THREE successive defeats to start the season gave an ominous air to Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 2021-22 campaign.
The Black County club had a new manager, Bruno Lage, with new ideas, but the style of play he was trying to implement – more front-foot and attack-minded than his predecessor, Nuno Espirito Santo – wasn’t yielding results.
Worst of all, Wolves couldn’t score. They failed to find the net in defeats to Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United.
Fast-forward a month and Wolves, though hardly prolific, have won three of their last four Premier League games and appear to now boast one of the division’s most effective partnerships in the form of Hwang Hee-chan and Raul Jimenez.
Hwang was signed on loan from RB Leipzig in the last days of the summer transfer window and he made a quick impression in his debut. Coming off the bench against Watford with just under half an hour to play at Vicarage Road, he started on the left wing but found himself between Ben Foster’s goalposts as he bundled the ball into the net to seal a 2-0 victory and Wolves’ first three points of the season.
His brace in the 2-1 Molineux win over Newcastle on 2 October means he is already his new club’s leading scorer this term. And the calm ruthlessness with which he dispatched his finishes against Steve Bruce’s side was somewhat surprising considering he’s not been an especially clinical forward for most of his career.
ℎ ℎ ℎ !
It feels familiar… pic.twitter.com/PD5ld7Om4U
— Wolves (@Wolves) October 2, 2021
Hwang scored a memorable goal against Liverpool in the Champions League while playing for Red Bull Salzburg in 2019-20, turning away from Virgil van Dijk before firing into the top corner. But the South Korean international largely acted as the hard-working, low-scoring foil to Erling Haaland that season. His four seasons in the Salzburg first team yielded a modest 45 goals from 126 appearances. One campaign on loan with Hamburg in Germany’s second tier brought only two goals from 29 games, and at international level he has scored just six times in 39 caps.
It was much the same at RB Leipzig, too, with just three goals to his name last season after a bout with Covid left him struggling to recover fitness and often a substitute under now-Bayern Munich manager Julian Nagelsmann.
But it is the bustling physicality to Hwang’s game, allied with creativity and raw pace, that earned him the move to the Red Bull empire’s showpiece side, and thus a loan now to the Premier League. It is also the reason he was given the nickname “the Bull”, a fitting moniker for a Molineux forward, given the fact former England striker Steve Bull’s name is still sung from the terraces thanks to 306 goals in 12 years in old gold.
"I don't know where that name came from, it started just like that,” Hwang, who is able to play wide on the left of centrally as a striker, told Sky Sports of his nickname. “Maybe it is my playing style, I am aggressive and I try to break through any opponent who is defending me. I think that is what the fans expect. I want to show that for them in my performance.
“My way of playing is quite aggressive and fearless. Especially when I watch myself playing on television, I can understand why they call me The Bull."
Hwang’s emergence has coincided perfectly with the return to form and fitness of Jimenez. The Mexican striker suffered a horrific head injury last season, fracturing his skull in a challenge with David Luiz, then of Arsenal.
Jimenez returned to action in pre-season, but – understandably – it took him the first month of the term to rediscover his comfort and confidence on the pitch, scoring his first goal of 2021-22 in a 1-0 win away at Southampton on 26 September.
And Jimenez assisted both of Hwang’s strikes against Newcastle, with one eye-catching moment in particular standing out as evidence of how devastatingly the pair can dovetail. Collecting the ball 40 yards from goal, the former Atletico Madrid man spun away from two defenders before sliding through an inch-perfect ball for Hwang, whose pace carried him clear to finish.
Theirs is a partnership that might never have gotten the chance to develop had the gifted and versatile Pedro Neto not been ruled out long-term with a knee injury. But with the Mexican’s hold-up play and aerial prowess, and the South Korean’s speed and newfound prolific touch, Jimenez and Hwang have the makings of one of the Premier League’s most profitable pairs.