Marcus Rashford struck a 93rd-minute winner to take Manchester United within two points of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League with a 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford on Tuesday. In what was a match of precious little quality or excitement Edinson Cavani put the ball into the net in the 69th minute but from an offside position before David de Gea acrobatically tipped Romain Saiss’ header over soon after, though again it would not have counted if it had found the net.
That flurry of activity aside this was a match best forgotten though defeat was cruel on Wolves, who had defended resolutely for 92 minutes before Rashford’s shot deflected off the excellent Saiss and beyond Rui Patricio.
Read on for the talking points from the late victory at Old Trafford.
Sluggish United get away with woeful attack
Perhaps there was nothing more to explain United’s plodding display at home to the massed defense of Wolverhampton Wanderers than a certain listlessness that is all too common in the lull between Christmas and the new year. And yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the luxury of being able to make six changes to the side that drew with Leicester City, bringing in the likes of Paul Pogba and Cavani.
Scott McTominay and Fred were not involved as Nemanja Matic came into midfield and it was perhaps their absence that was most keenly felt. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are at their most effective when their midfield base can give their attackers quick ball to run at retreating defenses. Instead they found themselves waiting far too long as though the United supply line had to extricate the ball from a ruck before moving it up the pitch.
United’s inside forwards can be devastating driving from the flank towards goal on their strongest foot, attacking the space between full-back and the center of defense, opening up their bodies and pinging the ball into the net. That is the theory but in practice it can be rather more challenging when faced with Wolves’ back three when instead you are attacking a defense that has had time to set itself because their opponents have taken so long to advance up the field.
What can change that is the threat of an overload down the flanks yet United’s full-backs were notably hesitant over bombing on in support of Greenwood and Rashford. That is perhaps to be expected of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, something of an anachronism among top-tier clubs as a defensive full-back. Alex Telles is nothing of the sort but offered so little going forward that he was hooked at halftime in favor of Luke Shaw.
Meanwhile Cavani was all too static in central areas, a superb poacher he may be but his role in United’s build-up was at best tangential. Without anyone to stretch play down to the byline, the home side’s gameplan boiled down to was lobbing crosses from level with the penalty box into the area. On the rare occasions when a forward beat their man to the ball they were usually facing a low probability header.
It took one brilliant cross from Greenwood to tee up Fernandes at close range, Rui Patricio saving well to deny the United playmaker, but when players of such great talent produce that and a deflected winner from Rashford then there is something wrong with the gameplan. And for all that the natural response is that that does not really matter when you’re winning there will certainly be games to come where such cumbersome attacking does not go rewarded.
A case for Costa
As soon as Atletico Madrid and Diego Costa announced the ending of their partnership it was inevitable that the Jorge Mendes client would find himself linked with a move to the Black Country. Wolves are bookmakers favorites and probably would be even if Raul Jimenez were not sidelined for an indeterminate period with a fractured skull.
Without the Mexican international, Wolves’ need is all the more pressing. That was never more apparent when the impressive Rayan Ait-Nouri charged down the left in the 80th minute to look up and find there was no-one he could realistically aim a cross at, substitute Fabio Silva having found a spot with three defenders guarding him. A veteran forward might just have known where to be and when to offer his teammate a cutback option.
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That was not something any of Wolves’ strikers quite knew how to offer despite what was some impressive if infrequent interplay between Pedro Neto, Vitinha and Adama Traore at Old Trafford. When they got through balls to attack with they were easy on the eye, a blur of quick passes and sharp darts.
The problem with such an approach is that it will constantly flitter on the brink of falling apart. One misplaced pass and your attack may well break down, and those slight errors are particularly likely when your forwards are moving at breakneck speed. At some stage they need a focal point off whom to bounce the ball and who can apply that final killer touch.
Whether Costa can still do that at 32 will be up for debate but on tonight’s evidence the youngest Wolves side to play in this division for eight years could perhaps benefit from his wile.
Mason Greenwood: Though he delivered one brilliantly whipped cross onto the boot of Fernandes he was all too often hesitant and reluctant to drive at goal. The devastating attacker of late last season has not been seen in too long. RATING: 5
Ruben Neves: Tasked with shielding his defense rather than dictating tempo, the No. 8 performed exceptionally. After 75 minutes he had made four interceptions when no other Wolves player had managed more than one whilst he also led his team in tackles even if he lost plenty more than the three he won. RATING: 8
Premier League outlook
United are up to second in the table and trail Liverpool by just two points despite what has been a perhaps underwhelming run of performances. Wolves, meanwhile, find themselves in 12th with 21 points to their name.