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Manchester United 1-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers: Three things we learned

Brandon Williams is first-choice, finishing needs work, and Rashford risk backfires

Manchester United v Wolverhampton Wanderers - FA Cup Third Round: Replay Photo by Tom Purslow/Manchester United via Getty Images

Manchester United booked their ticket to the fourth round of the FA Cup Wednesday night after defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-0 at Old Trafford. A lone goal from Juan Mata in the 67th minute sealed the Red Devils’ fate while also generating a fair amount of confidence heading this weekend’s contest against Liverpool.

This win marks the first time that United have beaten Wolves since Nuno Espírito Santo’s side earned a Premier League promotion. A fine turnaround for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, who still have plenty of football left to play in this contentious first month of the new year. Here are three things we learned from United’s triumph against Wolves.

Finishing needs work

The opening 15 minutes in this contest was already far more exciting than the entire 95 played at the Molineux 11 days ago. United, still basking in their commanding win against Norwich over the weekend, were quicker to the ball and looked more poised to strike first. There were plenty of opportunities where United found themselves in a goal-scoring position, but it was poor finishing that squandered those chances.

A fine player this season for the Red Devils, Daniel James was noticeably subpar in this arena. The former Swansea City man appeared hesitant to shoot from distance numerous times, allowing keeper John Ruddy to easily anticipate his decision-making. In spite of that, the Welshman was making all the right runs and winning the ball against Wolves’ backline. Midfielders even came correct — on occasion delivering sensational long balls — but United’s inability to finish on the first attempt is at the heart of the difference between their form and that of some Premier League rivals.

Brandon Williams is the left-back

While dazzling to watch up top, Mason Greenwood isn’t the only teenager putting fans and critics on notice this season. Defender Brandon Williams had another memorable performance, impressing more in five months than Luke Shaw has done in five years. Up against Adama Traore, the youngster was quick, vigilant and careful with his challenging so to not concede silly fouls. Statistics-wise, he was even more splendid.

At this point, he’s more than proved his worth in a red shirt. Compared to the other left-backs Solskjaer has played ahead of him, Williams supersedes expectations and seems to be improving with each start. If the rumors of Ashley Young to Inter Milan this summer prove truthful, it paves the way for more playing time for the 19-year-old and potentially an international call-up in his future. After all, he’s earned the respect from one United legend already.

United won the battle, but could have lost the war

When United were down 0-0 in the 64th minute, Solskjaer did what any sensible manager would do and substituted leading goalscorer Marcus Rashford for Daniel James. Mata broke the deadlock three minutes later, but an unfortunate turn of events 10 minutes after the lone goal is what will ultimately be the topic of conversation ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Anfield.

Per Henry Winter at The Times, Rashford suffered an apparent back injury after a clash with Matt Doherty. The English international remained on the pitch for several minutes following the altercation, but ultimately had to be subbed off in favor of Jesse Lingard. Having the campaign of his career, coming up injured when United have slowly regained some traction in the top-four race is unsettling, especially since the only acceptable replacement for the weekend is Greenwood, who could be tasked with lofty offensive responsibilities against an aggressive Liverpool defense.

This isn’t even Rashford’s first injury this campaign. The 22-year-old has already sustained hip and groin injuries which he had to overcome. If he isn’t fit in time for Liverpool, Solskjaer will undoubtedly have to regroup. Time isn’t exactly on his side, but a history of injuries at this club has proven that it’s best not to rush the recovery period to only end up spending more time on the sideline. On to Anfield.