By Tim Spiers, The Athletic, 5th Dec 2020
He’s the most successful Wolves head coach/manager for decades. A man adored by thousands for overseeing a stunning three years at Molineux.
But in terms of his personality, of opening up to the world, Nuno isn’t exactly forthcoming. A private man who sees little benefit in explaining his decisions or his philosophies in detail, Nuno only cares about his players and his Wolf pack.
So what’s it like to play for him? The Athletic breaks down Nuno’s key managerial areas to find out what makes him tick, what he hates and what makes him so successful.
“You can’t aspire to be loved because that isn’t going to happen,” Sir Alex Ferguson once said. “Nor do you want people to be frightened of you. Stay somewhere in the middle and have them respect and trust and see you as fair.”
Ask pretty much any Wolves player of the last three years if Nuno has their respect and their trust – and they see him as fair – almost all will say yes. Even those who have left the club, or didn’t see eye to eye with him, will recognise his man-management skills.
Sir Alex says he didn’t want players to be frightened of him, but they undoubtedly were and there is a fear factor with Nuno too. Players know when to crack a joke in training…or to keep things serious.
One former Wolves man, who played under Nuno, says: “You can have a relationship with him but you won’t be best mates, he’s the boss.
“There is that line between respect and fear. You can have a laugh but some days you pick up a sense he’s not happy, so the jokes won’t come. That can last for a training session, a day or a week.”
The “respect and fear” approach has been referenced before by Wolves players. He quickly earned their respect when his rigorous pre-season schedule and incessant work on the team’s shape upon arrival in 2017 immediately yielded results at the start of Wolves’ Championship title-winning season.
The fear comes from his unpredictable temperament. Nuno can veer from ear-to-ear grinning and enthusiastic bear-hugging (he loves a hug) to short-tempered snapping. And glaring. The glare is to be feared.
“You don’t want to cross him but he’s got your back,” ex-midfielder Dave Edwards told The Athletic. “He has that perfect blend between respect and fear.
“He has that aura of being a disciplinarian but he’s actually very approachable. He really impressed me from the off. I only really had that same blend with (his Wales manager) Chris Coleman — you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him but you want to play for him, too.
“Even at that early stage with Nuno, you could see he had that. And you could see the logic in his ideas. With every new manager, you’ll get people questioning his methods, but you could see the direction he was going in. He united everyone. If you build that ‘us against the world’ philosophy, like Jose Mourinho did at Chelsea in particular, it galvanises the squad and gives you a real togetherness.
“Nuno makes the player think they’re all that matters, regardless of any noise from outside.”
He’s a motivator too, but more in the simplistic messages he conveys rather than being akin to addressing a political rally. He likes slogans (many are plastered around Wolves’ training ground) and repetition. He makes the players believe that with the system and the tactics he’s put in place, they will beat the opposition.
“We leave meetings before games thinking, ‘There’s no way we can’t win this’,” Matt Doherty said late last year. “You leave and you think, ‘Wow, we know how to beat them, we know they can’t get through us’.
“You’re friends with him at times but he knows how to grill you. We’ve all been on the end of one of them but the next day, he’ll give you a hug and he’ll talk to you. He’s got the blend perfect.”
At times he can be approachable…but in general the players tend to leave him alone for fear of not knowing what his reaction will be.
If they’re let out the team, they don’t go knocking on his door asking why. That would just make things worse.
“He doesn’t specifically explain to an individual player why he’s left them out,” an ex-Wolves player tells The Athletic.
“The culture he’s come from at Valencia or Porto, they’ve got squads of 30 or 40 players, not being selected isn’t a major deal, rotation is common. In England it feels like the end of the world to players if they’re left out and there’s a culture of asking the manager why.
“With Nuno, when he selects you it’s for a certain reason, he gives you specific tasks for that match, the team needs something from you.
“No one goes into his office…if you did that you’d probably come out in a worse position than before you went in. A conflict or difference of opinion is only going to harm your chances.
“He’s probably left you out because you’re not suited for that particular game. If you’re not in his plans for the future then you’re just not in the squad anyway, to be honest…he’s got 17 or 18 players and they’re in the plans, so if you’re not in the squad you know where you stand.”
Despite being sacked at Valencia in 2016, he was popular with the players there, where he adopted similar approaches.
A source close to players he coached at Valencia says: “He does not tell them they are dropped, he tells him the things they are doing well, and what they need to work on, and that their opportunity will come.
“When he needs to tell a player he is not playing, that is a bad moment for a player, so he focuses the message in another way.
“He has known to surround himself with people who he knows well, very similar to him, signed many Portuguese players, and creates a dressing room where he can be very close to everyone.
“He wins respect with results, or he did at Valencia. It was the first big project of his career, and he had them high in the table. I don’t think that the players here were afraid of him, or could not go to talk to him if they wanted to. There was a good mood in the dressing room.
“He is very close to them and tries to be like their father and look after them. So the players tend to be very happy with him. At Valencia, when they sacked him, there was a drama in the dressing room, nobody understood why.
“Nuno has a good team around him and does some things which are intelligent – a bit like Simeone – he does not burn his relationship with the players.”
Training and tactics
Nuno’s favourite time generally is on the training pitch – this is where he devotes his energy and his passion.
He’s very much a head coach rather than a manager of the club, but a more accurate description would be a player’s manager. Sure, he’s the main man around the whole club, he carries an aura whenever he walks into the room and everybody is well aware he’s the boss (even his closest staff tread lightly around him and know when not to disturb him), but in terms of decision making and management, he deals almost solely with the playing side.
You won’t see him at under-23 or youth games, or attending another Premier League to scout the opposition in person, or even slaving away until 11pm at Compton Park. He delegates specific duties to others – systems and staff have been put in place to oversee jobs that some managers would pick up, like aspects of recruitment, or scouting, or youth development – so that he can focus purely on his first-team squad, their next match and their evolution.Training is repetitive, with few variations from day to day (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Given that he devotes such energy to that, particularly in terms of training, or of preparation for matches, he demands and expects exactly the same energy and level of commitment from his players.
Of training sessions, Edwards said: “He would speak as we were playing. Being in midfield, I’d hear a lot! If something went wrong in the build-up or the shape, he would stop us, then we’d repeat the move again and again.
“He was relentless in the details. It was often moving a player a yard here or there, to be in exactly the right position. He drilled it in every single day.”
Training is repetitive, with few variations from day to day, in order to create the familiarity and second-nature positioning we see during matches. Players are expected to know exactly where they should be on the field, both with and without the ball.
Ex-Wolves winger Jordan Graham told The Athletic: “They work very hard on formation, where they are positionally during the game in training, it’s very repetitive. There isn’t too much in training that you’d stand there and think: ‘Oh wow this is different’.
“It’s the same thing, same drills. That’s why I think the players are really comfortable in their positions because they know exactly what they want to do and how they play. They rarely change it up.
“They’re a really well-drilled team, first and foremost. That’s hard to come by, it’s not as easy as fans might think. It’s one of the hardest things in football to become a solid side and Wolves are really, really solid.”
- “We want to compete”
- “We go game by game”
- “They are a tough opponent”
- “We need to find solutions”
- “We have to improve”
- “We do not look at the league table”
The above phrases have been repeated hundreds, nay thousands, of times during Nuno’s press conferences in the past three and a half years. A journalist could ask Nuno how he feels about Wolves’ upcoming Champions League final against Barcelona and he’d reply: “Tough opponent, we want to compete.”
There’s one game left in the season, Wolves are top of the Premier League by one point against Manchester City, who they play on the final day. Nuno: “We do not look at the league table.”
It’s become monotonous to the point of humour in the Wolves press pack, but this is how Nuno communicates and it’s the same with his players too.
That game-by-game mantra, in particular, is one he hammers home at every opportunity, as is the idea of constant self-improvement, striving for the perfection that doesn’t exist. His psychology is of being positive, not negative. No problems, only solutions.
And competing. Always competing. Conor Coady told The Athletic earlier this year: “When we compete and compete well, that’s a big thing. Obviously, we’re all happy when we win, but I think he’s happy when we compete and we put across onto the pitch how he wants us to play. That’s a big thing for him.
“He always mentions competing and making sure we’re competing in games to give us the best chance of winning. When we compete, he’s happy, even if you get beat 1-0, 2-1, no one’s happy when you get beat but if you have the feeling of you’ve done what’s been told of us and what’s been asked of us, you’ve listened to what he’s trying to say and we’ve gone into the game and competed, that’s what’s made him happy.”Nuno likes to keep his message simple for his players (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Another regular mantra? The next game is the most important one and no opponent is underestimated.
“Some managers try and reinvent the wheel but Nuno keeps it simple for his players,” an ex-Wolves player says.
“Pre-match, he’s got his set-up, it works for Wolves, there are a few tweaks here and there but it’s generally the same most weeks.
“He doesn’t go too in-depth on the opposition and the most important thing is he doesn’t overload the players with information. Often that can have a negative impact because you’ve got too much to remember, or there are so many messages that you zone out.”
With a multi-national squad being bilingual helps too; Nuno speaks English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Russian and French.
Team talks or team meetings are always in English, but he will dip into Portuguese or Spanish when speaking to individual players to better convey his specific instructions to them.
He’ll occasionally drop into the squad’s WhatsApp group too, as he did during the first lockdown back in March to send the players encouraging and philosophical messages of hope and positivity.
Generally, he’ll keep it short and simple.
“He makes us feel we can’t lose a game,” Doherty said. “Nuno instils that belief in us. The way he plans games for us tactically…when we have the meeting we’ll walk onto the pitch thinking that we’re going to win the game.”
Wolves’ first half/second half differences — in terms of goals, results and often intensity, attacking intent and, ultimately, results — are stark.
As we’ve particularly seen in the past few months, perhaps accentuated by the absence of supporters and therefore an atmosphere to feed off, Wolves have tended to start games in a manner you’d call methodical and tactical with a glass half-full, or laboured and uninspiring with a glass half-empty.
Second halves generally offer more attacking play, more excitement and more goals.
Since promotion in 2018, Wolves have played 86 Premier League games. They’ve scored 37 goals in first halves – and 72 goals in second halves. They also concede more in the first 45 minutes (53) than in the second (44). It’s gone on too long for it to be a coincidence.
Half-time is where Nuno’s management style comes into its own. Rousing Churchillian speeches or Malcolm Tucker-esque bollockings aren’t really his thing.
Instead his mantra of short, simple messages to point out where the team can improve are what can make that five per cent difference in the second half.
As one former Wolves player told The Athletic: “What he says at half-time always seems to work.
“I’ve always found him to be concise in his messages. He doesn’t watch the game, he watches the bigger picture. It’s a bit of a cliche but he sees it like chess, with moving parts and tactics, the way the pieces are moving, how many problems you’re causing your opponent and how many problems they’re causing you.
“So he makes subtle changes. He may change the personnel, but more likely he’ll just hold a midfielder 10 yards deeper, or tell you to focus down a certain side of the pitch. They’re basic messages that make perfect sense when he says them.
“There are so many times at full time when you think what he said at half time was absolutely correct and won us the game.
“That’s got a lot to do with the second half improvements Wolves make.”
It’s said that he generally doesn’t lay into people, although the Wolves dressing room definitely isn’t a bollocking-free zone. If he unleashes a tirade it’s probably because a player either isn’t working hard enough, or isn’t following out the instructions he was given pre-match.
If he singles out a Portuguese player for criticism, he’ll switch to Portuguese for the full hairdryer effect.
Worse than shouting, though, is the silent treatment. That’s when he’s not angry, he’s just really, really disappointed.
“He’s quite chilled,” ex-Wolves winger Jordan Graham told The Athletic last month. “I’ve never seen him really lose it, he’s quite composed and calm and believes in what he says, what he practices. He always believes it will prevail in the end.
“He’s very relaxed and that’s him to a tee. He’s a calm guy and believes in the way he sets up the team.”
As you’d expect for someone who demands such high levels of professionalism from his players, Nuno is a stickler for discipline and regimentation.
Lunch is at 12.30pm every day without fail and the players always eat together, which was one of the first changes he introduced in 2017. He also insisted the players stay overnight at a hotel before every game, home or away, with the squad staying in Wolverhampton city centre before they play at Molineux, all part of creating and maintaining team cohesion.
Despite that schedule, Nuno doesn’t manage the players’ lives or routines away from the training ground. There is trust placed in them that they won’t slip into bad habits, or go out partying until 2am, or eat or drink unhealthily. The standards set by his backroom team in terms of fitness and nutrition have been fully embraced by the players who see the benefits of the lifestyle they’re encouraged to lead.
Fines are rare. Morgan Gibbs-White broke lockdown rules earlier this year but wasn’t fined (punishment could have had a negative impact on his mindset, it was felt). Players aren’t fined for being late for training either.
“It’s a psychology thing,” a former Wolves player says. “You have to be at the training ground by a specific time anyway so the chances of being late are slim, but a couple of times lads were rushing to get back from abroad, seeing their families, and turned up late. But there wasn’t a big bollocking, he just wouldn’t start the session without them. We’d all be stood on the pitch waiting. So it was a case of, if you’re late, you’re letting your team-mates and everyone down.”
Nuno explained earlier this year: “We don’t use fines here, it doesn’t make sense. Money, for a football player, is not an issue.
“You have a big star. He comes five minutes late and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to fine you £5,000’ and he goes, ‘Tomorrow, I come 10 (minutes late). The day after I come 15. Are you going to fine me?’
“I remember we did it: we didn’t start the session before the player came. And when the player comes he feels so bad. He was expecting everybody running already so he’s, ‘Sorry, gaffer…’ No, no.
“So everybody was waiting, fucking freezing, waiting, waiting. When the guy comes, nobody claps. ‘OK, are you ready? We start now you’re here.’ It works. No argue, no conflict.”
Nothing makes him happy more than his team giving 100 per cent and doing the jobs asked of them.
Just don’t put your hands on your hips, as Coady explained: “When we’re on the training pitch, he’s speaking in the middle, it gets to him a bit when your hands are on your hips, because you’re not ready.
“He’ll say; ‘You’re not ready, get your hands off your hips’. You could be in set-up, in formation, he could be in the middle of the pitch talking to you…I’ve been done for it when he first came in: you’re stood with your hands on your hips listening, and it’s ‘take your hands off your hips, you’re not ready.’ When he first came in it shocked us a little bit, but now everybody realises we understand what he’s saying.
“You’re thinking about everything. You’re concentrating on what he’s saying, you’re always thinking about what he’s saying.”
Don’t put your hands on your hips, don’t knock on his door asking why you’re not playing and don’t look at the league table. Simple.