Manchester United failed to close ground on the top four of the Premier League yet again, dropping more points in a 0-0 stalemate against Wolverhampton Wanderers. United now head in to the winter break in 6th place, level on points with Wolves, and behind Sheffield United.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer found himself short of options in both midfield and attack for this match, so there was no time for new signing Bruno Fernandes to bedded in gradually. United’s new no. 18 was thrown in from the start, in an advanced midfield role. The Portuguese creator showed good flashes in the first half, although he seemed to be playing within himself. Perhaps it was a sign of nerves, the expected hesitancy that comes with unfamiliarity, or a little of both. More than anything though, fans got an early reminder of the ongoing issues with this team that no one new signing can fix.
For yet another time this season, Solskjaer’s United showed the limits of what they can do as a team when not given space into which they attack. Wolves were comfortable sitting deep, and while Fernandes’ inclusion did add another proper footballer to United’s ranks — someone comfortable linking play, passing and moving, making intelligent runs — there was just not enough quality around him.
United’s attacking patterns were repeatedly uninspired, and even when the Reds had long stretches of dominating possession, there was no penetration. In the wide areas, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka were ineffective on the overlap, and Daniel James has been in wretched form for several weeks now. Juan Mata, for whatever his quality on the ball, is a limited player. Anthony Martial held the ball up well in the first half, but he is not yet — and may never be — the type of elite lead striker than can reliably occupy defenses on his own in games like these.
It was almost the 40th minute before United had a shot on target, and that was an effort straight at Rui Patricio from Fernandes.
At the back, United weathered some early pressure, and looked generally assured. As he tends to do when played in a deeper role, Andreas Pereira twice gave away free kicks in dangerous areas that fortunately came to nothing. Wolves’ danger man Adama Traore threatened on a handful of occasions, but was held in check by committee — Luke Shaw never found himself isolated against the winger, as Harry Maguire and Fred came across to help.
In the second half, the home side did not look much more potent, but did start stepping up the urgency in their play as the hour mark approached. A direct free kick from Fernandes was again straight at Patricio, but it contained enough venom to sting the palms of his compatriot at least. Two minutes later, Mata’s clever spin at the edge of the box created room for a snap shot that flew just inches wide of the upright.
The Old Trafford crowd were starting to get restless; every Pereira giveaway and James blind alley run brought louder groans. One turnover of possession in the 69th minute almost lead to a goal for the visitors. Traore outmuscled Fred and ran straight at United’s retreating defenders before putting Raul Jimenez through on goal. The Mexican striker struck the ball fiercely inside the near post, but De Gea did well to push the shot over.
In the 72nd minute, Solskjaer made his first change, sending Mason Greenwood on for the frustrating Pereira. The move sent Martial out wide and Fernandes into a deeper role next to Fred.
United continued being ponderous in possession. Greenwood almost had the Reds in front six minutes after coming on, but his twice-deflected shot was held by Patricio, who showed excellent reflexes. In the final few minutes, Solskjaer sent on Jesse Lingard and Diogo Dalot in place of James and Mata, rolling the dice of mediocrity in the hopes of getting a winner.
In the final seconds of injury time, an excellent run and cross from Wan-Bissaka was met by Dalot, but the wing-back could only direct his header wide.
At the end, United — once again — just weren’t good enough.