Manchester United draw vs Wolves leaves them with a decision to make – Samuel Luckhurst
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s bubble of positivity may not be pricked by a point earned at a team who inflicted two defeats on him in the spring yet even he is unlikely to regard it as a positive one.
At a club where there is no longer an official captain, Manchester United lacked leadership and preparation for the simple task of selecting a penalty taker in the 70th minute with the scoreline deadlocked. Marcus Rashford has an immaculate record and had converted from 12 yards eight days earlier against Chelsea. Paul Pogba scored eight last term and also failed three times over. Pogba took it. You could have guessed the outcome.
Pogba discarded his stuttered run-up but placed the ball well within Rui Patricio’s reach and he palmed it into the night sky. Pogba appeared to hold a quick conversation with Rashford to decide on the taker yet, with United’s captain stood near his goal line, there was no other senior individual to intervene and place the ball in Rashford’s hands. Roy Keane once prevented a goalless Diego Forlan from breaking his duck with United 3-0 up in a Champions League qualifier against Zalagerszeg.
“There wasn’t a leader on the pitch,” Gary Neville bemoaned. United need to address the captaincy issue.
This was always going to be a more accurate indication of what kind of a team this United is than the drubbing of Chelsea. They fielded their youngest XI since the final day of 2016-17, when there were four debutants and the naivety was patent even with the presence of a figure as seasoned and successful as Pogba. Still, a point is a measure of progress.
United will rue the self-inflicted manner of Ruben Neves’ leveller, when impact substitute Adama Traore, outnumbered by three-to-one, secured a free-kick to spark havoc. United’s defence buckled amid the bombardment and Solskjaer had warned them of Wolves’ set-piece threat in advance.
This was also a chance for United to return to the Premier League summit outright for the first time in 695 days. Even at this early juncture, that would have provided Solskjaer with another feather in his cap, only he was also hesitant. United did not make a substitution until the final 10 minutes with the introduction of Juan Mata and the full debutant Daniel James was granted an excessive amount of playing time on a jittery evening.
James started shakily and an early pep talk from Solskjaer failed to arrest his struggles. He was cautioned for diving on 24 minutes, albeit harshly, by referee Jon Moss when Joao Moutinho had made slight contact. It was clear during pre-season United had signed another left winger to whom the right is anathema and at Wolves it was abundant. James seemed shackled and his crossing technique was largely that of a Championship winger. Solskjaer did say it would not be a ‘quick fix’ and eventually withdrew James for Mason Greenwood.
Things had been going so swimmingly in the first-half Solskjaer visibly impacted the game from the technical area for the breakthrough. He and Kieran McKenna were urging Scott McTominay to move out to the left and the Scot was positioned appropriately to provide the link between defence and attack. The defender – Luke Shaw – ended up in the Wolves area ready to test Patricio until Anthony Martial intervened.
Pogba was the sole conduit until McTominay supplemented the attack in an intense and incisive move. Controlled football has not been United’s forte under Solskjaer and he seemed especially pleased they mastered it at his personal bogey ground as a manager. It was apparent again with Pogba’s charge to procure the penalty prior to his wasteful hit.
The blue August sky for the evening match heightened anticipation inside a stadium that has retained its feel and enhanced its atmosphere with the introduction of rail seats in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand. The United contingent, spread across the Steve Bull Stand, continued to chant ‘We’ve got Sanchez, Paul Pogba and Fred‘, despite the absence of the two South Americans.
Wolves, just as renowned for breakaways as United, forced Maguire back and he had to intervene after Shaw missed a tackle on 10 minutes. Maguire, perhaps having watched Jose Mourinho‘s analysis of Shaw’s positioning, demanded a brief but forceful word with the left-back as they awaited kick-off. Shaw’s performance was much improved from his lethargic Chelsea outing.
Pogba sprung Marcus Rashford away to centre for a tentative Martial at the far post on 19 minutes and the combination succeeded eight minutes later when Rashford’s side-footer, seemingly intended for the surging Shaw, was intercepted clinically by Martial. If you’re a striker, greed is good. Martial was understandably crestfallen a late one-on-one was scuppered by his treading on the ball.
That and Lingard’s air-shot on 50 minutes proved pivotal. Newly-signed United centre halves tend to struggle initially and Maguire was faultless for almost an hour. Then he clumsily upended the substitute Traore, Raul Jimenez nodded against the post from the inswinging free-kick and Wolves kept United crammed inside their own area. Maguire miscued another cross behind and from the corner the unattended Ruben Neves rattled the woodwork again, only this time the ball hit the back stanchion.
Once Wolves had gathered themselves, Jon Moss signalled the Video Assistant Review was checking an offside. The angle seemed inconclusive but millimeters were measured and it stood. Even after the check was completed, Solskjaer and goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis were still scrutinising the replay and Hartis even spoke with the fourth official.
The VAR was unnecessary when Conor Coady halted Pogba’s surge into the Wolves area. “F*** VAR,” United supporters chanted, just as Wolves’ had. Unlike the natives, United’s had no cause for further cheer once the check was completed.