Opposition preview: Athletic writer on brilliant Wolves and a tough test for Man Utd

Manchester United face Wolves at Molineux in the third round of the FA Cup this evening.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has a poor record against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side having not won in four previous encounters. But the United boss will be seeking a reaction after the dismal display against Arsenal on New Years Day.

The Reds have a depleted squad for the fixture, with Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay sidelined through injury. Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial are also doubts after leaving training early on Friday with illness.

We expect Solskjaer to make several changes this evening; Mason Greenwood should be given his chance in attack and Brandon Williams is likely to make a welcome return to the side.

We spoke to Wolves reporter for the Athletic, Tim Spiers, who was kind enough to give us his thoughts ahead of this evening’s clash.

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Just one point separates United and Wolves in the Premier League season over half of the way through the season. While the Reds have been far too inconsistent, how impressive have Wolves been in juggling league and European football?

Seriously impressive. After a difficult few opening weeks in which they struggled to combine the two – with Nuno Espirito Santo perhaps rotating his squad too much (Wolves’ results under him have generally been better when playing a similar XI every week) and suffering some poor results, a 1-1 draw with 10 men at Palace in September sparked an unbeaten run in the two competitions that lasted until just before Christmas. Wolves have used fewer players in the Premier League (19) than any other team but their injury record has been outstanding for a few seasons now and they work incredibly hard on both injury-prevention and post-match recovery. There’s a concern that in February/March the squad size will become a problem, but they’ll be looking to sign a couple of players this month to rectify that.

Nuno Espirito Santo has revolutionised Wolves and has been linked with a host of top jobs including Arsenal recently. Does he have the credentials to coach one of the so called ‘big six?’

Wolves fans will tell you he already manages one of the big six. Wolves have defied expectations in the past 18 months but it feels like they’re here to stay – and without 12 extra games in the Europa League so far this season I would have thought they’d be in the top four at the moment. But as for Nuno, yes he has the credentials to manage pretty much any club side in the world. His man management is as good as it gets – the players adore him, as do the owners. He’s deeply intelligent, philosophical and tactically astute, with a close knit and trustworthy backroom team behind him. Could that be replicated elsewhere? Yes, absolutely, if he could sign the players he wanted. But for the moment he seems to be fully committed to the Wolves project. Don’t forget, Nuno swapped the Champions League for the Championship when he moved from Porto to Wolves.

Wolves have a fantastic record against Solskjaer’s side, particularly at Molineux. Do you expect Nuno to rotate his team for the FA Cup tie against a depleted United side with other competitions in mind?

I would expect a few changes, yes, but probably only within the regular matchday 18. Nuno made a wholesale 11 changes in the Carabao Cup, effectively waving the white flag at Villa when he handed out a number of debuts to kids, but it’ll be a different story today. Wolves enjoyed a magical run to the semis last season – that quarter final win over United ranks as one of Molineux’s greatest ever days, it was a real coming-of-age moment for the team – and, while the Europa League takes priority in terms of cup competitions this season, they’ll go as far in the cup as they can as long as it’s not impacting on Europe or the top flight.

Adama Traore has just been nominated for the Premier League player of the month after a brilliant December. Just how good can he become and do you expect him to be Wolves’ main threat in Saturday’s game?

He’s in the form of his career. It’s been quite something to witness – last season his pace was thrilling but his end product was lacking. Nuno didn’t trust him and he barely started a game after Christmas. A lot of one-on-one coaching and a full pre-season under Nuno has seen him transformed this year. He also worked closely with former sprinter Darren Campbell who basically told him to slow down, reasoning that Traore is faster than any player in the league, so he didn’t need to run at 100 per cent. He’s more controlled with his pace and his bursts now, meaning his ball control has improved and he’s started providing goals and assists, as well as cutting inside and also offering defensive protection too (he marked Raheem Sterling out the game at the Etihad). He can go as far as he wants. He’s that good.

Score prediction

It’s perhaps a bigger game for United than it is for Wolves? But as you say, Wolves’ record against United is superb. I’ll say a repeat of the league scoreline in August, 1-1.

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