A sleeping giant awoke this weekend in the West Midlands.
The tale of how they got to this point stands as an extreme example of the prevalent forces at play in the modern game. In this case, the confluence between their foreign owners Fosun International and ‘super agent’ Jorge Mendes.
This is a controversial relationship that Leeds United chairman Andrea Radrizzani labelled “not legal and fair” last March. A month later, a comprehensive review by the English Football League found that Mendes “holds no role at the club” and “there is no requirement” for him to submit to the owners’ and directors’ test.
A debate has continued about the morality of how unfashionable Wolves put together a squad that won the 2017/18 Championship at a canter and is now expected to finish in the top half of the top flight.
Mendes’ first-ever client, Nuno Espirito Santo (the pair met in a nightclub that Mendes owned in 1996), selected 10 players either represented by the Portuguese dealmaker or with links to reported associated clubs for Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Toffees.
The long-term aims of Fosun also require inspection at a politically sensitive time in their native China.
“‘Football club uses agent to sign players’… who doesn’t? What I will say is Fosun’s global success is due to the fact they do things different to others,” says David Kirkland, who has jointly run Dubai Wolves fan group since 2009. “They make their ideas better then everyone else’s.”
There is nothing revolutionary about foreign investors owning Premier League assets. Of the 20 teams set to compete in 2018/19, only six are majority owned by British citizens.
Fosun are a conglomerate with gross revenue valued at RMB 88.03 billion (Dh47.2bn) in 2017’s annual report. Their disparate and wide-ranging investments also include Club Med, Cirque du Soleil, American insurer Meadowbrook and Australian oil company Roc Oil.
Close links between agents and clubs are de rigueur in the Premier League. Since 2016, Mino Raiola has brought Armenia playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan, France superstar Paul Pogba, Sweden legend Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Belgium centre forward Romelu Lukaku to Manchester United.
Reviled Blackburn owners Venky’s handed Jerome Anderson enormous influence, to ruinous effect.
What makes this situation stand out is the deal announced in January 2016 that saw a Fosun subsidiary – Foyo Culture and Entertainment Co Ltd – buy a 20-per-cent stake in Start. This is the holding company of the influential GestiFute sports agency founded by Mendes in 1996, whom represent the likes of Portugal icon Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho.
In July 2016, Fosun would acquire Wolves for £45 million (Dh217.8m) from Liverpool-born construction magnate Steve Morgan. Advice came from Mendes, a situation club chairman Jeff Shi benignly described to BBC Sport as being: “when you are new to an industry, you need someone to help you.”
There are few sharper strategic minds in football than the 52-year-old’s.
Valencia, Deportivo La Coruna and Atletico Madrid in Spain; Porto and Benfica in Portugal; Besiktas of Turkey; Russia’s Dynamo Moscow; Monaco in France’s Ligue 1, for a time.
All part of a network in which Mendes artfully places players and head coaches. Now, Wolves are a key cog.
“Nowadays, Wolves are strategic for the ‘Jorge Mendes system’,” says Italian sociology professor Pippo Russo, who authored ‘The orgy of power: the story of Jorge Mendes, master of global football’.
“He suffered two terrible years, with Football Leaks revelations and Spanish fiscal enquiries.
“For Mendes, Wolves are his revenge, and the direct connection with the Premier League.”
The Mendes approach hasn’t been without blips. At Valencia in 2016/17, disgruntled fans protested against owner Peter Lim and then boss Nuno – seeing them as Mendes stooges.
7 - Ruben Neves has scored seven league goals from outside the box since the start of the 2017-18 season, more than any other player in the top four tiers of English football. Range. pic.twitter.com/vOE6Nk79Ii— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 11, 2018
Sizeable expenditure by Dynamo and Besiktas led to financial problems.
In 2016, claims in ‘Football Leaks’ sparked a report by European Investigative Collaborations that stated “a network of shell companies and offshore accounts in Ireland, in the British Virgin Islands, Panama and Switzerland” were created to help GestiFute clients evade paying tax on image rights.
Mendes denied any wrongdoing in 2017 to a Spanish court.
Even so, Mourinho, Argentina winger Angel Di Maria, Colombia forward Radamel Falcao and Ronaldo are high-profile GestiFute clients who have settled tax-fraud cases in Spain.
The speed of Wolves’ ascent turns all these issues into background noise.
They had finished a distant 14th in the second division before Fosun got involved.
A false start in Fosun’s debut campaign saw a drop to 15th, leading to managers Walter Zenga and Paul Lambert being culled along the way.
Nuno arrived at the end of that season – and the owner’s ambitions met reality during 2017/18.
Throughout Fosun’s tenure, 53 players have been brought in – either temporarily or permanently – for an estimated £111.2m (Dh521.6m).
Of this number, 31 have no obvious link to Mendes’ realm of influence.
Where he has repeatedly proved his worth is in an ability to bring footballers of significant ability, at prices often below market rate, to an unfashionable area of England.
Reverberations were created in July 2017 when £15.8m (Dh75.4m) was used to draft in 20-year-old Porto midfielder Ruben Neves, the Champions League’s youngest-ever captain and a player for whom Liverpool were quoted £36m (Dh174.2m) a year prior.
The 113-cap Portugal veteran Joao Moutinho was convinced last month to ditch life on the Cote d’Azur. Monaco received £5m (Dh24m).
Just how does Mendes pull this off?
Russo replies: “Some players are very grateful to Mendes for their football careers, and Moutinho is one among them.
“Football players of GestiFute are aware (they are) part of a ‘Big Game’, and they accept any Jorge Mendes strategy. Their first loyalty is not for their clubs, but to GestiFute.
“If GestiFute is part of Fosun’s system, and Wolverhampton is part of Fosun’s system, can we be sure there is not some other hidden overlapping?”
A concise – and apt – phrase to describe Mendes’ main asset is ‘guanxi’. Roughly translated as “relationships” or “connections”, it is the lubricating force within business in China – and the reason Fosun sought him out.
This has been vital during a febrile period under president Xi Jinping. The encouragement in 2016 towards Chinese involvement in European football turned a year later into a tightening on regulations about outbound spending.
Dalian Wanda became the first Chinese entity to divest in February, cashing in a 17-per-cent stake in Atletico for €50m (Dh209.8m) – a profit of €5m (Dh21m).
Fosun know the dangers caused by the change of political winds. Chairman Guo Guangchang reportedly disappeared for several days in December 2015 and was questioned during Xi’s anti-corruption drive.
“Mendes and his contacts (who combine insight and guile) have enabled the club to acquire important talent at fees and salary levels that otherwise the club might not have been able to afford,” says Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise, Salford University.
“This has been important for Fosun, especially at a time when other Chinese owners of European football clubs have either struggled with their investments or else have been subject to Chinese government controls.
“All of this has the footnote however that, at any time (and likely to be unannounced), the Chinese government could bring the whole project crashing down.”
Wolves won three Division 1 titles in the 1950s and played an instrumental role in the creation of the European Cup.
Modern forces have combined to renew hope of another vintage era. After decades of underachievement and frustration, Kirkland is not about to dwell on the situation.
He says: “We’re a brand that has been overlooked, mismanaged and spent time looking into the abyss.
“Whether these golden years last beyond Fosun’s appetite, who knows? Either way, we’re not worried, and our 10-year ambition is stratospheric.”
Here, we rate City’s players.
Ederson – Made a routine save to deny Hector Bellerin, but was untested for large periods. A couple of sloppy passes late on could’ve proved costly. 5
Kyle Walker – Used his pace well and looked dangerous on the overlap early on. Made some good interceptions at the back as well. 6
John Stones – Excellent with the ball at his feet and played it out of defence well. Good in the air when he needed to be. 6
Aymeric Laporte – Solid at the back and didn’t hesitate to clear his lines. Had a couple of decent chances come his way which he could’ve done better from. 6
Benjamin Mendy – Was more involved in attack than defence. Tucked in to help control possession and bombed forward as well, picking up both assists. 8
Bernardo Silva – His passing let him down at times and he didn’t contribute much in other areas but took his goal superbly with a great finish. 7
Fernandinho – A quiet performance from the Brazilian. Recycled possession and did little else. Lost possession on a couple of occasions. 5
Ilkay Gundogan – Covered plenty of ground and was involved at both ends. Didn’t quite click for him, but he provided some drive from midfield. 6
Riyad Mahrez – Looked threatening early on, cutting inside from the right or feeding Walker. Tested Petr Cech with a free-kick. 6
Raheem Sterling – Showed good pace and dribbling as he tormented the Arsenal defenders. Scored a superb opener to send City on their way. 8
Sergio Aguero – A frustrating outing for the Argentine and he will be kicking himself for not scoring when he went clean through on goal. 5
Kevin De Bruyne – Cruised though the final half an hour with some good passes, but picked up a needless booking. 5
Gabriel Jesus – Came on for Aguero in the final stages and didn’t really get involved. N/A
Leroy Sane – Only had a few minutes on the pitch. N/A
Raheem Sterling found the bottom corner in the opening stages at Emirates Stadium and fellow attacker Bernardo Silva sealed a dominant win when he fired into the roof of the net past the hour mark.
Here are our talking points:
PLUS CA CHANGE
A new dawn, but the same frustrations.
This was the script as a man other than Arsene Wenger took charge of Arsenal in the Premier League for the first time in 22 years.
Patience has been a necessity as a Gooner since the glory days of the early 2000s steadily ebbed away during the past decade. Even more will be required after this agonising opening defeat, admittedly against rampant Premier League champions.
Emery went with the 4-2-3-1 formation that his iconic predecessor returned to in the final months of the season. They matched their opponents in shape, but little else throughout the nervous 90 minutes that followed.
The Spaniard’s freshly installed press was erratic and disjointed.
Attempts to play out from the back were slapstick. An egregious example in the opening period saw ailing goalkeeper Petr Cech – watched on by German addition Bernd Leno – concede a corner from a woeful pass.
The decision to throw in 19-year-old summer signing Matteo Guendouzi from the start against the competition’s strongest side was straight from the Wenger playbook. By half-time, he had the second-worst pass completion rate (62.5 per cent) and lost the ball through bad control more than any team-mate (6).
Only an excellent stop from Cech saved him embarrassment when he misjudged the ball after the break, sending striker Sergio Aguero clean through.
New centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos was unauthoritative, plus Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil registered no shots.
In Wenger’s mournful final campaign, Arsenal lost six times and won just once in the ‘top-six mini league’.
That is now seven from 11, with Chelsea to come next weekend. Plus ca change.
RAHEEM IS LET OFF THE LEASH
An impressive goal and a pointed celebration.
Sterling’s 14th-minute opener witnessed him skip past right-back Hector Bellerin’s non-existent challenge, evaded rookie Guendouzi’s tackle and drill a low shot into the bottom corner that you’d charitably say Cech was unsighted for.
That’s now 19 goals in his last 34 Premier League matches.
The usual opprobrium from the stands had greeted his every previous touch. Its volume had been increased by a goalless World Cup 2018 campaign in which his selfless role in Gareth Southgate’s 3-5-2 formation went unappreciated – largely by those with the usual agendas when it comes to the self professed #TheHatedOne .
Even if Southgate’s motives were for the betterment of a side that surprisingly made the semi-finals, something special was lost along the way.
Sterling will not shine if asked to receive the ball centrally, often with his back to goal.
Guardiola’s great insight is to deploy the 23-year-old out wide, but insist on devastating sprints inside. The statistics show that goals follow.
50 - Raheem Sterling has scored 50 Premier League goals, with his strike against Arsenal only his third from outside the box. Bullseye. pic.twitter.com/ZNrwYRh0oa— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 12, 2018
THE PERFECT BLUEPRINT
Victory at a canter became a familiar feeling for City in Guardiola’s historic second season.
An irrepressible side broke the wins, points and goals records – among others – on their way to the crown.
Worryingly for the opposition, signs were plentiful at Emirates Stadium – wrought silent by the visitors’ collective brilliance as the enthusiasm about Emery swiftly dissipated – that improvements have been made.
City enjoyed 58-per-cent possession, had eight more attempts and won seven more corners.
Left-back Benjamin Mendy was available to make just seven appearances after his July 2017 arrival because of serious knee injury. Back in full flight after a support role for victors France at World Cup 2018, he produced two assists.
Portugal playmaker Bernardo Silva is carrying greater authority a year on from his move – also from Monaco. His swept finish on 64 minutes from Mendy’s set-up made it five strikes in his last seven Premier League starts.
Arsenal were rendered docile by a starting XI that didn’t feature Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany, David Silva, Leroy Sane or Nicolas Otamendi.
Sobering thoughts for the likes of resurgent Liverpool, so impressive hours earlier during their 4-0 triumph against West Ham United.
It is statistically improbable that City will repeat last season’s historic superiority. But the odds will have decreased after this.