Wolves came away from Old Trafford empty-handed after a late Marcus Rashford goal sent Manchester United into second place in the league despite a resilient effort from the away side. Wolves made several changes from the promising draw with Tottenham including full league debuts for Ki-Jana Hoever and Vitinha.
Man Utd (4-3-3): De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Bailly, Maguire, Telles, Matic, Pogba, Fernandes, Greenwood, Cavani, Rashford (Subs: Shaw, Martial, McTominay)
Wolves (3-5-2): Patricio, Coady, Saiss, Kilman, Hoever, Moutinho, Vitinha, Neves, Ait-Nouri, Traore, Neto (Subs: Podence, Silva)
Nuno sprung several surprises with his team selection, likely because of the incredibly short turnaround between the draw with Tottenham and the game at Old Trafford. After a much-improved performance, Nelson Semedo dropped to the bench and was replaced by Ki-Jana Hoever, Marcal was also out with a knock, making way for Ryan Ait-Nouri. There was a change in formation too as Wolves reverted to a back three with Max Kilman coming in. Interestingly, the order of the back line was altered with Romain Saiss playing centrally, Coady on his right and Kilman on his left. Recent games where both Saiss and Max Kilman have played on the right of the back three have caused problems when in possession with both the pair being left-footed. Therefore, Coady moving to the right allowed more balance to the back three, particularly when in possession of the ball. It also allowed Coady to help 18-year-old Ki-Jana Hoever through the game on his Premier League debut, something that was evident through Coady’s vocals. Vitinha also came in for his first Premier League start after a series of impressive substitute appearances. He played an important role, playing centrally ahead of Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves, aiming to link midfield an attack where possible. Daniel Podence and Fabio Silva also gave way as Pedro Neto and Adama Traore played in central roles up front.
Wolves settled into the game well and looked comfortable on the ball. United seemed content to allow Wolves to keep the ball in their own half with no sign of an urgent press which Wolves have struggled to deal with in recent weeks. It was a half of few clear-cut chances, but Bruno Fernandes should have given United the lead when he ghosted in at the back post, but his effort was straight at Patricio as Wolves scrambled it away. Romain Saiss’ looping heading from a free-kick clipped the top of the bar on the way over before Saiss again flicked on a clever Joao Moutinho free-kick, but his effort was saved by De Gea. Wolves went in at the break very content. Both Hoever and Ait-Nouri had grown into the game well despite shaky moments while Vitinha was doing an excellent job collecting the ball from deep and trying to get Wolves on the attack where possible.
As expected, United improved in the second held and upped the intensity of their press in order to gain more control of the game. However, the game continued in a similar vein with very few chances at either end. Vitinha was withdrawn early in the second half and replaced by Daniel Podence as Wolves opted to go with three forwards in order to try and create more. However, this meant Wolves lost possession numerous times shortly after winning the ball back as there was now a larger gap between midfield and attack. Adama Traore had yet another frustrating evening, with little movement across the front line in order to create chances. Even when in possession, Traore did little in terms of taking players on and instead was static and slow in his play. This is another continuing theme in this frustrating season, far from the Adama that frightened defences last season. Edinson Cavani had the ball in the net for United but it was ruled out for offside. Wolves’ best chance of the second half came from Ryan Ait-Nouri as he found space on the left flank and fired at De Gea who parried before the ball was cleared. Then deep into stoppage time as Wolves dropped deeper Rashford struck to give United all three points and send Wolves home empty-handed. Despite United ramping up the intensity, Wolves were by no means under serious pressure with United creating little prior to the winning goal, something which will disappoint Nuno even further.
Deep into stoppage time Ki-Jana Hoever’s pass down the line was intercepted and immediately played over the top of the Wolves defence. Marcus Rashford took advantage of the struggling Ryan Ait-Nouri who had been seen suffering from cramp just minutes before. Having been faultless all game, Max Kilman failed to cut out the cross-field ball meaning Rashford had space to run into. He cut inside and with seemingly little options, took a chance on his left foot which took a huge deflection off Romain Saiss and into the corner of the net.
Man of the Match
Playing centrally in a back three for the first time in a Wolves shirt and Saiss performed admirably. He cut out numerous crosses and, alongside Coady, helped to organise and help the younger members of the squad making their debuts. He once again looked assured on the ball and was troubled by very little all evening. Saiss was desperately unlucky to see Rashford’s effort deflect off him and into the net as he tried to block the shot, but an excellent showing from the Moroccan captain in the middle of the back three.
Things to Improve
The Final Third
While a point would have been a fair result, Wolves had numerous situations in which they could have created chances to win the game. This has been a problem for the majority of the season and has cost Wolves valuable points on numerous occasions. So often, Wolves have a chance to counterattack but slow the pace of the attack down instead of taking advantage of the lack of numbers in defence. Adama Traore seems reluctant to take players on as he has done in recent seasons, while the final cross from wide areas from various players is often off point with very little options in the box. This is a frustrating aspect of Wolves’ play which will not be improved by a striker addition alone.
Another aspect of Wolves’ play which has cost many points this season is conceding late goals. While Wolves were desperately unlucky to see Rashford’s strike deflect into the net, but it highlighted a continuing problem. This season, points have now been lost against Newcastle, Aston Villa and Manchester United in the closing stages of games. Even back to the end of last season, late goals from Sheffield United, Burnley and Sevilla resulted in a disappointing end to a promising season. It is hard to point to exactly what is causing this unwanted trait, but it is something Nuno will want to eradicate as soon as possible if Wolves are to salvage a European push this season.
A night of mixed emotions as Wolves’ young stars produced an excellent display yet came away from Old Trafford empty-handed. There were plenty of promising signs and the future certainly looks bright, but with the January transfer window around the corner, Wolves will need senior additions who are first team ready in order to improve results this season.