The fine line of survival for a promoted side in the Premier League often requires nicking points off the Big Six. Thriving instead of surviving comes with the occasional victory over such sides.
Then there is the case of Wolverhampton, who are in the thick of the hunt for Champions League places heading into a critical showdown Saturday versus Arsenal at Molineux.
When Wolves (13-13-6) re-entered the top flight in 2018 after a seven-season absence – a period that also included a drop into League One – they had performed a rebuild unlike few sides in English football. The squad have a heavy Portuguese flavor, coached by Nuno Espirito Santo and controversially constructed in some respects by agent Jorge Mendes, and eight players on the current Premier League roster hail from the Iberian peninsula.
While the most notable Portugal international – Cristiano Ronaldo – is not among the octet, the group of players toiling for Nuno in the Midlands, some of whom were members on Portugal's European Championship-winning side in 2016, are instilling their own championship pedigree on the club.
Wolves have claimed 28 points (7-7-8) versus Big Six opponents in the season-plus since their promotion. Not only is it the most among non-Big Six clubs, only champions Liverpool and Manchester City – each with 38 – have accrued more in that span. Additionally, their 109 points since promotion rank seventh in the Premier League era among promoted sides in their first two terms.
Nuno's club also have the benefit of chasing their Champions League aspirations without the distraction of their current Europa League travails, which will resume after the season in Germany. Wolverhampton are sixth in the table on 52 points, trailing Manchester United on goal difference, but lurking just three points back of third-place Leicester City.
With Manchester City still waiting on their appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport on their UEFA-imposed two-year ban from European play, Wolves are vying for one of at least two and potentially three Champions League places while currently occupying the Europa League slot.
Wolves have claimed the maximum nine points in Project Restart without conceding and are coming off a 1-0 victory at Aston Villa last Saturday. Leander Dendoncker's goal on 62 minutes separated the sides as Wolverhampton improved to 5-3-0 in their last eight league matches and recorded a seventh clean sheet in that run.
"All the games, since we started, our approach hasn't changed. A clean sheet is the beginning of everything," Nuno said at his Friday press conference ahead of his 150th match in charge at Wolves. "Can you be organised in order to avoid a team hurting you? This is the start of everything.
"We are doing things well. It's a team effort, we start defending from the first player high up the pitch. He has tasks, so this is how we do it. A clean sheet is due to the defensive work of the whole team."
That first player high up is usually Raul Jimenez, who leads the club with 20 goals in all competitions. The Mexico international shares the league lead with Liverpool's Sadio Mane with 18 points coming from his goals, and with Adama Traore, has formed just the seventh partnership in Premier League history to account for at least 10 goals.
"Every striker wants a teammate with his conditions. He can cross from anywhere, you know he's going to be at the final line and he's going to cross, so you have to be there at the right time to score," Jimenez said of Traore to the team's official website.
Still a fixture in European play, even if that no longer means the Champions League, Arsenal (11-13-8) still have an outside chance at the continent's top club tournament and can pull within three points of Wolves with a victory. Their 4-0 thrashing of last-place Norwich City on Wednesday offered a glimpse of Gunners past, the flowing and forward football long part of Arsene Wenger but seen only sparingly since his retirement.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a brace on either side of halftime, while Granit Xhaka and Cedric Soares scored the other goals for Arsenal, who are seeking their fourth win on the bounce in all competitions. Coach Mikael Arteta is hoping the Gabon international's form and confidence will provide the impetus to remaining with the north London club as part of their long-term future.
"It is just my opinion, things change in football very quickly but when you ask me in that moment how I feel about Auba's future, in this moment I feel that he wants to continue with us and keep developing and help us to become a better team," Arteta said at his press conference. "He needs to feel he belongs somewhere that he believes we can achieve the goals that he has individually and collectively for a long time.
Aubameyang is tied with Leicester City's Jamie Vardy for the Premier League lead with 19 goals, with Wednesday's brace his first since Project Restart. As his future – along with that of Alexander Lacazette and Matteo Guendouzi continue to draw speculation – fellow striker Gabriel Martinelli and playmaker Bukayo Saka are in for the long haul as the two teenagers have signed new deals with the club this week.
Jimenez salvaged a point for Wolves in the reverse fixture, with his goal on 76 minutes canceling out one in the first half from Aubameyang in a 1-1 stalemate.
Updated July 3, 2020