Wednesday 21 August 2019

Solskjaer and shaky United can't keep Wolves from door

Wolves 2 Manchester United 1

Manchester United’s Ashley Young is sent off after this challenge on Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Diogo Jota. Photo: Reuters
Manchester United’s Ashley Young is sent off after this challenge on Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Diogo Jota. Photo: Reuters

Sam Wallace

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this rejuvenated Manchester United team have won in Paris and London - five times in the English capital, in fact - but it is in Wolverhampton that they always seem to find themselves down and out.

This was the third defeat in four games for United's newly-appointed long-term manager and the second in 17 days at Molineux, where a team that will play in an FA Cup semi-final on Sunday have now beaten United twice in a season for the first time since the 1979-'80 campaign.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo celebrates. Photo: Reuters
Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo celebrates. Photo: Reuters

Defeat for United in the FA Cup quarter-finals was followed by this, damaging to their top-four prospects in a week when Arsenal took third place, two points clear of United in fifth with a game in hand too.

There was a red card in the second half for Ashley Young that came just as United had tried to recover from a first half in which they had let the game slip out of their control. For Solskjaer, the challenges of the new era were clear to see, and nowhere more so than in his old skipper Young, one of the few left in the squad who can be relied upon not to go missing but increasingly vulnerable against opposition as sharp as Wolves.

He went for a second yellow card just before the hour, and all over the pitch United looked shaky. David De Gea made a rare misjudgement, then Phil Jones, a second-half substitute and Chris Smalling conspired between them to create Wolves' second, credited eventually as a Smalling own goal.

There were so many improvements that could be made to this United team, and not just in midfield when Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves got the better of Paul Pogba.

Wolves' Ryan Bennett in action with Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Reuters
Wolves' Ryan Bennett in action with Manchester United's Paul Pogba. Photo: Reuters

Rested

Nuno Espirito Santo played all the big guns, having rested some of his first-choice side against Burnley at the weekend and paid the price. They go to Wembley on Sunday to face Watford with their first league win in four and full of confidence.

As for United, another line-up that never quite worked. They next play against Barcelona at Old Trafford a week on Wednesday and there is much for their manager to think about before then as to what will work best against one of the strongest sides in Europe.

Before the break there had been echoes of the United team that Jose Mourinho had left behind him: one that started strongly and then, for no obvious reason, had a tendency to fade, to the extent that by the break it was Wolves who were well on top.

Wolves' Raul Jimenez and Manchester United's Victor Lindelof. Photo: Reuters
Wolves' Raul Jimenez and Manchester United's Victor Lindelof. Photo: Reuters

Solskjaer was without Marcus Rashford, who reported ill earlier in the day and did not travel with the team. He selected a three-man defence with Young as a third centre-half.

In midfield was Paul Pogba the presumed target of Mourinho's most recent reflections on life at United at a coaching seminar in Portugal.

There the former United manager had referred to the player as "His Excellency" and described an away game at Burnley when Pogba had asked to go home separately in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce.

A strange United performance before the break in which they could quite easily have had three goal in the first 17 minutes. Romelu Lukaku, in for Rashford, missed with a simple header and so too did Jesse Lingard later - both of them unmarked.

Wolves' Raul Jimenez, Leander Dendoncker and Ruben Neves celebrate Manchester United's Chris Smalling's own goal. Photo: PA
Wolves' Raul Jimenez, Leander Dendoncker and Ruben Neves celebrate Manchester United's Chris Smalling's own goal. Photo: PA

Between times, Fred, starting for only the third time in the league since the turn of the year fed the ball to Scott McTominay on the edge of the area and he swept a fine low right-footed shot past Rui Patricio's right hand.

United lost their way quickly after that with no discernible pressure on the ball and Moutinho and Neves permitted to dictate from midfield. By the end of the half, Wolves should have had more than just their single goal, beautifully taken though it was. Fred slipped on the ball and Wolves pounced with a sharpness that had eluded them in the opening stages of the game. The ball went from Moutinho to Leader Dendoncker and Raul Jimenez's sweet pass found Jota with the space to score.

United's early dominance had faded, and they looked vulnerable. Diogo Dalot and Luke Shaw, the two wing-backs were both booked when they found themselves out of position and struggling to stop a breakaway.

It was, for all his tenacity, another of those performances when Young looked distinctly uncomfortable. Pogba created a chance for Lukaku just before the break which the striker failed to keep on target.

Solskjaer persisted with the three-man defence, even after Young's second yellow card that brought his dismissal - his second in the space of five minutes and both for fouls on Jota. First time around he swept the winger's legs, the second was a little more unfortunate.

The United captain was played into trouble by McTominay's pass and slid after it, his foot bouncing off the ball and his studs then into Jota's leg. The historic occasion of Mike Dean's 100th red card was not quite the game-changing controversy that one might assume such a moment deserved.

Rather there was the decisive stride towards the offender, a pre-emptive shake of the head to indicate his likely attitude towards any protest and then a double-handed verdict of doom. Young had his captain's armband off before the red was out.

United had looked a better side in the early stages of the second half but that was over now, and they started to look tired. Solskjaer replaced Fred with Phil Jones to keep the three centre-halves plan intact. It was Jones who headed Moutinho's cross on 77 minutes downwards into his own area.

Jimenez might have got the faintest of touches but it was Smalling who eventually put it over the line into his own goal. The substitute Ivan Cavaleiro hit the bar late on and Wolves never looked like stumbling.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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