Ugh. Play with fire often enough, and you're going to get burned. Manchester United lost their unbeaten record at Molineux Stadium as they were defeated by Wolverhamptom 2-1. After just three minutes, United were in the lead after Nani cut in onto his left-foot and opened the scoring on a near-post strike. Anyone watching the match likely assumed the rout was on and that United were on their way to three points. However, Wolves responded just seven minutes later when United fell asleep on a corner-kick. The home side quickly played a short corner and George Elokobi headed home the equaliser past United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar. Five minutes before halftime, United once again failed to adequately mark Wolves' attackers on a set-piece and Kevin Doyle headed home what proved to be the winner. No comeback. No heroics. No miracles from the death. On a cold, muddy, and windy night, league leading United were slain in the West Midlands by last place Wolves.
OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATION:
Wolves came out in '4-4-1-1' shape. Doyle was the lone frontman, but was supported by Jamie O'Hara in a withdrawn role. Adam Hammill played wide on the right, and Matthew Jarvis wide on the left. The two wingers switched sides at one point in the first half, but returned back to their normal sides before half. Skipper Karl Henry played deep as a holding midfielder, and he was partnered by Nenad Milijas in the center of the pitch who played in more of a box-to-box role. Richard Stearman and Christophe Berra anchored the defense as the center-back pairing. They were flanked in the defense by Ronald Zubar on the right, who was bombing up the right flank in support of the attack, and Elokobi on the left. Wayne Hennessey was in goal.
United played in a '4-4-2,' a formation that is typical for them. Rio Ferdinand was a late scratch due to injury and his deputy was Johnny Evans. Skipper Nemanja Vidic partnered Evans at center-back. Patrice Evra was the left-back, and Rafael returned from his concussion at Blackpool to the be the right-back. Michael Carrick started in the central midfield and was employed as a deep-lying playmaker. Darren Fletcher partnered him in the center of the pitch and played in a box-to-box role. Nani played out wide to the right and high up in the attack while Ryan Giggs was the wide player out left. Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney were the striker pairing, with the latter drifting deep and to the left often in attempts to link play.
More after the jump...
* A brilliant ball by Fletcher to release Nani up the right side on his goal. The Portuguese international then abused Elokobi by cutting into the area and hitting a superb strike near-post that beat Wolves' keeper Hennessey.
* Sir Alex Ferguson has more football knowledge in his little pinkie than I'll ever have. However, I question his decision to start Evans. After hearing before the start of the match that Ferdinand would be unable to go, I assumed that Chris Smalling would partner Vidic. I think I get it (I'll have to wait for post-game quotes though)... the pitch was in awful shape and the wind was howling, conditions were tough and Fergie likely anticipated a physical game. Fergie might have reasoned that Evans was better suited than Smalling for a match in these conditions. However, the North Irishman struggled mightily and was continually out-muscled by Doyle...and drawn out of position by O'Hara when he floated across the pitch. Ferdinand was sorely missed, but I think Smalling could have been a much better deputy than Evans had he started. Evans was a nightmare today.
* As I just mentioned, that pitch was in TERRIBLE shape. It doesn't excuse United's poor play, but it made it more difficult at times to string a number of passes together. The combination of the pitch's condition, the howling wind, and Wolves' style of play.... the result was a game with a very direct style. Wolves were simple.... either drill a long-ball up the pitch to Doyle and have O'Hara, Jarvis, and Hammill run onto knock-downs or... when Wolves were in open-play, their other point of attack was trying to get the ball down the flanks to either Jarvis and Hammill so that the wingers could whip in crosses into the penalty area.
* Wolves had spurts where they were really pressing and applying pressure high up the pitch. The poor pitch conditions made it more difficult for United to keep possession so the pressing was very effective for Wolves. It caused numerous shaky moments for United. The pressing was even more spirited after each Wolves' goal, as they no doubt were on a high after each goal.
* Fletcher was very active and the Scot was the heart of the midfield this half. He was all over the pitch and was supporting in the attack as well with delayed runs forward. A great ball to release Nani on United's only goal. Carrick was the exact opposite. He was non-existent and didn't contribute anything to the game and he was yanked at half because of his ineffective play.
* This is becoming a pattern... Giggs tucking in centrally allows space for his opposing full-back to get forward. Wolves right-back Zubar was bombing up the Wolves' right side. Right-winger Hammill was cutting inside and Zubar would make overlapping runs. Evra wasn't getting forward as often this half as he typically does as he was pinned back because of this. This isn't a problem if the opposing right-back isn't much of an attacking threat. However, when right-back is, then Giggs needs adequate cover by the holding midfielder... Carrick was inconsistent in providing that today.
* Once again, Rooney tried to come deep and wide for the ball, looking to link play. He was never able to get going in the match.
* Set-piece defending.... this is becoming a problem. We gave up a couple of goals on set-pieces at Blackpool and two more today. All of these given up without Ferdinand playing. Its possible that we're not organized well enough. Falling asleep on the first goal... unacceptable. We desperately need Rio to be healthy if we're going to win a 19th league title and if we're going to make a deep Champions League run.
* Fergie realized that Carrick sucked and brought on Paul Scholes. The difference was instantly noticeable. The ginger maestro is a savant.
*EDIT* This Guardian chalkboard displays how much better Scholes was compared to Carrick. Carrick completed 22/31 passes in the 1st half. Scholes completed 31/34 in the 2nd half. In addition, you can see the range of Scholes' distribution was much farther, which only magnifies how much more effective he was than Carrick as a deep-lying playmaker. The contrast is stunning.
* Giggs has been brilliant during the absence of Park Ji-Sung, but he wasn't as effective today. He wasn't bad, but he didn't provide the consistent attacking spark and link-up play that has been the norm as of late.
* Berbatov was non-existent as well. He wasn't getting service and when that's the case, the Bulgarian disappears. Rooney's work-rate and willingness to come deep to defend allows him to be effective still in a game like this
* Wolves drastically shifted their style of play to start the 2nd half. While the 1st half was full of aggressive pressing high up the pitch, the 2nd half saw the home side play much deeper and compact. They were letting United come at them and they tried to relieve pressure by belting long-balls up to Doyle. The Wolves' striker was tremendous all night and did a superb job of holding the ball up. O'Hara began to play deeper and the Wolves' '4-4-1-1' turned into a '4-5-1.'
* At around the hour mark, both teams made a number of substitutions. United brought on Smalling for the ineffective Evans, and Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez for Berbatov. Wolves' made a few negative substitutions by taking off Hammill and O'Hara for Stephen Ward and Kevin Foley. It was clear that Wolves were trying to hold on at this point. The last 25 minutes or so looked something like this...
* Rafael and Evra turned into full-blown wingbacks. It was essentially a '2-4-4' shape as we chased the goal. Wolves threw everyone behind the ball, except for Doyle.
* Smalling's passing ability and composure on the ball was evident, especially in comparison to Evans. He was able to link up play a bit as United tried to build up their attack. They just couldn't find the creative ability to break down the Wolves' defense in the final 1/3.
* The Wolves' center-backs were superb throughout the match, especially Stearman. Elokobi at left-back got beat a few times by Nani, but he did an adequate job.
* Not much more really needs to be said about this half. United chased a goal and pressed forward. Wolves defended valiantly and stayed organized and compact.
* Man of the match: I'll go with Doyle slightly over Stearman. Both were tremendous though.
* If we're being honest with ourselves, this season's United team doesn't deserve to be unbeaten. They've showed amazing resolve and determination all season, but I don't think I ever really believed they'd go 38 games unbeaten. However, I thought we might get tripped up at Emirates of Stamford Bridge, not at Molineux. It may not be the greatest United team ever, but this team is still good enough to be considered the favorites for the league title and for a deep Champions League run.
* A golden opportunity was missed though. Today was a chance to go seven points clear of Arsenal, and totally destroy the morale of the North London side after their collapse today versus Newcastle. The title race is still on, and United definitely have the toughest schedule down the stretch of any title-contending rival.
* This wasn't a fun write-up... I don't really much more to say. This game sucked. We have a big one next week, hopefully today's match turns out to be a wake-up call and we destroy 'Citeh' at Old Trafford.