Until the fourth minute of five added-on, this appeared as though it would be yet another occasion when Manchester United had no answer to the disciplined, well-drilled defensive play of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Last season’s four meetings produced just three goals. Given that, what chance of a winner?
Thankfully for United, Marcus Rashford has developed a knack for stepping up to deliver in times of need and found a late goal to pick up what could be an important three points. His stoppage time strike, which was aided by a heavy deflection off the unfortunate Romain Saiss, lifted Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side second and just two points behind leaders Liverpool.
It was a goal that never looked likely to arrive. If the Premier League’s spike in Covid cases means that the condensed schedule is in need of trimming down a touch, we could start with this fixture.
Wolves are almost perfectly equipped to deal with United’s modus operandi – speed on the break. Nuno Espirito Santo’s side offer next to no space in behind. There were as many as eight or nine amber shirts in the penalty area any time United were in range, resulting in just three shots on target for Solskjaer’s men. Rashford made that third and final one count.
Before that, the best chance of all had fallen to Bruno Fernandes towards the end of the first half, but his close-range volley was saved by Rui Patricio. It appeared as though this would be a rare game where United’s Portuguese talisman would go without either a goal or assist but it was his raking long ball to Rashford which set up the winner.
Wolves had their opportunities. David de Gea looked back to his superlative best when required to brilliantly deny Romain Saiss and Adama Traoré’s ability on the dribble was a constant menace. But Nuno’s side never looked likely to take more than a point, such is their methodical, conservative style, and they ended with nothing to show for their courageous defensive efforts.
Prior to Rashford’s goal, United’s best chance came from a wicked Mason Greenwood from the right wing to the far post. Greenwood’s all-round play outside of his preternatural finishing requires work. This cross – delivered with a wicked bend after stepping inside Rayan Ait-Nouri – is something Solskjaer will want to see more often.
Fernandes misjudged it slightly, running a yard or so in front of the ball, which forced him into a tamer finish on the volley than he would have liked. It was from point-blank range but right at goalkeeper Rui Patricio, who beat the ball away, and Edinson Cavani failed to connect properly with the rebound.
Other than that one moment, Wolves were comfortable playing in their deep, compact shape and threatening from counter-attacks and set-pieces. David de Gea was kept alert by early speculative efforts from Pedro Neto, Vitinha and Ruben Neves but had to make a spectacular and instinctive save to block Saiss’ near-post flick from a Neto free-kick. United’s substitutes roared and applauded.
Wolves knew that their best opportunities would come if they could set Adama Traoré loose, away from the attention of United’s centre-halves. One quick break on the cusp of half time, sparked by a crunching Joao Moutinho tackle on Fernandes, gave Neto the opportunity to do exactly that but his telegraphed pass was cut out by Eric Bailly.
If the first half was relatively low on incident, the second was quieter still. Cavani briefly thought he had found a breakthrough. taking advantage of Wolves’ inability to clear a corner and finishing from close range, but he was correctly flagged offside. Solskjaer appealed from the touchline as the ball had appeared to strike Conor Coady’s hand on its way through to Cavani but VAR did not intervene.
Paul Pogba, back in the starting line-up, stung Patricio’s palms from range with a low, hard shot that was otherwise destined for the bottom right-hand corner. Not long after, a neat Pogba pass found Anthony Martial in a rare spot of space in the final third but his effort was skied. Try as they might, United simply could not find the room they required between Wolves’ well-drilled defence.
As the final whistle neared, Rashford appeared to be going nowhere when chasing Fernandes’ long pass out to the right-hand edge of the penalty area but took advantage of Max Kilman’s momentary hesitation to collect the ball. After standing up Ait-Nouri, he cut onto his left foot and shaped for the far corner. The deflection off Saiss took his shot to the near post instead, wrong-footing Patricio, undoing all Wolves’ hard work and giving United a major result.