Manchester United have a glaring gap that Wolves exposed – and Cristiano Ronaldo will not fill it
Solskjaer’s men may be third in the Premier League but United struggled with their shape and were too porous in midfield against Wolves
Don’t worry Cristiano there is still a job for you to do at Manchester United. At times during Sunday’s 1-0 win over Wolves it looked a very big job indeed.
Were Ronaldo watching the first half unfold from his Lisbon bolthole he might very well have been wondering if there were time to change his mind.
This was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 100th game in charge and so much of it was characteristic of the underwhelming muddle that was supposed to be past tense, despite the result setting a record of 28 away games unbeaten.
Wolves might have been out of sight at half time, and stood incredulous in the second half, first as David De Gea did that thing of his, making not one but two improbable stops from Romain Saiss at close range.
Secondly when referee Mike Dean failed to spot Paul Pogba’s lunge on Ruben Nevez that occurred under his hooter during the build-up to Mason Greenwood’s goal.
United did improve after the break and thanks to Greenwood look down on all but Spurs at the top of the Premier League. If there is a degree of irony in Solskjaer sitting this pretty, there is arguably more in Spurs boss Nuno Espirito Santo lording it nine points clear of the club he left behind.
Under Bruno Lage Wolves have inverted the Nuno experience, namely playing lively football and throwing everything at goal, albeit without success thus far.
By contrast Nuno drained the life out of the old gold with his love of a parked bus. We are only three games in, plenty of time to right the paradox. And for United to be exposed, Ronaldo or no.
The debut of the great World Cup winning defender Rafael Varane and first start of £73m striker Jadon Sancho were lost in the chaos. Varane was going backwards from the outset. His first meaningful involvement a frantic back-pedal as Adama Traore tore through United’s soft core.
Traore made it easy for Varane in the end by stepping inside and passing to Raul Jimenez. Wolves restored frontman duly got his shot away but from an angle which better served De Gea’s chances of making the save, which he did.
Machado Trincao was the next to rip through United’s missing middle, making a comic aside of Fred. This time Aaron Wan-Bissaka was the saviour at the far post. Traore was making United very nervous. It’s fair to say Dan James was not having the same effect on Wolves, especially when coupled with Wan-Bissaka.
As a combination James and Wan-Bissaka operate as a brake on United’s ambition down the right. Neither have the vision nor the pass to create an opening. Solskjaer’s attachment to James is puzzling.
Though his speed is an asset and his work-rate impressive, the absence of substance and craft renders both qualities useless. With Traore menacing the left and Trincao a potent threat off the right, United were a ragged ensemble for much of the opening half.
An injury to Bruno Fernandes gave Solskjaer an opportunity to regroup. Indeed the whole United coaching staff were on the touchline dispensing wisdom. Pogba took urgent counsel from Mike Phelan while Solskjaer had the ear of Sancho. For all Sancho’s pace and trickery and Varane’s composure and experience, the game is about midfield control.
Pogba, Fred and James were no match for Nelson Semedo, Joao Moutinho, Nevez and Fernando Marcal. As a consequence, Fernandes, Greenwood and Sancho were starved of meaningful ball.
Though Greenwood wellied a shot wide at the end of the half, United were relieved to make the break on level terms.
That James lasted only seven minutes of the second period said it all. On came Edinson Cavani allowing Fernandes to drop deeper to help restore order in midfield and Greenwood to move out wide. At last United acquired a recognisable shape and for the first time in the contest began to exert some control. But they cannot hope to excel playing like this.
Ronaldo will go straight into the team yet centre-forward was not the priority, or at least not as great a need as a defensive midfielder who can read the game and pass a ball at the same time, a facet of the game seemingly beyond the reach of Fred.
“We have played better. Sometimes you have to ride your luck and I thought we did,” Solskjaer said.
He was less sanguine about criticism of his midfield. “Did you not see the game? Did you not see Paul? Go back and watch the game. We struggled first half to get the rhythm. Second we did really well and Paul took control,” he replied.
Solskjaer also thought Pogba’s tackle legal. Last week he raged against the failure of the referee to recognise a foul on Fernandes that led to Southampton’s goal in the draw at St Mary’s. Here he was grateful for Dean’s leniency. Funny old game.