Manchester United were unfortunate to be beaten 2-1 by Wolves at Molineux on Tuesday evening but there is little margin for error now. Adam Bate takes a look at the positives and negatives for United…
How Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must be sick of Molineux. For all the talk from both camps of how this would be a very different game to the FA Cup quarter-final between the teams last month, Wolves beat Manchester United 2-1 once again. Having already been denied their best chance of a trophy here, United’s top-four ambitions have now taken a major dent too.
In truth, it was a different kind of game and United were far from poor. They started strongly, taking the lead through Scott McTominay, and had 12 shots to Wolves’ two in the second half despite seeing Ashley Young sent off before the hour mark. The only two saves that David de Gea made after the interval were from Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof.
With Rui Patricio in fine form at the other end, it was that sort of evening and Solskjaer argued as much afterwards by reminding everyone that this is football, not mathematics. “You cannot control the result can you? We can control what we do on the pitch, performance wise, and we have played well enough tonight to win the game.”
Nevertheless, it will grate with Solskjaer that both goals his team conceded were sloppy ones – the sort of mistakes that can undermine any good work. “We created our own downfall really,” he admitted. That’s three defeats in four games now. A bit of the shine that he has managed to put on the second half of United’s season is in danger of being removed.
At least Solskjaer will feel contented that he responded to the tactical challenge, changing his formation by asking Young to play as a part of a three-man defence. The plan seemed to be to match up against Wolves rather than find themselves outmanoeuvred as they had been in the cup tie and despite the six changes there was some fluency early on.
“I thought Ash gave us the outlet to go forward and create some moments down that side,” Solskjaer explained. His Wolves counterpart Nuno Espirito Santo saw it much the same way. “United started very well,” said Nuno. “They controlled the game with the way they shaped the game. Ashley Young as the third man caused a lot of problems.”
The trust in McTominay, given his first start since that night in Paris, was vindicated too. Aside from his sweetly struck goal, the first of his United career, he was a presence throughout and was brilliantly denied a second from point-blank range by Patricio. He finished the game having had more shots than any other player on the pitch.
“Scott has never let us down and he never disappoints when he plays,” said Solskjaer. “Today was another fine performance by Scotty. It won’t be hard to see him playing many, many games for United because he is so athletic and he can play in many positions. Today we feel that’s his best position as a high midfielder so I was very pleased with him.”
But not everything about this United line-up worked so well. Diogo Jota had plenty of joy dropping into the space where Smalling was unwilling to go and Fred was unable to cover. When the latter did sit in, his poor control in that pivotal midfield role allowed Joao Moutinho to dispossess him and Jimenez set up Jota to equalise.
Fred appeared a little unnerved by that and was almost dispossessed twice more because of clumsy first touches, but for all the early promise it was Young’s error that gave Wolves renewed belief. He had been fortunate not to get booked in the first half after pulling Jota back but two more fouls on the same player brought his evening to an abrupt conclusion.