Goncalo Guedes exclusive interview: Wolves winger on Bruno Lage reunion and adapting to the Premier League
At first, Goncalo Guedes refused. Bruno Lage, his coach in the Benfica academy, had proposed a bet while on a visit to Madrid for a tournament. He would get a haircut like Cristiano Ronaldo, but only if the young winger got a Mohawk like Mario Balotelli.
Eventually, and much to the amusement of his team-mates,
Guedes came back with a counterproposal. He would get the Mohawk, but it would be inverted; shaved through the middle, but with enough on the sides, he hoped, to conceal the damage.
Lage happily accepted and, needlessly to say, it was Guedes who came out of it worse, his inverted Mohawk so ridiculous that he had little choice but to shave off the sides as well.
“I was 14 or 15 but I had been moved up a year, so I was the youngest in the group,” Guedes tells Sky Sports with a chuckle as he recalls the episode. “I was a bit young and crazy. I joked with the manager a lot. After that, we always had a good relationship.”
Guedes would go on to break into Benfica’s first team, subsequently moving to Paris Saint-Germain and then Valencia. But he always kept an eye on Lage’s career. A decade on, they are reunited, Guedes having joined Wolves from Valencia for £27.5m in August.
His pre-existing relationship with the manager helped.
“When I was young, the míster had already won a lot of championships at youth level with Benfica,” says Guedes.
“He also coached my brother, who was a goalkeeper, two years older than me. So, I was aware of him from then onwards.
“I think the career he has had shows his level,” he adds. “He has obviously done really well and reached the Premier League.
“I am very happy to be here and I hope to learn a lot from him.”
Guedes, scorer of 11 goals in 36 games for Valencia last season, spoke to Lage at length before making the move. He also picked the brains of the club’s various Portuguese speakers, many of whom he knows well from the country’s national team.
“They told me the Premier League is a completely different league to the others,” he says. “I think everyone who understands and watches football can see that it is the strongest league in the world.
“That was the main motivation, to play in the Premier League, to be in great stadiums where the stands are always full, home and away. It is just a completely different atmosphere.
“The people are…” Guedes pauses as he searches for the right words. “Well, in Spain and Portugal, they are all about ‘football, football, football’, and don’t respect the players as much.
“Here, though, we can walk in the street and, of course, people know who we are. But if we are with friends or family, they respect that. They continue supporting us, too, even when we are losing.
“To be here, playing in the Premier League, is something I have always wanted and I am enjoying it a lot.” Even the weather? “I just put on a jacket,” he says, grinning. “I am pleased with my decision.”
Guedes is speaking at Wolves’ training ground ahead of Saturday’s trip to West Ham and he already feels comfortable in his new surroundings. “That side of it has been very easy,” he says. “Of course, it helps that there are so many Portuguese players.”
Out on the pitch, however, the process of adaptation has not been straightforward.
The 25-year-old has only shown glimpses of his considerable talent so far and results have been poor, one win from seven games leaving Wolves 17th in the Premier League table, two points above the relegation zone with only three goals scored.
“I think the team deserves a lot more than it has got,” says Guedes. “We have played very well in some games and had a lot of chances; we just haven’t taken them. This comes with work, with education, with believing in what the míster is telling us to do.
“I am sure things will improve and the wins will come. Then, when things are better collectively, the individuals can show their best selves as well, and that is what we want.”
For Guedes, the difficult start to the season meant he was left out of the latest Portugal squad to face Czech Republic and Spain in the Nations League. But, having missed pre-season with Wolves, his disappointment at not receiving a call-up was tempered by the opportunity to spend the international break getting up to speed.
“The last two weeks have been really good for my adaptation. I needed that time to train with the team and better understand our way of playing. I feel better now. I know very well what I have to do.
“I have improved a lot and I have got used to the way we train, the intensity and all these things.
“Of course, going with the national team is a huge source of pride.” Guedes has scored seven goals in 32 appearances for Portugal since making his debut as an 18-year-old in 2015. “But I also understand there are a lot of players to choose from.
“I have to accept the coach’s decision and work hard to win back my place for the World Cup.”
The hard work is already under way.
Guedes’ offensive qualities – his speed, one-on-one ability and penchant for scoring spectacular goals – are not in doubt. But there is an acceptance that his off-the-ball work needs to improve dramatically in the frantic toing and froing of the Premier League.
“The mister wants me to be able to contribute as much as possible offensively, to have the ball, to make us play, to receive it inside, to receive it outside, all of these things,” he says.
“But above all, and something I have to improve a lot, is that when I lose the ball, I get it back quickly. I am trying to change a few things so I am able to attack and defend with the same intensity.
“The change in intensity is very big in the Premier League. In Spain, you can lose the ball and not be punished, because usually the opposition won’t transition forward very quickly.
“But here, in the Premier League, when you lose it, all the teams want to move it forward as quickly as possible in order to exploit the spaces that are available and have a better chance of scoring.
“It means what you do when you lose the ball is much more important.”
Guedes made 178 appearances over the course of his five seasons at Valencia – “I felt at home there,” he says – and his last one was his best yet, largely due to a change of position which saw him move from the flanks to the centre, forming part of a front two with Uruguay international Maxi Gomez.
“Of course, I felt very comfortable in that position,” he says. “But I wasn’t only in the middle. The manager, Jose Bordalas, gave me freedom to move around in all directions. It turned out very well.”
Does he expect the same positional freedom at Wolves? They are, after all, struggling badly for goals.
“Here, the system is a bit different,” he says. “Of course, the míster has his own idea of how he wants to play, but you have to be ready to do whatever is asked of you.
“I think he sees me as more of a winger, playing on the right or left flank, than a striker, but that is the position I have played almost all of my career, except for last season, so I am happy to play there.”
Besides, Guedes is more than capable of providing a threat from those areas, cutting inside and driving towards the opposition box, and he now has a new target to aim for in Diego Costa, the former Chelsea and Atletico Madrid striker arriving on a free transfer earlier this month.
“Diego is a very good person, very happy, very funny, and very good for a dressing room. He has arrived with a good mentality. He wants to work, and with his experience in big clubs and the quality he has, he can help us a lot.
“He is progressing well and that is good news for us because he is a player we know can do a lot damage if he gets back to his normal form. We have to help him so that he can give us his best level and help us much as possible on the pitch.
“We have a very good squad generally,” he adds. “We have had a few injuries which have hurt us, but things will improve when more players are at 100 per cent. I am sure we will start climbing the table.”
Older and wiser than he was at Benfica, Guedes is also sure he won’t be accepting any more bets from Lage any time soon. “My focus is on getting as many goals and assists as I can,” he says with a smile. “But above all, I want to help the team. That is the most important thing.”
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