Manchester United set a new record for being unbeaten in away games in top flight football – but were extremely fortunate to get away with anything at Molineux.
Having scarcely deserved a single point, Mason Greenwood’s late goal got Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side all three, as the home team were left to pay the price for the profligate finishing that has left them without a goal from their start to the season.
With Scott McTominay injured, and Raphael Varane fit to play, Solskjaer went with a bold midfield of Pogba and Fred. It’s safe to say it did not work.
An early concern came in the third minute when Traore got the ball on the edge of his own box and approached Pogba. Out of nowhere, Fred over-committed into a challenge he didn’t need to make and was horribly out of position – Wolves broke 3 on 3, but didn’t make the most of it.
Two minutes later Fred was all at sea and Wolves were even closer – the Brazilian horribly controlled a loose ball was nowhere with his attempt at a tackle and was grateful for Wan-Bissaka blocking a goal-bound shot. The pace of the home attack, and erratic display in United’s midfield, was delighting the Molineux crowd.
Having survived the first ten minutes, Jadon Sancho was next to make an anxious error – heading wayward in his own box, presenting a chance to Joao Moutinho, who fired over. We were beginning to see why Solskjaer resisted the temptation to be as risky last week – United were fortunate to still be in the game by the 15th minute.
Despite getting away with it, United never seemed to settle, as Pogba and Fred in the middle were – as they have proven to do so often – all-too-often drawn to the ball instead of concentrating on their space. On the half-hour, Solskjaer was afforded a chance to address his team early on, when Fernandes received treatment.
United were still poor, but marginally better, and created two moments worthy of note – Fernandes had the ball in the net, but was offside, and then he magnificently flicked the ball through to Greenwood, who fired just wide, just before half-time.
This United team have slowly improved their own resolve without needing intervention from the manager – but this was an occasion where his input was needed, as his team were lucky to get to half-time scoreless. On this evidence, Cristiano Ronaldo would be more likely to be frustrated by the side’s shortcomings than he would be to resolve them.
Solskjaer made no changes at half-time – but early in the second period he made the decision to replace James with Cavani, clearly not seeing the midfield as problematic as most observers. It was Fred who actually had the first chance of the second period for United, a volley from the edge of the box which dropped safely for the home goalkeeper.
Just after the hour mark both sides had decent openings but couldn’t get the finish right, as Traore’s pace and Pogba’s invention continued to be the key qualities of their respective sides.
Wolves then had the best chance of the game when Saiss got his head on to a corner – De Gea’s block on the line was great. But the ball fell to Saiss again, and he had another effort – and De Gea’s save this time was even better.
The home side were in the ascendency, sensing the taste of blood from a United team who just could not get properly going and were not addressing their problems. The only barrier between Wolves and a goal was their lack of confidence of somehow not get scoring this season.
Martial came on for the poor Sancho, which was effectively an admission that this was the best Solskjaer felt he could come up with in midfield.
In the 80th minute the unthinkable happened – Fernandes went close with a ball close to the byline. From the resulting passage of play, Pogba and Neves contested a ball. Neves won it, but it went to Varane.
Neves went down, claiming a free-kick with a delayed reaction, but Mike Dean ignored it – Varane played the ball to Greenwood, who had so much to do, but did his traditional step-over and fired the ball past the goalkeeper into the far corner. It was an exceptional finish and the home crowd seemed incense by the daylight robbery that seemed to be on.
The hosts seemed distracted by what they perceived to be poor officiating, but the truth is they only had themselves to blame.
United most certainly got away with it, as Solskjaer marked his 100th game as manager with a win. If they are to challenge for the title as most people expect now that Ronaldo is on his way, then they are going to need to be much better than this.
After years of the debate of whether Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was inherently pragmatic or being cautious to fit the scenario – the scenario being United’s weak defence – it appeared that we finally had the answer with Raphael Varane making his debut.
Granted, his selection was impacted by the injury to Scott McTominay, so we will still wait and see, but forced into a corner, the manager came out firing with a team shape that fit in more of his attacking stars than defensive ones. So Daniel James was in for Matic, and Pogba was moved into central midfield, after his impressive performances on the left.
There could have been a grumble that Van De Beek could have had James’ spot, and that was a grumble that would have been justified depending on whether the control of the game from United’s point of view as impacted.
There is an argument that says Van De Beek is better on the ball than Fred, and that’s not really in doubt, but Fred’s position in this team is ostensibly down to his better defensive work. It was non-existent in this match – so the point has to surely be that Van De Beek is worth trying, with the request that he is disciplined. Perhaps it’s unfair on Fred – that he’s being asked to do something he’s capable of – but his style of play seems most effective alongside McTominay as a breaker-up in big games. As a single body tasked with that job, it doesn’t work, and worse than that, it repeatedly invites danger – it’s not the sort of hazard Solskjaer can avoid.
It’s romantic that Ronaldo is back, but, this isn’t the old traditional ‘United make it hard for themselves before coming back’ stuff. It’s a significant issue that needs addressing if United are to challenge and Solskjaer is going to have to find an effective balance for the team if he doesn’t get to bring in another midfielder.
But let’s be clear – it was the personnel and not the shape that was the issue. If United did not have Varane and Wan-Bissaka, the defence would not have been able to hold out in the way they did. It would have been a lost match in the same way as many others in recent years. The team is progressing, but Solskjaer is going to have to at the same time to be more proactive. He was lucky today.
De Gea 8
Greenwood goal vs Wolves (0-1)
— United Focus🔰 (@utdfocusid) August 29, 2021