Premier League fixture number five for Ralf Rangnick, as Manchester United welcomed Wolverhampton Wanderers to Old Trafford. The defence saw the return of French superstar Raphaël Varane. However, it was the return of Phil Jones to the starting lineup that stole all of the early headlines. It was the Englishman’s first appearance in 712 days – a wonderful sight for a man who has struggled so much with injuries throughout his career.
Wolves arrived in Manchester with a remarkable statistic to their name. In their last seven Premier League outings, not one had featured more than one goal per game. Given their recent focus on defensive structure, the game-plan would seem pretty clear cut. It wasn’t just Wolves who’d seen an improvement in defence though, as United had shipped just two goals during Rangnick’s short tenure.
Since his appointment as interim manager, the Old Trafford faithful have witnessed a return of ten points from a possible twelve, but the performances have left very little to inspire hope of a new birth of gegenpressing. Consistency in selection is key to consistency in performance, and Old Trafford expected today.
In keeping with the majority of the season’s displays, the opening exchanges were largely controlled by the visitors. They started fast, on the front foot and held much of the ball – with the ever-energetic Trincāo enjoying much success on the right-wing. In fact, United would bear their teeth on only one occasion in the opening fifteen minutes.
United began to flex their muscles after twenty minutes and hints of continuity in possession were complemented with some fine passages of play. Despite this, it would be Wolves who would register ten attempts on goal in the opening thirty minutes; in contrast to the sole attempt on goal from the hosts.
The game appeared to spring to life for United after the half-hour mark, with an increase in possession and tempo sparking the Old-Trafford faithful into full voice. This was short-lived, however, as a near-fatal back pass from Ronaldo spurred the visitors back to life and extinguished any momentum that had been temporarily gained.
The half fizzled out without any progressive attacking moments from United, with the home side only touching the ball seven times in the opposition box. As has been the case in recent months, United’s best player was David De Gea, and the Spaniard again highlighted his undeniable importance. Wolves would feel incredibly unlucky not to have hit the net, registering fifteen shots on goal and comfortably controlling the majority of the opening half.
The second half started brighter for United, with the home side enjoying the lions share of possession. Frustratingly, despite the increase in ball retention, the decision making remained poor and United were often the creator of their downfall. It took a little over ten minutes for the first change of the day, with Bruno Fernandes taking to the field in place of Mason Greenwood. While I can totally understand the introduction of Bruno, I was quite surprised that Greenwood was the one to make way.
Unsurprisingly, United would have their best chance through the Portuguese superstar, and the woodwork was rattled in the 67 minute. A moment later, he’d deliver a devastating set piece which would see a Ronaldo header ruled out as marginally offside. United would move up a gear and the visitors looked content to sit deep, living vicariously through an Adama Traoré inspired counter.
Cries of ‘Attack, Attack, Attack’ reverberated throughout Old Trafford and the game would move toward and end to end affair for the final fifteen minutes. To the dismay of the home support, the deadlock would be broken by Wolves in the 82 minute. A long-range effort from Moutinho proved the difference.
The game would meander to its conclusion and continued individual errors would ultimately allow Wolves to see out their deserved victory. Rangnick has endured his first defeat as United manager, but the continued disjointed performances will cause the greater concern. A very disappointing day in Manchester.
Five talking points:
Continuation of a slow start.
In what has become a painful characteristic of this group of players, United once again started slow out of the blocks. I’d hoped that the first half against Burnley would supply encouragement as to why it’s beneficial to grab a game by the scruff of the neck, I was wrong.
Importance of De Gea.
Time and time again, the Spaniard reminds the world of his importance to this side. He continues to look back to his imperious best and, very worryingly , is again staking his claim for the clubs player of the season. Where would we be without him?
High position of full-backs.
Rangnick desires an extremely high press and his full-backs to act as second wing outlets. While there is much to be critical about, in both individual and a team perspective, the continued high positioning of both full-backs leaves much hope of an implementation of the managers tactical vision.
Phil Jones was fantastic.
On what must have been an incredibly emotional day for the player, he looked like he has never been away. He was assured in his play and barely put a foot wrong. Critics may point toward his headed clearance before the goal, but when reflecting on a team performance that left more questions than answers, his presence was more than merited today.
A defeat that was coming.
The performances have been underwhelming, to say the least, and United have been riding their luck in recent weeks. In truth, it was only a matter of time until this happened and now, like so many times before, these players need to take a long look at themselves. As a fan, I’m sick of looking for a response from this group, but that’s where we are.