Wolverhampton Wanderers supporters will be holding their breath over the next few days. Manager Julen Lopetegui is set for significant talks with the club’s owners over summer transfer plans after becoming aware that Wolves are walking a Financial Fair Play (FFP) tightrope.
The Spanish coach took over at Wolves from Bruno Lage, inheriting a squad that was bottom of the Premier League table and in serious threat of relegation. The Europa League winner was a shrewd appointment for the Old Gold given his standing within the game, not to mention he had previously rejected them upon an initial approach to take over first team affairs.
Chairman Jeff Shi did extremely well to persuade Lopetegui to make the move to the Black Country and the acquisition gave Wolves’ chances of survival a huge boost. He was backed in the January transfer market to aid the survival mission and seven fresh faces were brought in, including Craig Dawson and Pablo Sarabia.
Coming in just before the World Cup break allowed the former Sevilla coach time to assess the squad he had and plan for the campaign’s resumption in December. It certainly paid off as Wolves won nine of their 22 Premier League matches to secure their top-flight status, and finish comfortably in mid-table. The 56-year-old became only the fourth manager ever, and the first since Nigel Pearson with Leicester City in 2014-15, to keep a team in the Premier League after being 20th at Christmas.
As a manager who has Europa League-winning experience, Lopetegui will want to be achieving more than just survival. He will be wanting to take Wolves to the next level and have them back where they were in 2018-19 when they qualified for the Europa League. It doesn’t look like he will be able to do that, immediately anyway, with Wolves likely having to sell to comply with FFP regulations. Premier League rules state clubs can lose £105 million over a three-year period and Wolves posted a £46.1 million loss in their last financial results.
As in pretty much every summer since their promotion from the Championship, Wolves are bracing themselves for bids for star midfielder Ruben Neves, who has been constantly linked with a move to Barcelona. They are hopeful they will be able to command around £45 million for the Portugal international. But even if such revenue came into the club, it would still be difficult for Lopetegui to conduct the business he will want to put his stamp on the squad. With Wolves having spent almost £200 million on players this season, he is going to have his hands tied when the summer rolls around. Selling will be their priority.
If he feels that Wolves’ finances are in such disarray that he cannot do this, he may want out. And that is something the club cannot allow to happen. They worked tirelessly to get him into the building but they will need to work even harder to keep hold of him.
The board and the manager will need to operate in unison to concoct a plan of how to reshape the squad in the summer in a way that will have the club complying with FFP but also place them in a stronger position to push for the top half in 2023-24.
Wolves will be slightly relieved that Lopetegui has two more years on the deal that he signed back in November, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t be in a difficult position if he wants to quit. His representatives will already be well aware of potential suitors elsewhere who will be waiting in the wings should he decide to depart Molineux. Wolves simply cannot let this happen as they will end up exactly where they were before he took over and there will be continual stagnation on the pitch.
The board needs to sit down with the ex-Spain boss and do everything they can to convince him to see out the project he signed up for. It looks like he will be leading the club through some choppy waters next term, but with his coaching pedigree and shrewd recruitment, he could perhaps get the team to punch above their weight until he can get the investment he desires.