Even before the late controversy, this was shaping up to be a robbery of a win for Manchester United.
Gary O’Neil, we must conclude, is some sort of wizard. After just four days with these players, he coaxed a performance out of them full of snap and quality, as intelligent as it was tenacious. Matheus Cunha ran at and through United’s hologram of a midfield at will. Pedro Neto buzzed and probed and found hole after hole in United’s backline.
But Wolves, as is their custom, simply refused to score any f***ing goals. The true test of O’Neil’s sorcery will be if he can manage to get Wolves to score some f***ing goals. It really was all that was lacking from a fine display that made a total mockery of the absolute idiots (ahem) who had them nailed on for relegation a few days ago.
It’s quite an important thing to be lacking, though, and it’s not a new development for last season’s lowest Premier League scorers. Wolves had 23 shots at Old Trafford. But only six on target and none of those truly tested United’s new keeper Andre Onana, who for 95 minutes had a quietly effective 6/10 Manchester United debut. There were no madnesses, no dramas, no curious decisions.
Then deep into stoppage time he pretty much assaulted two Wolves players with the ball nowhere to be seen and got away with it. Now we’re not big fans of focusing on refereeing decisions here, but good grief this was a big one. Even with the usual Goalkeeper Protection Rules and the high bar for overturning a decision it was astonishing to see the original decision upheld without the on-field referee Simon Hooper being encouraged to take a second look.
The only explanation that doesn’t take you into uncomfortably tinfoil-hat areas about why such a clear penalty for the opposition wasn’t given in the last minute of injury time at Old Trafford with Manchester United 1-0 up is that it was ruled a collision, a coming together. It doesn’t really hold up to much scrutiny, and there’s no chance any outfield player anywhere on the pitch would have got away with what Onana got away with there.
Points are what matter, though, and for all the lacklustre and weirdly vibeless nature of United’s football they pocket all three. It’s already better than the start to last season, but there’s still a sense of something not quite working. They finished third last season despite it, so it’s not the worst problem in the world, but United still don’t really look anything like Erik Ten Hag’s best Ajax sides and you start to wonder if they ever will.
There isn’t anything catastrophically wrong with United now, but there’s nothing really that you could point to about this performance and say it was powerfully and compellingly right.
Lisandro Martinez having to be withdrawn at half-time for his own good having rattled himself into a state of being one foul away from a red card because Wolves of all teams had made his head fall off is a worry.
Mason Mount having a debut in which he achieved very close to actual f*** all (no goals, assists, chances created, crosses, tackles won or aerial duels won) is a worry. Luke Shaw being asked to play as an inverted full-back like everyone has to have these days when he so often looks United’s best attacking threat when making full use of the width of Old Trafford is a worry.
They can and will play much better than this, but they’re really going to have to. The goal itself was at least decent enough when it eventually came after 75 minutes of aimless huffing and confused puffing. But even then there was an element of fortune about the scenario that unfolded. A cleared corner left Bruno Fernandes as United’s deepest outfield player when he received the ball and Raphael Varane in the centre-forward position. Fernandes’ defence-unlocking pass picked out the arcing run of Aaron Wan Bissaka – who continues to improve in that area of the game and was one undoubted bright spot for United. He helped the ball into an area where, for once, with bodies still committed forward from the set-piece, United had an overload and Varane the simplest of headers.
Even then the goal did not settle United. Half of Wolves’ staggering 44 touches in United’s penalty area came after the goal.
United offered little of either defensive control or attacking threat in what was a weird nothing of a performance. An anti-performance. The midfield was almost entirely hypothetical too, which goes some way to explaining the issues at both ends of the pitch.
A win to start the season, though. And a sense that things can surely only improve.
Wolves, once the anger at the late penalty injustice fades, will know their own failures prevented this being a great night for them. They did so, so much right but until and unless they find someone to score some goals they are reliant on absolutely everything going right. One defensive lapse, one officiating error: game over. Thanks for coming.
There remains significant talent within this squad despite the financial limitations. None of their attacking players are without merit. Cunha, Silva, Neto, Sarabia and Hwang would all be effective players in different squads. But they’re all three-goals-in-30-games merchants when you throw them all together in one team.
Maybe Sasa Kalajdzic, back in action here for the first time since suffering an ACL injury on his Wolves debut almost a year ago, can be the man to actually turn those xG into actual G. As long as no more goalkeepers decide to use him as a punchbag.