Ole Gunnar Solskjaer got his first big decision right on Saturday. The Manchester United boss wasted no time in getting Bruno Fernandes into his side and the new midfielder made an encouraging start to life in the Premier League. But Solskjaer followed his headline selection with a series of calls that do nothing to calm the fears around Old Trafford that Ed Woodward is not the only individual not capable of doing the job for which he is so handsomely paid.
United huffed and puffed against a Wolves side which appeared strangely content to take a point home from Old Trafford when three were well within their grasp. That the hosts laboured comes as no surprise given the options available to Solskjaer and the inability of the United hierarchy to properly address the team’s weaknesses with a savvy, coherent recruitment plan. But the manager is expected to make the best of a bad situation and that was once again beyond the Norwegian.
Fernandes’ inclusion was a no-brainer given the dearth of quality amid Solskjaer’s alternatives. Had those deficiencies escaped the new boy prior to signing on the dotted line, Fernandes will now be all too aware of the burden he must carry until United break their bad habits in the transfer market.
Solskjaer surrounded Fernandes with Fred, Andreas Pereira and Juan Mata, all three tidy, technical footballers cursed with varyingly-low levels of penetration.
Fred continued his recent elevation from wretched to somewhere approaching competent with an industrious display at the base of Solskjaer’s midfield. The Brazilian was largely tasked with shielding Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof from Wolves’ lightning fast breaks and the United centre-backs were generally well protected.
With the back door closed if not locked, United woefully failed once more to find a way though the Wolves rearguard. This was a meeting where both sides hoped the other might seize the initiative so either could wrestle it away. United at least tried to get within arm’s length but failed. Wolves appeared capable but unwilling.
This is nothing new for United. While Solskjaer insists on focusing on counter-attacking football – perhaps the simplest approach to counteract – there will be many more of these days at Old Trafford. Fernandes may limit that number slightly but on his own, the Portugal schemer cannot carry United.
Bruno Fernandes on #MUFC debut.
Most passes (88), opposition half passes (70) and shots (5) than any other player on the pitch.
Defensively, he contributed 2 tackles, 3 clearances and won the ball back 6 times.
But lost the ball 26 times too. pic.twitter.com/x8VUD8g0zu
— Shamoon Hafez (@ShamoonHafez) February 1, 2020
In his first half of Premier League football, Fernandes recognised the need to talk and point Pereira and Daniel James through their jobs since neither they nor Solskjaer seem sure of them. For reasons known only to the United boss, he appears to have instructed James, the one player in the United attack who can get on the outside of a defender, to play through the inside channel to allow Luke Shaw, one of the Premier League’s least threatening full-backs, to have a go instead.
It was a similar story on the right. Juan Mata can be excused for being attracted inside because there is little to no hope of the veteran Spaniard taking the long way around any defender. But when Mata moves closer to Anthony Martial, advancing forward comes Aaron Wan-Bissaka who, like Shaw, offers woefully little in an attacking sense.
Why Shaw started ahead of Brandon Williams and why he might at any point through the rest of the season remains unclear. The United youngster has offered the kind of threat Shaw provided for Southampton, the pace and penetration which made United pay £30million five-and-a-half years ago but appears to have deserted the defender.
If Solskjaer was worried about Adama Traore – why wouldn’t he be? – then the United boss should have known he could trust Williams after the teenager’s two FA Cup battles against the Wolves powerhouse last month. The preference for Shaw was the latest in a growing line of overly-cautious selections.
Solskjaer also lacked either the nous or bravery – neither is a good look – to change Pereira. The manager recognised that Pereira was struggling in the first half but rather than change the personnel as he altered United’s shape, instead he put the Brazilian square peg in the round hold on United’s left. Pereira is not now, nor will he ever be a wide player, not one capable of servicing an attack with Champions League intent. Everyone, except Solskjaer, seems to recognise this and his withdrawal when it came was a quarter of the game too late by the time he was replaced by Mason Greenwood with 19 minutes remaining.
Then there is Anthony Martial. Solskjaer has little choice but to play the Frenchman given his lack of striking alternatives, at least until Odion Ighalo arrives and proves himself fit for – worthy of is another matter – United duty. Just with the injection of some hustle, Ighalo could prove to be an upgrade on Martial who once more led the line seemingly under the impression that he was doing everyone a favour.
From United’s familiar faces, we learned nothing. Fernandes was the point of intrigue, however, and the new signing, first in a more advanced role before being brought deeper to get United going in the second half, showed that he can provide a spark that United so badly lack. But this quartet around him are never likely to catch fire, no matter how hot Fernandes sizzles.