Caretaker no more, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer leads his Reds back to the Molineux on Tuesday evening for the second time in three matches. The first visit, as we all remember, did not go well. Wolves ran out deserved 2-1 winners in last month’s FA Cup quarterfinals, dumping Manchester United out of the competition and sending the club into the international break with back-to-back losses.
United might prefer to forget that dire performance in the West Midlands, but Solskjaer and company cannot afford to ignore it. The scoreboard read 2-1, but such a narrow result seriously flattered the visitors. Other than the impressive Sergio Romero in goal, United’s defense struggled to cope with a relentless Wolves attack. In particular, Diogo Jota blew by Luke Shaw for the second goal and Victor Lindelöf escaped a red card after VAR review.
And it wasn’t much better elsewhere on the pitch. Solskjaer started his first-choice midfield — Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matić, and Ander Herrera — but Wolves dominated there, too. Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho were everywhere, controlling possession and creating chances with ease. As I mentioned in our recent Reds Roundtable on potential summer signings, Neves would look awfully good in a red shirt.
Marcus Rashford’s late consolation goal was only the second shot on target. No team can win with such an anemic attack. Even during the first fifteen minutes, when United were well on top, no Red troubled John Ruddy’s goal. Solskjaer’s side must be better in all phases of play to get a better result on Tuesday.
Beating Watford at the weekend was a good start. Thankfully, most of the club’s injury worries proved to be unfounded, with Ole naming a strong lineup for his first match as permanent manager. Luke Shaw, Nemanja Matić, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial all started, while Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku made the bench.
The only surprise was Lindelöf’s absence with a non-injury “issue” — reportedly death threats stemming from his decision to withdraw from Sweden duty during the international break. People really are crazy.
“We felt Victor was better off not playing because he’s had a couple of things to sort,” Solskjaer explained. “He’ll be all right.”
Martial, though, might not be so lucky. Removed in the 77th minute, the 23-year-old suffered a “bad knock” against Watford. “I’m not sure how he’ll be for Tuesday,” Solskjaer admitted. “We’ll check on him and we’ve got a couple of days now to get ready for Tuesday. That’s the main thing.”
The boss also revealed a potential tactical tweak to get Paul Pogba jumpstarted again. “Paul has been away and he’s played two games for France,” Solskjaer said. “He’s playing a bit deeper for them and that could be something we have to think about to get him more involved in the game, make him dictate games more for us.”
“Paul can do both. He can attack and defend.”
Somewhere, José Mourinho is smiling.
Wolves, clinging to seventh in the league table, turned in their own disappointing performance at Burnley on Saturday. The relegation-threatened Clarets had lost four in a row, but made it look easy in a 2-0 win against Nuno Espirito Santo’s side.
“I’m disappointed,” the Wolves manager said. “I’m disappointed with the way we started the game because we started very badly. When you concede a goal so early (2nd minute), the game comes much harder after that.”
“Now, we have to rest and recover. We will analyze the game well and we will prepare ourselves to compete for Tuesday.”
Really, though, the more important match for Wolves comes next weekend. They take on Watford in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley — a huge occasion for any club, but especially one of Wolves’ size. Don’t be surprised if Nuno fills out his team-sheet for Manchester United with one eye on the Watford match.
There’s plenty of good vibes around United at the moment — back to winning ways after Watford, in the top four (at least for now), and with Ole at the wheel on a permanent basis. But so much of this red revival depends on Champions League qualification ... and that still hangs in the balance.
After Chelsea’s miracle comeback on Sunday, only one point separates third place from sixth. With Arsenal still to play on Monday night, Manchester United could either be out of the top four again by kickoff on Tuesday or in control of their own destiny with just seven matches still to play. No matter how the Gunners fare, United can’t slip up at the Molineux again.