When people think of the key figures behind Wolves’ rise, the name of Ryan Bennett is rarely mentioned. But the defender who signed on a free transfer from Norwich two summers ago continues to play his part. It’s a credit to him and a coaching triumph, writes Adam Bate.
Wolves strengthened their defence with the loan signing of Real Madrid prospect Jesus Vallejo in the summer. The Spain U21 international is fresh from captaining his country to success at the European Championships but he had to watch from the bench as Wolves kept a clean sheet against Leicester on the opening weekend. Ryan Bennett remains first choice.
Rightly so, too. He impressed at the King Power Stadium, coping with the threat of Jamie Vardy and the rest. Bennett has already scored in the Europa League this season and though the challenge of facing Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford next up in the Premier League is a daunting one, Wolves did win the fixture last season. He was excellent then too.
This was not supposed to happen to Bennett. His time in the Premier League appeared to have come and gone. Twice relegated with Norwich City, form and fitness had been an issue during his later years in East Anglia and the Canaries chose not to take up the option of adding another year to his contract. A free transfer at 27 reflected his diminished status.
When Wolves offered him a deal in 2017, the reaction of some Norwich fans told the tale. One called it bonkers, someone else suggested Bennett wasn’t good enough for League Two let alone the Championship. Few considered it a signing to celebrate. “Imagine having Jorge Mendes controlling your transfers and ending up with Ryan Bennett,” wondered another.
It’s true that the feeling at the time was that the acquisition must have been lined up by outgoing head coach Paul Lambert, the man who took Bennett to Norwich in the first place, then signed off regardless when Nuno Espirito Santo was appointed. When the defender did not start any of the first ten Championship games, that did little to dispel that notion.
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Slowly but surely, however, Bennett was able to prove his worth. After making his first Championship start in a 4-0 win at Burton in October 2017, Wolves went on to win their first seven games with him in the starting line-up. He went on to play a vital role in the team’s promotion, even scoring a memorable stoppage-time winner away to Bristol City.
The step up to the Premier League was supposed to be too much for him. Signings were anticipated and the versatile Leander Dendoncker’s arrival appeared to signal the end. In pre-season, Romain Saiss was used there instead. Bennett himself admitted that it was ‘clear’ he was not going to play. But when others struggled to adapt, he retained his place.
Dropped for the first time in that Premier League season, Wolves promptly lost away to Cardiff so he was recalled immediately and produced a brilliant display against Chelsea. It was Bennett’s tackle on Willian, with his team one goal down, that proved the catalyst for a comeback. Bennett just keeps coming back. So is there a lesson here worth heeding?
Bennett’s form under Nuno can hardly be seen as a dramatic example of some latent talent being unleashed. Conor Coady could come under such a category, the former Liverpool midfielder and England U20 captain proving a revelation after dropping back into a back three. Matt Doherty has progressed too after being converted into a right wing-back.
In those instances, significant tactical tweaks might explain the upsurge in their careers. But Bennett? In some respects, he remains the player he always was. A centre-back, albeit one operating on the right of a back three. A player who can head and kick the ball away from danger. Someone whose job it is to pass the ball to the nearest man in the same shirt.
The passing accuracy has improved a little, from below 76 per cent in each of his previous three seasons in the Premier League with Norwich to nearer to 80 per cent at Wolves. But that merely reflects the team’s approach. What’s cherished at Molineux are his familiar qualities that are nevertheless much needed in an otherwise less physical line-up.
Along with Willy Boly, it is Bennett who is expected to win the aerial duels and head the ball away for his team. For all the talk of Wolves playing a more attractive brand of football, those defensive duties still need to be done. What were once seen as limitations are now regarded as assets. Bennett even offers a long-throw option. There is still a role for him.
The system suits him too. Asked about his form earlier this year, Bennett cited Nuno’s attention to detail in regard to his positioning as being something that he had never had from a manager earlier in his career. Everything from the mental side of the game to the improved nutritional information has helped him to become the best player that he can be.
Was he massively misunderstood all these years? Perhaps it would have been different had Bennett made the move to Brendan Rodgers’ free-flowing Swansea side, as he so nearly did during the winter break in January 2012. Instead, the then Peterborough defender turned around somewhere near Windsor and opted to sign for Norwich instead.
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Rodgers obviously saw something in Bennett, an England U21 international at the time, and it isn’t unthinkable that he has developed differently under the likes of Lambert, Alex Neil and Chris Hughton. But Bennett isn’t some luxury playmaker whose gifts were not indulged. Even now, there is a recognition that in another team, he would not be so effective.