Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Toti Gomes interview: Wolves defender on being mentally strong and taking his opportunity under Gary O’Neil -Dlight News

It was the clever footwork of Wolves defender Toti Gomes that brought their breakthrough goal against Fulham last time out in the Premier League. He controlled the ball with his left foot and passed the ball to Rayan Ait-Nouri with his right.

Two perfect touches, but it was not even his best assist of the season. That came against Newcastle in October when he found himself on the right wing, and dropped the shoulder to beat his marker before threading the ball through to Hee-Chan Hwang.

“It was a good moment,” Toti tells Sky Sports. Not what you might expect from a 6’3″ defender? He disagrees. “Sometimes I do this in training,” he insists. “I was in a position more at the front of the pitch and I knew I could do it. I was confident I could do it.”

Toti’s self-belief has been more than justified, emerging as one of the surprises of the season. The 25-year-old Portuguese defender, a £1m signing from Estoril four summers ago, was not even in the Wolves starting line-up at the beginning of the campaign.

He has since gone on to become an important figure, embodying the can-do spirit of Gary O’Neil’s team as they chase a European spot. Toti was recently rewarded with a new contract, having made his international debut for Portugal in November.

“I am feeling good. I am having the minutes that I have always wanted to have so that I can show my football. I am enjoying being out there with the guys and learning a lot game by game. I always make sure that every time I play, I give the best of myself.”

Wolves have been a better team with Toti in it. After losing four of their first five Premier League games under O’Neil, he came into the side against reigning champions Manchester City in late September and played a key role in an unexpected 2-1 win at Molineux.

His front-foot defending in that game was instrumental, adding dynamism to Wolves’ defence. The ability to step out and win the ball even earned him another assist when his header found Hwang for the Korean’s second goal in a 4-1 win at Brentford in December.

Wolves have picked up 37 points from their 22 games since then, with Toti starting all but one of them. When he did drop out because of a change of system against Fulham, he was back on the pitch before half-time and providing that assist for the opening goal.

Picking him was the turning point, then? “This is not about one player,” says Toti. “This is one team. This is the idea that the coach has been telling us to do. Of course, we did not start well. But afterwards, the chemistry was better and we started to do well.”

His humility might best be explained by his journey to the Premier League. This is no teenage prodigy like so many of his peers. Toti had barely featured in Estoril’s first team when picked up by Wolves and immediately loaned to Switzerland’s second tier.

He helped Grasshoppers to promotion before eventually making his Wolves debut under Bruno Lage, featuring more under Julen Lopetegui, before finally prospering under O’Neil. His rise is illustrated by his relationship with some of his team-mates.

The age gap to Nelson Semedo, the man operating on the other flank in this Wolves team, might not seem so big but his 30-year-old compatriot was playing alongside Lionel Messi for Barcelona when Toti was still dreaming of a career in the game.

“I was not yet a professional because I started late. I watched him at home, watching the games on TV with my father. I remember it very well so it is good to be with these guys and learning every day from them in training. I am really happy to be here with them.”

It is the sort of spirit that has endeared him to this group.

“I always knew the quality that he had,” Semedo tells Sky Sports.

“I knew straight away when he came from his loan that he was a worker and that he had a good relationship with the ball, very strong, very quick. This did not surprise me because I knew how good he is. It was the right choice to bring him back from loan.”

Before long, O’Neil recognised that too.

“He had to wait his time,” O’Neil tells Sky Sports. “But he is such a good professional that he never showed any disappointment and was never wavering. The gaffer had asked him to do something so he did it. And he just started to show that he was ready.”

Wolves defender Toti Gomes' defensive action areas
Image:
Wolves defender Toti Gomes’ defensive action areas

The importance of that attitude can hardly be overstated, particularly as O’Neil asserted himself. “He is not only massively important to the team but massively important to the group and the standards we want. He is one of the good ones.”

What does Toti think of those words? “I have always been like this, even when I was not playing,” he explains.

“Of course, everybody wants to play but sometimes you have to wait for your moment and it will come – even if it can take time. When that opportunity comes, you have to make sure you take it and do well. I tried to always make sure I was ready for that opportunity.

“Mentally, I am always very strong.”

Toti has often been used as a left-sided centre-back in a back three but the role is a little more complicated than that because he frequently finds himself operating as a left-back with Ait-Nouri roaming forward. Being able to adjust is part of his remit.

O’Neil believes in him as a left-back. “Especially when we keep him low in the build,” he says. “He can do both.” As for Toti, the message from him is that he can handle it. “Gary has been telling me to do this and that and it has been going well. I feel comfortable.”

Is it not challenging, tactically?

“Not really because we have been doing this in training. Of course, every team is different, the way that they play and different players, sometimes I have some different roles in defence. But I am used to it now and I feel comfortable to do it on the pitch.”

He adds: “There are little details, the way he explains it, and it really makes a difference. When he has been teaching us on the training pitch, it has been very easy to get the information so that afterwards when we go to the pitch, we can do it very easily.”

With O’Neil’s help, it has earned him his place in the Wolves team – and the Portugal one too. “It was a really proud moment for me and my family, something that I always wanted to achieve.” Having made it this far, there is no sign of Toti Gomes letting up now.

“I am going to keep working.”

Watch Aston Villa vs Wolves live on Sky Sports Premier League this Saturday from 5pm; kick-off 5.30pm

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