Andy Mitten column: Reflections on the bright start nobody expected at Manchester United
“Can we play you every week?” chorused Wolverhampton Wanderers fans in April after their team had beaten Manchester United 2-1 at home for the second time in two weeks.
But those on the South Bank, where rail seats have been installed so fans can stand up and watch football, weren’t singing that on Monday evening.
The team which outclassed United three times last season was penned in their own half for much of the first 45 minutes, during which there were only three efforts on goal between both sides – the lowest in any game since the league began compiling such data 16 years ago.
Still, Manchester United looked impressive, full of energy and running. And they made one of those shots count, taking the lead through Anthony Martial following a delightful pass from Marcus Rashford. It was well deserved, and Martial’s 50th goal for the club. Rashford has 47.
It’s a promising, pacey partnership which still feels in its infancy, despite them both being in their fifth season at Old Trafford. And it’s good to see the sometimes-surly Martial smiling again and playing well (though he really should be able to do interviews in English after four years living in Manchester).
Molineux witnessed a battle of the high press against the low block, which sounds like something from the American Civil War and was equally attritional. But United dominated. They were poised to go top of the league and keep the queue of people waiting to slaughter them waiting a little longer. That was the situation at half-time, when United’s support in one of the league’s poorest away ends (it’s too low and spread out) was in a far better mood than previous games.
Then resurgent Wolves scored, a superb strike from outside the area from Ruben Neves, who’d performed so well in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford last season. All 10 of Neves’s goals from open play have come from outside the box. Three times Wolves have gone behind against United in consecutive league games; three times Wolves have come back to stop United winning. No other team has managed that in the Premier League era.
Nuno’s side were in the ascendancy and this was exactly the type of ‘obstacle’ that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer predicted. He wanted leaders and character in such cases, men who wouldn’t wilt when his side met sustained pressure. Did he find it?
Yes and no. United fought back into the game and Paul Pogba won a penalty which he took. Rui Patricio saved well. No player has missed as many penalties as Pogba’s four from nine in the Premier League.
That’s nowhere near good enough, and there will be complaints if he stands up to take the next spot-kick, but take positives from Pogba too – without him, United will be far weaker. He was determined as he rallied his team-mates before the game, and he can pick a pass like nobody else in the team. This isn’t someone downing tools to force a move as Romelu Lukaku appeared to do. He just needs to let Rashford, the penalty king of Paris, have the spot-kicks.
After their first-half showing it was a draw which felt like a defeat for United, but at least one with some promise. The team with an average age of 24 was the youngest fielded in the Premier League this season, and there are going to be hiccups as the side develops. Wolves feel the same, given that they're only in their second season in the top flight after dropping to England’s third tier.
I spoke to one of United’s coaching staff on the pre-season tour, and while he was happy with the progress, he added the rider that “we have two very tough opening games”.
United are three points ahead of where they were last season after those two games, and both performances were far better than the equivalent fixtures. Wolves are a good team who feel they can improve on their seventh-place finish of last season. United must certainly improve on their sixth spot.
The next game, on Saturday at home to Crystal Palace, offers another clear chance to show improvement. The 0-0 draw against Palace last November was a horrific match in which Jose Mourinho lost considerable support among the match-going fans who groaned through the game. And when you lose that, you’re usually on your way out. Mourinho was sacked within a month.
A diabolical end to last season meant Solskjaer was on thinner ice going into this season than Mourinho was last term. He needed not to lose and for the style of football to be lively. It's only two games, but there weren't many United fans who would have predicted four points and five goals from them.
There are still issues aplenty. The midfield looks short against better talent and I’m still not sure what position Jesse Lingard plays. Maybe one from Nemanja Matic, Fred, Scott McTominay or Andreas Pereira will rise to become the mainstay alongside Pobga. Perhaps it could be James Garner, currently ripping it up in the under-23s, but he’s just 18.
The defence looks settled, though Victor Lindelof couldn’t find his own man with a pass at the start and took a free-kick which would have ended up in Walsall had the south stand – once home of Britain’s deepest football terrace – not blocked it. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is excellent. Fellow new signing Dan James, who started ahead of Pereira from the first game, was poor in his first start and booked for diving. The coaches called it right when they doubted whether he was ready to be starting for the first team pre-season. They felt that Wan-Bissaka was ready to go straight in, and he is.
Solskjaer wants to get his team fitter and still considers this period as like pre-season, since games are spaced out. But he has an evident plan carried through from the summer which has not come unstuck immediately at least.
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