not have been distributed properly. In Nelson Semedo, they have a £37 million right-back. This summer, around £65m was invested in Matheus Nunes and Gonçalo Guedes, both talented coaches. Nunes had been described as one of the best players in the world by Pep Guardiola months before joining; he may be designed to produce a profit, but the midfielder is an infrequent finisher.
He is not alone in this. Wolves can accumulate attackers who just don’t score: players as different as Podence and Adama Traore rarely find the net. Perhaps only Pedro Neto of his band of wings seems capable of reaching double figures. For all of Wolves’ possession classes, Neto is the only player in the top 38 in shot creation actions or the top 40 in expected assists this season.
Much of his possession is elegant but harmless.
But if that lack of creativity raises questions about whether subcontracting much of his recruitment to Jorge Mendes has brought the potency a team needs rather than an array of talented passers who can deliver anything but goal, others surround Lage himself.
An expression of dismay may betray his frustration, but he failed to make Wolves any more fun than under Nuno, to trade safety-first principles based on solidity for more exciting football. He’s still looking for a formula for finding goals. He had the support of the fans in the stadium, except on social media, and if that’s how it is often, the fact is that he was in charge for 45 league games and in 35 of them Wolves didn’t score anything or one.
But this was supposed to be the season when her wolves were brightest and boldest. And instead, so far, they have only surpassed one club in the Premier and Football Leagues. In the unlikely event that they face Gillingham, Wolves could at least say they scored more than they did.