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Wolves’ biggest transfer priority this summer? Signing Craig Dawson’s successor

Written by on May 6, 2024

Craig Dawson is 34 today. It is not a milestone Wolverhampton Wanderers will rush to celebrate.

Because while the veteran central defender will have designs on playing in the Premier League for a while longer yet, the day is approaching when Wolves can no longer rely on him as the linchpin of their defence.

The past two months have given Wolves fans a taste of life without Dawson and, while they would hope and expect to have him back at the heart of their defence after he recovers from groin surgery, it has not been an encouraging spell for their longer-term future.

Saturday’s 5-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium was the most stark glimpse yet of what might lie ahead.


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In the simplest terms, Wolves need a succession plan for a player who has been central to their success in the past season and a half.

Since he was signed from West Ham United in January last year, Wolves have played 42 league games with Dawson in the starting XI and 12 with him either on the bench or missing from the matchday squad entirely.

The difference in performance is clear.

With Dawson starting, they have conceded 1.5 goals on average, picked up points at a rate of 1.4 per game and amassed a win rate of 40 per cent. Without him, those numbers change to 2.2, 0.9 and 25 per cent respectively.


Dawson last played for Wolves in March (David Rogers/Getty Images)

While those statistics are a simplistic way of assessing the impact of a player, given other factors — such as the strength of opponents and the availability of other players — also feed into the outcomes, it is fairly clear that Dawson has been an integral part of many of the good things that Wolves have achieved during Julen Lopetegui’s Premier League rescue act in the second half of last season and successor Gary O’Neil’s impressive first campaign at the helm.

Replacing Dawson successfully over the next two or three seasons — he is not a man who will take a decline in form or physical output lying down — will be critical to their prospects of continued improvement.

O’Neil was keen to look beyond his central defenders for the reasons why Erling Haaland gave Wolves a mauling in Saturday’s heavy loss, with the Norwegian scoring his sixth Premier League hat-trick before adding a fourth goal.

“I think we, and I, have to take responsibility for the way the game unfolded,” said O’Neil.

“We made a lot of errors in the game, and unforced ones as well, which gave Manchester City some really good chances. Losing the ball how we did for the second goal, for the last goal, and losing the ball how we did straight after we scored, when we were late on the pressing phase…

“You know that mistakes against this team can be punished. And they were. They punished us ruthlessly.”

It was impossible to watch Haaland cash in on those mistakes so powerfully and ruthlessly without thinking back to Wolves’ 2-1 victory over last season’s treble winners in September’s reverse fixture, when Dawson did a number on the blonde goal machine and ensured he had one of his quietest afternoons in a City shirt.

On that occasion, O’Neil’s tactical plan worked perfectly, with Dawson taking on the muscular striker in a straight test of strength while captain Maximilian Kilman took up intelligent covering positions for the duels that Dawson lost.

This time, with Dawson at home recovering from surgery, Kilman had to take on the role of defensive aggressor. That is not his natural game and Haaland came out, predictably and comfortably, on top.

Having scored a hat-trick in this fixture last season, Haaland became the third man in Premier League history to achieve a home treble against the same opponents in consecutive Premier League campaigns after Robbie Fowler versus Arsenal (1994-95 and 1995-96) and Alan Shearer against West Ham (1994-95 and 1995-96).


Max Kilman tangles with Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

Any team can get blown away by City on their own turf, so reading too much into Saturday’s struggles would be foolish.

But the last couple of months, with Dawson missing from the side, have provided a timely reminder that, while the need to add forwards has rightly taken much of the attention this season, Wolves have questions to answer this summer at the other end of the pitch, too.

Most notable among them is whether they have anyone in their ranks who can, over the next couple of seasons, assume the mantle of physical colossus that Dawson has filled so successfully.

Because with the right player alongside him to complement his skills — pace, anticipation and ball play — Kilman looks like a player of rich Premier League potential. But when he is asked to do Dawson’s job, he often struggles.

Santiago Bueno has made positive strides in his first season in the Premier League but Wolves will need to decide in the summer whether the Uruguay international is yet ready to take on the responsibility of being the muscle in their back line full-time. And they must make a call on Yerson Mosquera, too. The Colombian is currently due to return to the squad next season after a successful loan spell at Villarreal in Spain, but is he ready to become a key starter?

If not, could Wolves resurrect the deal for Borussia Monchengladbach’s Nico Elvedi they almost completed last summer? The Switzerland international signed a new deal with the Bundesliga club but a widely-reported release clause of €10million (£8.6m) makes him well within the reach of potential suitors in the coming window.

In the short term, Wolves will aim to wheel out Dawson for at least one more season as their defensive enforcer, and the wily campaigner will have designs on making it two, three or four more years.

But the time to plan for life without him is now.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Why Wolves set aside their transfer rulebook to sign Craig ‘Ballon’ Dawson

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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