Wolves midfielder Joao Moutinho has instilled a winning mentality
Conor Coady is the Wolves captain, Raul Jimenez is the top scorer, and Adama Traore is the sensation of the season. But ask Wolves supporters who their best player is – the best that the club has ever had in the Premier League era – and most will come back with the same answer. That man remains the 5ft7in of football heaven that is Joao Moutinho.
There was disbelief when the club’s reigning player of the year first signed and that sense of awe has hardly dissipated even though the 33-year-old midfielder is now well into his second season since joining Wolves for £5m – five million – in the summer of 2018. It is not every day that a European champion trades Monaco for Wolverhampton, after all.But he is happy here with a new contract extension signed late last year. His family is settled and his daughters are enjoying school. The eldest speaks English better than her old man. “Sometimes she speaks and I don’t understand her,” he tells Sky Sports. “But they are enjoying it and that is the most important thing. It is calm here. It has been easy to adapt.” The Portuguese influence at Wolves helps, of course. “Our families talk a lot, go to lunch. That’s good for us all. We are in a place with people we know.”But it is the ease with which he has adapted on the pitch that has been most impressive. Moutinho’s pedigree was never in doubt but the transition to the Premier League can be tough and the schedule has been demanding for a man who is at the tail end of his career. No Premier League midfielder has played more minutes in all competitions this season. Man Utd vs Wolves February 1, 2020, 5:00pm Live on At Wolves’ training ground, following the first team’s morning session in preparation for the game against Manchester United at Old Trafford, there are clues as to why Moutinho has found a way to do what others cannot. He is the last to emerge after doing some extra work to ensure that his body is right. “I do what I need to do to stay fit,” he explains.”I train well. I eat well. I drink water and hydration drinks. I rest when I need to rest. I come to training every day as if it is the first day. They are small things but they make a difference.”I work a lot in the gym on injury prevention. This is important too. You have to believe in this work. You can’t just do it because you do it. You have to recognise that if you do this it is good for your body and it will give you something extra that will then help you.” Moutinho’s management of his own body has allowed him to play and play It is working for him. Wolves’ game against United will be his 44th of the season for club and country. But then, Moutinho has always been like this. Over the past 15 seasons of a career that has taken him from Sporting to Wolves via Porto and Monaco, the Portugal international has played almost 800 matches at an average of over 50 per year.Asked to recall any injury problems, he winces at the thought of some “small things” that plagued him during his first and third years at Monaco but he was never out for long.”I like playing more than training so I try to be fit to play,” he says.It is all the more remarkable given that Moutinho has embraced the physical challenge of English football. Only four men have made more tackles in the Premier League this season. Moutinho’s tackles so far this Premier League season for Wolves “I defend like a man who likes to work too because I know that football is not just about what you do on the ball,” he explains. “A team doesn’t have the ball for 90 minutes. It is about the recoveries. I do my best to do that and help the team any way I can. If that’s a pass, an assist, a tackle or even if it’s only running, I do it for the team. Save over 40% when you buy a NOW TV Sky Sports Month Pass for just £20 Enjoy all 11 Sky Sports channels for one month with no contract “The defenders attack and the attackers defend. That’s how it is here. We play like a team, that’s the most important thing. The individual aspect comes afterwards.”Even so, nobody at Molineux is underestimating Moutinho’s importance. Wolves went unbeaten through their first nine games of this season before resting him for the first time at Everton. They duly lost. The same happened when he sat out the home game against Braga. It is almost a year since Wolves won a game in any competition without him. Moutinho’s partnership with Ruben Neves is vital for Wolves His partnership with Ruben Neves has been a key factor in the club’s rise under Nuno Espirito Santo. The pair often find themselves outnumbered in the middle of the pitch but they have found ways to combat this disadvantage and still be able to impose themselves.”I like playing with him because he is a smart player,” says Moutinho. “That is important in the Premier League because even though it is physical, the duels aren’t just about your body. You can escape situations without crashing into the player. You can be smart.” Moutinho’s heatmap and passing sonar for Wolves this season Not that Moutinho is always calm and collected. Neves claims that he has never seen anybody take losing as badly as he does – to the point where, in the dressing room after a defeat, the veteran midfielder will refuse to talk to anyone. Is this true?He almost blushes in embarrassment.”It’s true. Years ago, it was worse. I wouldn’t talk to my family either.”He is soon rationalising his behaviour, however.”I don’t like to lose, no matter what I am playing. Football, tennis, head tennis, no matter what. If I am playing something, I am playing to win. If I am not playing to win, I don’t want to play. There needs to be something that moves you, something that inspires you.”I think it is good for the spirit to have that mentality. You cannot be different when it comes to the small things. Play to win something every day. If you live like that every day then, of course, at the weekend you are going to be winning.” “When I was at Sporting and I wanted to give a message to the team, I called Joao Moutinho,” Carvalhal tells Sky Sports. “He organises everything on the pitch. He understands the game. He plays with a kind of antenna, a GPS inside his brain. If you need him to attack then he will be there. If you need him to be covering the centre-back he will be there. If you have a hole in the team, if there is an imbalance, he will correct the balance. He is an unbelievable player” There is clearly something of the perfectionist about him. A tale from his first week as a Wolves player illustrates the point. In the dressing room before a photoshoot, the team’s kit was strewn across the room with one exception. Moutinho’s was there neatly folded.”I like to be organised,” he says with smile. “I don’t know if that makes me a perfectionist but I try to approach everything in a professional way. I am 100 per cent focused on my tasks. Sometimes, if you don’t focus for just one second then the other team will score.” Moutinho’s focus on the team is rubbing off on his Wolves team-mates This is the mentality he is trying to instil in others, whether it is midfield partner Neves, 22, or head tennis partner Ruben Vinagre, 20. Moutinho is the only outfield player at Wolves who is over the age of 30 but he sees the learning process as a reciprocal arrangement.”You can learn from everyone, not just the old guys but from the young guys too,” he says. “That is what I try to transmit. I want to pass on my knowledge to them to make them better players and better people but I want to learn from them too. I like to learn. I feel that I know some things but I need to know more.”That is how you improve. If you think you know everything then you are going to stagnate. This is not good for any player. You have to develop every day. I come to training every day with something that I want to do better than yesterday.”Moutinho’s dead-ball delivery is hard to improve upon. He has five Premier League assists from set plays so far this, second only to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold. No other player has provided more than three. His jog over towards the corner flag now comes with a customary wave to the Wolves supporters as they routinely sing his name.”I like to say thank you to them because what the supporters do is not normal,” he says. “They are amazing. They probably think I say that about the other places I have played but it is not the same. I like that relationship because we need that support. They sing and we listen. At home, there are lots of them but we see it when we are away too.” “He has quality. We have seen that in the European competitions and in the Portuguese league. He is a very good player and a very good person. Of course, I hope he isn’t smiling at the weekend. But I think he will help Manchester United to be a better team” That support will be particularly vocal at Old Trafford on Saturday. Wolves and Manchester United go into the game level on points with fifth place on offer for the winner.”We will try to win,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter whether it is Manchester United or Liverpool, Watford or Southampton, we know that if we compete 100 per cent we have the possibility to win. That is our mentality. That is the kind of team that we are.” The suspicion, of course, is that Wolves are that kind of team in large part because of the ongoing influence of the remarkable Joao Moutinho.Watch Manchester United vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League HD from 5pm on Saturday; Kick-off 5.30pm Soccer Saturday Super 6 FREE TO PLAY: Do not miss your chance to land the Super 6 jackpot for the sixth time this season.