Bruno Lage on Wolves departure, the rise of Benfica and what makes Gonçalo Ramos so good

By FPL360


At the age of 46, Bruno Lage is undoubtedly an experienced head coach who has worked at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Benfica, and at Al-Ahli’s academy. After his time at Wolves, Lage was also reportedly a candidate to replace Portuguese national team coach Fernando Santos. In a big interview with Transfermarkt, Lage discusses his career, his exit from Wolves, his time at Benfica, where he experienced both success but also fan violence, the difference between Europe’s top leagues, and the importance of language in coaching. 

Bruno Lage: More important than the league is the actual context—it must be stimulating and a project with proper vision, strategy, and planning.

Transfermarkt: Have you been offered the opportunity to take over a new team since you left Wolves? If so, which one?

Lage: The same day my contract with Wolves was terminated, I was approached by another Premier League club. I was happy as it meant recognition for our work at Wolves and, especially, for the way we played, but I felt it was not yet the right moment to be back.  

Transfermarkt: You were invited to coach the Portuguese national team?

Lage: I noticed my name was circulating in the media, but no one from the Portuguese football federation approached me.

Transfermarkt: How do you assess your spell at Wolves?

Lage: Our first season was great. We were gradually improving from the beginning and up to December. Then, after January, in which we won all the matches and I was voted coach of the month. We were in the race for Europe. We conquered historical records, such as the eight away match winning streak, we helped develop young players, such as Max Kilman, and helped others, such as Rúben Neves, reaching high performance levels. By the end of February, we were one of the European teams with the fewest conceded goals. 

Transfermarkt: But what happened…?

Lage: Then, in April and May, some underlying problems emerged. We could not make up for the absence of important players, three of them defenders—Max, Romain Saïss, and Nélson Semedo. Ruben Neves and Daniel Podence were also out. I must confess that, beyond the injuries, the fact that we had several players ending their contracts also didn’t help secure a better record in the final matches. It was by then clear that some revamping of the squad was much warranted since the club didn’t reach an agreement to renew these expiring contracts, and the team needed strengthening—with targeted and timely reinforcements so that new players could join in the pre-season and have time to adapt to the team.

Transfermarkt: You have often expressed the wish to have a balanced and competitive squad. What exactly did you mean?

Lage: My concept of a balanced squad implies having an optimal number of players—two per position. Not too many, so that I can optimise the daily workload, but enough to compensate—at any moment—for occasional absences and unavailabilities. This is especially crucial given the length of the season in England. A competitive squad ensures healthy internal competition amongst the players: in each day, each player must know and feel that he has to fight for a spot in the next line-up.

Situation at Wolverhampton after the injuries to key strikers

Transfermarkt: After Sasa Kalajdzic’s injury and with Diego Costa only arriving late, how did the lack of a real centre-forward influence your approach? 

Lage: Starting the season without a centre-forward was clearly a limitation. The records show that, in the current season, we never lost a game with a centre-forward. We felt we already had a good knowledge of our three centre-backs and in order to have a more offensive team, we started developing a different system in the pre-season. We dropped a centre-back and put a Man closer to Raul. This rendered solid performances, and Raúl Jiménez scored one goal per game. However, in hindsight, it was somewhat risky as we only had one centre-forward. When he got injured, and there was no alternative available, we lost the dynamics we had built for six weeks in the preseason and started the Premier League without a centre-forward. 

Transfermarkt: So the worst case scenario? 

Both Sasa and Diego were perfect fits for the profile I had hoped for since the beginning of the previous season: They are different from Raul and could offer a more positional game whilst playing alongside him. The former arrived as the transfer market was closing down, played for 45 minutes, and contributed to winning that game but got severely injured; the latter arrived after Sasa’s injury and still had a long path ahead to recover and achieve the well-known Diego Costa standard.

Transfermarkt: Do you think you had been given enough time at Wolves?

Lage: It was never a matter of time, but rather a series of decisions that didn’t lead us to maintain the good work we had done in the first season.

Bruno Lage: "A series of decisions" led to Wolverhampton exit

Bruno Lage: “A series of decisions” led to Wolverhampton exit

Transfermarkt: Were you sad to leave Wolves?

Lage: Not sad, but disappointed. First, things didn’t go as planned and in line with the needs of the team. Second, because Wolves received us very well. Internally, there was a family-type environment among everyone, and the supporters were amazing. The atmosphere at Molineux was great, and even more so the away support. This was instrumental in helping us reach that away games winning record. I’m sure the supporters have fond memories from winning at Old Trafford, the performance against Tottenham, Luke Cundle’s starting XI debut or the Villa Park last-minute turnaround from 2-0 to 2-3.

Transfermarkt: How will Wolves be able to qualify for Europe in the future, with clubs like newly-rich Newcastle also challenging for the top spots?

Benfica, Swansea & Co.
Bruno Lage’s career at a glance
Lage: One year ago that was within reach. In January, our performance was improving, and we were fighting for Europe. In that transfer window, we could have been more aggressive and brought competitiveness to some key positions—such as a forward, a Man who can play inside of the box, good in the air. But this was not possible, and I respect the club’s decision. We did our best at each moment with the prevailing conditions. In football, it’s not always a matter of money; it’s mostly a matter of taking the right decisions and ensuring that the teams’ resources are aligned with the goals they are set to pursue.

Lage on experience abroad and his impressive run with Benfica

Transfermarkt: What was the main reason you went to Al Ahli when you were at Benfica’s U-17?

Lage: I spent eight amazing years at Benfica, in which I coached many teams, many youngsters who are now in top championships, and I won several titles. In 2012, I realised I needed a new challenge in order to evolve as a manager. Back then, leaving Benfica and moving to Dubai, to Al Ahli, was a very hard decision. Looking back today, I feel it was probably the most important decision in my career.

Transfermarkt: Between 2012 and 2018, you spend two years in Dubai and three years in the UK. What was that experience like?

Lage: These were both very enriching experiences that were key to my development. Dubai was my first experience outside Portugal, working on a very different type of football and in a country with an entirely different culture—it remarkably improved my adaptability. The UK experience was also crucial as it allowed me to work for three years with a top manager in Carlos Carvalhal, and top players in the Championship with Sheffield Wednesday, and the Premier League, with Swansea.

Transfermarkt: After that, you returned to Benfica. Was the championship title with Benfica your greatest success so far after making up a seven-point gap to Porto? Do you think that was the highlight of your career?

Lage: Of course… and what remains in history are the trophies one wins. But, for me, just as important as the champion title or conquering the Super Cup was the way we did it. We played attacking football, created a lot of chances and scored a lot of goals. We finished the 2018/19 season with the title, Benfica’s 37th, and equaled Benfica’s record of 103 goals in a championship, which was in place since 1963/64. We had the best second half of the season ever, with 16 wins and one draw.

Transfermarkt: Impressive stats that weren’t easy to repeat…

Lage: We started the following season with a 5-0 victory in the Super Cup against Sporting. Despite the departure of important players, the team continued to have a very good record. We had the best first half of the season ever, with 16 wins and one defeat. In that period, we achieved the best run of away wins, 17. From January 2019 to the end of January 2020, we regained a seven-point lead. In February, after 13 months, we had our first slump in performance. We lost the lead and in March, COVID arrived, and within a few weeks, as results fell short of expected, the president made the decision to sack us.

Bruno Lage with the Portuguese league title in 2019

Bruno Lage with the Portuguese league title in 2019

Transfermarkt: Do you think they were unfair to you at Benfica? Should they have given you more time to implement your project?

Lage: In the first season, we recovered from being behind by seven points, and in the following season, at the end of the first run of fixtures, we were the ones with a seven-point lead. We lost it with the first drop in performance in 13 months. When the championship restarted after the pandemic break, we played at home in the Estadio da Luz. We had a good performance but missed several chances, and we felt the absence of the fans—playing in a stadium without fans was a new and memorable experience, and I feel that with them, we could have won that match. Despite the draw, we were level on points with the first-placed team. That night, our bus was attacked, and Julian Weigl and Andrija Zivkovic were injured. The homes of several players were vandalised. A climate of great instability was generated around the team.

Transfermarkt: A difficult time that was not without consequences?

Lage: I feel that, with five league games left to play and the final of the Portuguese Cup still to be played, we could have finished the season. And then, with time and calmness, the best decision would be made for everyone, particularly for Benfica. It is not about being fair or not. It was the president’s decision that we must respect. The project was not mine; it was Benfica’s, although I was part of it for a long time. I got the chance to coach in a club with the magnitude of Benfica at all the levels since U11, and I was the national champion with the main team, having only kids from the B team as reinforcements in January.

Transfermarkt: How far do you think Benfica can go in the Champions League this year? Can a Portuguese club ever think of winning the competition again?

Lage: Benfica’s squad is very balanced, not only the starting XI. Despite leading the league, they still signed new players with quality and who bring competitiveness to the squad, as is the case of Gonçalo Guedes. In the Champions League, they had an excellent run, they are in the last 16 as a group leader, and if they reach the quarter-finals, anything can happen.

Transfermarkt: How do you see Rui Costa as a president since you have worked with him as a sporting director? 

Guedes the most valuable
Benfica’s squad at a glance
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Lage: I’m quite familiar with Rui Costa’s ideas. President Costa put into practice his ideas for building a squad. He accurately identified who was still able to perform at Benfica, looked inside and brought the best youngsters to work with the main team, and looked outwards to bring undisputable quality reinforcements who add value. I still recall some years ago when I was still working in the Academy when he insisted on bringing top players such as Pablo Aimar. So I’m not surprised to see him as president bringing in top players such as Enzo Fernández.

Transfermarkt: What do you think of Roger Schmidt’s Benfica?

Lage: Costa had enough time to choose the coach who could best implement and complement his ideas. He brought in Schmidt, and things have been working out quite well. Benfica plays very well, is leading the championship, and went through the Champions League group stage in the first position. The relationship between the president and the manager is crucial to sustaining a club’s project.

Transfermarkt: What do you think about Gonçalo Ramos? How good he is?

Lage: It’s easy to talk about Gonçalo Ramos now, especially after the World Cup and the last derby against Sporting (he scored a brace in a 2-2 draw). He’s a high-performing athlete with great potential. I think he’s akin to Jiménez in the way he makes himself available to the press and in the offensive dynamics he offers a team. He scores, he’s strong in the air, he dominates the space and the times in and outside the box, and he plays between the lines. Portugal has many high-quality strikers, and Gonçalo Ramos is one of them.

Transfermarkt: You’ve left your mark on men’s football and also on youth football. What is particularly important in the training of young football players?

Lage: Planning is the most important thing. In professional football, planning is guided by the competition so as to help the team, and the players win the next game because it is imperative to have immediate results. In youth teams, planning is usually aligned with a medium and long-term vision and strategy. It should be more comprehensive, considering various contents according to the level of development and age group. Only in this way can the athlete’s evolution ever materialize. Still, even in professional football, the way me and my team work does not neglect the individual side of our athletes so that their evolution is ongoing and their performance is optimized.

Lage on the difference between the Portuguese league to other competitions

Transfermarkt: What are the biggest differences between the Portuguese League, Premier League, and the Bundesliga?

Lage: Although my experience is restricted to the Portuguese league and the Premier League, I have been following the Bundesliga regularly for many years. In the Premier League and in the Bundesliga, the game is always played at very high intensity and with very few stops, which increases the playing time. In Germany, in particular, the games are very disputed and balanced, with constant pressure. With three or four passes, any team has the capacity to create a goal opportunity and change the game direction. There is also an important difference compared to the Portuguese league, which is mainly cultural: there is a huge support for the teams, with the stadiums always full, regardless of the teams that are playing.

Transfermarkt: In terms of Portuguese football: In your opinion, what would be the biggest change needed to reach the level of the top five leagues?

Lage: It would be important to have a closer relationship between the clubs, joining efforts to understand the current moment and envisage the future of the Portuguese league. In the best leagues in the World, you find Portuguese players, and Portuguese coaches, and we can even find Portuguese referees in other national competitions. There is a lot of potential to improve our league. It would also be important to create conditions for our league to be competitive for these individuals of excellence, although financial constraints are difficult to counter. To do so, it may be important to invest in the way our football is seen abroad, to promote our product in order to attract investment 

Transfermarkt: How important do you think language is for a head coach? Can any coach work anywhere these days without any loss of quality? 

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Lage: Language is important, and nowadays there is a greater emphasis on learning languages other than English, such as German or French. In the case of football, there is an immediate effort to learn as quickly as possible the language of the country that welcomes us and, in particular, the football terminology. I had this experience in Dubai. Without mastering the language, I worked with a translator always nearby, and it worked very well. There is no doubt that language is important, but the most important thing is the way the coach communicates. Nowadays, technology has evolved in such a way that you can get detailed images of what is happening in training and in the game, and sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. In this context, I don’t believe that language should be a determining factor in hiring a coach.

Transfermarkt: In Germany, there are often only coaches who speak German. In other countries, however, some foreign coaches are celebrating great success. The best example is Schmidt at Benfica. How can you explain that?

Lage: More important than nationality is to ensure that the club hires a coach who is identified with the club’s vision and strategy. There are several examples of success outside the English context. Schmidt at Benfica is a good example, as was Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich in Germany or Jose Mourinho who, in addition to winning the Italian national competitions, also conquered the Champions League with Inter Milan.


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