Reaction and Player Ratings : Manchester United 0-1 Wolves

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Manchester United have suffered home defeats to Aston Villa, Liverpool and Manchester City this season – and Wolves can add their name to the list after Joao Moutinho’s fine late strike gave the visitors a fully deserved victory at Old Trafford.

Ralf Rangnick tasted defeat for the first time but it was a familiar story for the supporters within the home ground, and, to be frank, it wouldn’t have been too surprising for the new manager considering the trend of performances since he took the job.

The manager made a couple of surprising selections – keeping Bruno Fernandes on the bench, despite his return from suspension, and keeping faith with the 4-4-2 shape – and the recall of Phil Jones, following an injury crisis at centre-back, which gave the former England defender his first start in two years.

It could be a case of absence making the heart grow fonder – Jones was given a rapturous welcome by the home crowd, but his last appearance was in a home defeat to Burnley, his appearance before that had been at Sheffield United where he’d been brought off at half-time, and prior to that he had been confusingly selected by Jose Mourinho in the 2018 FA Cup Final where he conceded the match-winning penalty. Still, Jones put in a decent shift today – finishing the game as probably the best player for the hosts.

That dubious honour could be shared by De Gea. In the first half Wolves had over a dozen shots, the most in a single half by a visiting team since Opta started recording stats almost twenty years ago. They were aggressive and pro-active in midfield, frequently cutting the defence open, and it seemed United needed half-time for intervention from their manager.

Rangnick resolved to make another formation change. The 4-4-2 became a 3-4-2-1, with Greenwood and Cavani dropping off Ronaldo and Wan-Bissaka moving to right wing-back with Luke Shaw as the left-sided centre-half and Jadon Sancho at left wing-back.

It was a shift that brought United into the game. They were never controlling of the pace, but their urgency seemed to increase. Bruno Fernandes was brought on for Mason Greenwood, who had seemed the liveliest forward. Fernandes (who had hit the bar) took a free-kick from which Ronaldo thought he’d scored, only to be ruled offside.

But Wolves began to settle again and when they brought on Adama Traore, it was clear they were going to try and exploit the space around Luke Shaw. It had instant benefits for the visitors. Traore was hauled down at one point, with Saiss’ free-kick hitting the bar, and then the forward went surging again down the right – his ball into the area eventually found its way to Moutinho on the edge of the box. The veteran midfielder was composed and drilled his shot neatly into the corner.

United barely threatened after that – Wolves ended with confidence, outplaying the hosts embarrassingly. There was one final chance for an unlikely point when Jones made a late dash to be brought down – Fernandes hit a free-kick but Jose Sa, finally called into action worth writing about, made a good save. A win was fully deserved for Bruno Lage’s team.

United, meanwhile, suffered all the sorts of problems we’ve come to expect from them. Scott McTominay’s performance was very poor, the requirement for some consistent crossing from the right has never been more evident, and the lack of cohesion through all sides of the team continues to ring alarm bells.

One manager suffered all sorts of abuse with his inexperience justifiably being brought into question. His successor has the reputation of being a tactical innovator but is rifling through his systems only to find United’s players seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding or incompatibility with any of them.

Maybe that’s partly due to the fact that between the managers who signed them, and even within the individual management eras, players seemed to have been brought in with no thought to the complementary abilities of the existing squad. But that seems like too much of an easy excuse for these players who have been content to take them all and just post things like ‘we go again’ on social media. Only Cristiano Ronaldo, with his angry new year’s missive, seems to understand the privilege and responsibility of playing for this club. The others seem happy to ride the wave of the high profile they have, believing that being there is enough to prove that they deserve to be.

Those players started the season with expectations of a title challenge following a second-placed finish. By January they are outsiders for a Champions League push.

Do they have any pride in their own accomplishments at the club? Maybe they do. Maybe we’re being too harsh. Maybe they were hugely overachieving to get in the Champions League the last two seasons. If they weren’t stung by the criticism from performances against the worst teams in the league to be inspired to provide something better than what they put on for the fans today, that now has to be a serious question.

Selection/Tactics

As explained above, Fernandes was on the bench and Jones was called in – after winning against Burnley, it made some sense for Rangnick to stay as close as he could to the sort of system that brought three points.

It was very clear very early on that Wolves were not going to be as submissive as Burnley and United’s boss changed it up at half-time. Greenwood was unfortunate to be hooked but Fernandes had to come on – could he have been introduced for McTominay, who was erratic? But the big head scratcher came in the substitution of Sancho. He hadn’t played particularly well, but his replacement at left wing-back was Rashford. And Rashford was then moved to the right wing-back position, with Elanga coming on the left.

In one promising break, Rashford had Fernandes in acres of space – and hit his pass with so much power it looked deliberately overhit. It wasn’t – Rashford’s confidence looks completely shot, and isn’t likely to grow if he’s filling in as an emergency right-back.

So that’s a 4-2-2-2, a 4-4-2 and a 3-4-2-1 trialled by Rangnick, all systems which the players have managed to make look as complicated as rocket science. Ball goes where? We stand where?

These things take time. But each passing game increases doubt over the players, each passing game increases the suspicion that they were happy to let Solskjaer receive the bulk of the criticism, and each passing game indicates that the new boss does not have a clear sign of how to progress in either formation or personnel. All of which is extremely concerning when this is supposed to be the new manager bounce.

Ratings

De Gea 7

Wan-Bissaka 4

Jones 6

Varane 5

Shaw 5

McTominay 4

Matic 5

Greenwood 6

Sancho 5

Ronaldo 5

Cavani 5

Subs

Fernandes 5

Rashford

Elanga

Wayne Barton

Wayne is a writer and producer. His numerous books on Manchester United include the family-authorised biography of Jimmy Murphy. He wrote and produced the BT Sport films 'Too Good To Go Down' in 2018, and 'True Genius', in 2021, both adapted from his books of the same name. In 2015 he was described by the Independent as the 'leading writer on Manchester United' and former club chairman Martin Edwards has described him as 'the pre-eminent writer on the club'.

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