A ruthless victory over Chelsea on opening weekend inflated the hopes of Manchester United fans – but Wolves are more than capable of bursting that bubble.
United head to Molineux on Monday to take on a Wanderers side who were desperately unlucky to be robbed of a fine win at Leicester, having been victims of the draconian new handball law.
Here, we look at three of the key issues ahead of the game.
United have approached this season hoping to consign recent history to the dustbin, but they’ll do well to remember it was Wolves who first pulled the rug from under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after he had hit the ground running.
The game against Wolves is extremely important. Here are the xGoals from last season's games:— UtdArena. (@utdarena) August 17, 2019
1.19 – Wolves
0.72 – Man Utd
1.32 – Wolves
0.66 – Man Utd
1.90 – Wolves
1.32 – Man Utd
Wolves won the latter two and the first was a draw.
If United had beaten Wolves in early April they would have moved up to third in the league. Instead, a 2-1 defeat precipitated a wretched end to the season and the nadir of a humiliating last-day defeat to Cardiff City.
Aside from the obvious, chiefly £135 million worth of new defensive talent in Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, United supporters have been sold on the idea that the class of 2019/20 are fitter, stronger and faster after Solskjaer made stamina a priority in pre-season.
What killed the Red Devils at Molineux on their previous visit was flimsiness after an initial first-half surge, with Jesse Lingard and Romelu Lukaku missing honey-coated chances before a relentless Wolves turned up the heat.
Scott McTominay scored the opener, but a wonderful Diogo Jota scored following a Fred error, Ashley Young was sent off in the second half for two bookable offences and a David De Gea clanger led to the Wolves winner.
If the Red Devils truly have bulked up both their physical and mental strength in between then and now, Nuno Espirito Santo’s men will only be too happy to increase their load.
Lightning attack to strike twice?
As touched upon, a significant part of their misery at Molineux was down to lacklustre finishing.
Conversely there was a lot of lustre at Old Trafford in that 4-0 victory over Chelsea, as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial turned the precious few big chances on offer into goals.
Lukaku’s gone, to the merriment of much of the support, but he’s also taken a record of 28 goals over the last two Premier league seasons with him to Milan without being directly replaced. Neither Rashford nor Martial have scored more than 11 in a single Premier League season.
The pair’s ability to strike on the counter is crucial to United’s top-four hopes as, aside from the mercurial Paul Pogba, there still isn’t enough craft either through the middle or down the flanks to consistently prise open deep-lying defences.
Despite the defensive additions, don’t expect a clutch of clean sheets this season – there was still far too much green space between the Pogba/McTominay combo and their defence against Chelsea. But when United do win the ball back, Martial and Rashford must turn those transitions into personal triumphs.
Beware of JJ
Wolves have fleshed out their squad with several impressive signings, including two promising attackers in former AC Milan starlet Patrick Cutrone and Portuguese teenager Pedro Neto, as their impressive recruitment drive over the last few years continues apace.
The clear headline acts however remain Jota and Raul Jimenez, having combined to devastating effect up top in the second half of last season.
When Nuno decided to pair those two together for the first time in victory over Chelsea last December, it was the start of a partnership that produced 19 further Premier League goals before the season was out.
It’s a little and large link-up with a twist. Jimenez is far defter than any ‘big man’ has a right to be and his voracious work-rate is matched by Jota, who makes the spectacular look standard.
Jota remarked that the £80m United shelled out on Maguire is ‘hard to explain’. He certainly has the ability to make it look puzzling.
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Opening weekend of the 2019/20 Premier League season could equally have left Manchester United fans feeling fabulous or even fallow.
Yes, a 4-0 thrashing of rivals Chelsea – an opponent United have struggled hugely against in recent times – was exhilarating, epic, exactly what was needed. Other more pessimistic fans, however, would perhaps have concerned themselves with the fact the margin of defeat was harsh in the extreme on the visitors, who were the better side for the majority of the 90 minutes.
Depending at which end of the spectrum they dwell – seeing as some consider it to have been a frustrating, while others would call it a fulfilling summer – United fans could well be planning to attend a Premier League title parade in May, or a group therapy session for dropping out of the top six.
The opening day win told us lots, and also little, of what to expect from United this season.
Harry Maguire will have tougher afternoons in a red shirt. But on his Red Devils bow, the 26-year-old England centre-back was resplendent. Despite the scoreline it was not all calm seas and plain sailing for the Sheffield United product.
In fact there were some choppy moments for United’s defence, especially in a first half that the visitors started brighter and looked in control of before Kurt Zouma’s clumsy concession of a penalty.
Frank Lampard’s side rattled Daivd De Gea’s woodwork through Tammy Abraham and Emerson, with Abraham and fellow budding Blues star Mason Mount looking comfortable after stepping up from shining in England’s second tier last season.
And yet, Maguire – already looking like he could be a future United captain – skippered the back line brilliantly as he and Victor Lindelof steadied the ship. United stayed afloat and, with Chelsea as well looking not totally comfortable as they search to find a new identity under record goalscorer Lampard and with star man Eden Hazard departed, eventually cruised to victory.
Maguire led United players – all players in fact – with seven clearances, four interceptions and two blocked shots (Chelsea’s Pedro also recorded four interceptions). While Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James had spent the summer bedding in at their new club, Maguire arrived only five days before the Chelsea game. And yet he played as if he’d been part of that back line for a decade, so smooth was his transition and so commanding his presence.
At right-back, Wan-Bissaka arguably impressed even more. The former Crystal Palace defender’s five clearances trailed only Maguire, he had one fewer interception while ‘Spider’ made six tackles, the best of any player on the pitch.
At 21 he already looks like he could be a commanding presence at the club for the next decade. In an attacking sense refinement is required but as seen in pre-season when he got on the end of a precision Paul Pogba pass to lay on Mason Greenwood’s goal against Leeds, it is an aspect of his game he and the club seem committed to enhancing.
For now that is a minor concern. Of major concern for United heading into this summer was improving their defence – one that shipped 54 goals last season, a worrying increase of 26 from the previous campaign. If that’s concerning alarm bells should be bellowing upon the revelation you have to go back 40 years – to 1978/79 – for when United allowed more goals in the league, 63.
It’s just the first game but a line-up of De Gea, Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof and Luke Shaw looks far superior to any back five that has started a game for United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
And it’s telling that United’s first clean sheet of the season at home is already only one fewer than they managed in 19 games in front of their own fans last season.
A small mention for De Gea too, who also put in a promising display that hinted at better to come. His legacy was certainly besmirched by an uncharacteristically error-strewn 2018/19 campaign that followed a poor World Cup.
Having ascended to become the world’s No1 goalkeeper from 2015-18, his stock fell starkly last season and he has now slipped a level below the likes of Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Jan Oblak.
But he was sturdy on Sunday and stellar saves from Emerson and Ross Barkley were ones routinely part of his repertoire once upon a time. A new contract is already believed to have been signed, despite no announcement by the club. But a stronger-looking four in front of him will give the 28-year-old the confidence to recover his reputation.
There was also enough on show further up the pitch to suggest a new hope ahead for United’s attack. Despite adding two quality players to a creaking defence over the summer, United fans’ ire after the closing of the transfer window last Thursday was directed Ed Woodward’s way due to no addition of a midfielder or striker.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion but the eruption of emotion appeared over the top. Sure, big name players like Ander Herrera and Romelu Lukaku have left and not been replaced. But when it’s suggested a successor for Marouane Fellaini has not been found, you know supporters are clutching at straws.
Whereas United’s defence has always been suspect in the post-Ferguson years, their attack has seemed more dormant. There are several weapons there, but they’ve been unable or unwilling to fire as one.
Anthony Martial’s first season at the club – he was 19 – remains his most productive and United fans wonder whether he will ever truly prove his worth. Marcus Rashford has his own issues, chiefly dealing with being a Manchester lad and the burden of becoming the next local hero.
Despite the fact he has surpassed many league and club records – scoring more goals (26) from 100 Premier League appearances for United than Ryan Giggs (25), Wayne Rooney (24) and Cristiano Ronaldo (19) – the fact United have fallen on faltering time means patience is in short supply.
But when it clicked in the second half on Sunday, Solskjaer’s attack looked sublime and in sync. Martial and Rashford dovetailed delightfully as they switched between the central striking role and the forward cutting inside from the left flank.
Jesse Lingard – another figure of fun and frustration throughout his United career – came alive and buzzed around the pitch with intent, while Welsh flyer James proved when he came on that he can give United an added dimension in attack.
He made N’Golo Kante – admittedly far from 100 per cent fit – look like he was standing in cement as he won a foul late on. The former Swansea man might not relish the prospect, but he’s surely going to be spending a lot of time on the floor this season.
Fans may fume that while not the most mobile or technically gifted it was foolish to let Lukaku leave for Inter Milan with only 17-year-old Greenwood as back-up to Martial and Rashford – there’s also a certain Chilean waiting in the wings after a red-hot Copa America performance.
But it’s clear from United’s new high-pressing energy and slick attacking structure the laborious Lukaku did not have a future in Solskjaer’s system, and that the manager is also happy to back his emerging stars.
Let’s hope the fans’ enthusiasm for this season and this new-look team is similarly speedy.
Manchester United experienced an eventful transfer window in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first summer at the club. The Red Devils experienced mixed fortunes as they managed to complete some good business but failed to acquire the signatures of a couple of big names who were linked.
Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James arrived while Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia, and Romelu Lukaku departed. United’s attempt to rope in Paulo Dybala to bolster the front-line failed to bear fruit.
Did United enjoy a great window? Is the squad now well-equipped to take on the challenges in the new season?
A 4-0 win at home to Chelsea in their season-opener provided a few answers but we take a closer look at each department and grade them based on quality and depth.
Goalkeepers – B+
Two years ago, David de Gea could claim to be the best goalkeeper in the world. But the Spaniard was error-prone at times last season. He did stand guard behind a very shaky defence but some of his errors were inexcusable.
That said, the wider evidence suggests he is still one of the best in Europe and among the top three in the Premier League. The additions in front of him will no doubt see the De Gea of old reemerge in 2019/20.
Back-up stopper Sergio Romero barely featured last season, but the Argentine is arguably the best back-up goalkeeper in the English top-flight.
Defence – B
The back-line was the most improved with the arrivals of Maguire and Wan-Bissaka. While defences as messy as United’s were last season can’t transform overnight, the Red Devils have made great signings and are now on the right path.
Maguire and Victor Lindelof will be claiming the starter’s spots in central defence in all likelihood but a fully fit Eric Bailly could offer some competition to the latter.
Marcos Rojo, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones form the band of back-up centre-backs along with the Ivory Coast international. These players are either past their prime or were never at the required level from the beginning. The promising Axel Tuanzebe though could prove to be a big boost in this area after an impressive pre-season showing followed an outstanding season on loan at Aston Villa.
The Red Devils boast of an able pair of first-choice full-backs in Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw. The back-up for the former, Diogo Dalot displayed great potential last season and provides cover. However, the lack of options beyond him is obvious. An ageing Ashley Young must step up his game to fill in for Shaw when required.
Midfield – C+
The midfield can be a C+ or even a B, depending on which version of Paul Pogba graces the pitch. At his best, the Frenchman is among the top-five midfielders in the world and can elevate the quality of any team. But he can also go missing in games.
Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira are favourites to partner him in midfield, assuming Solskjaer has set his mind on grooming the youngsters and forcing the likes of Nemanja Matic and Juan Mata to play second fiddle. Fred will also offer depth in central midfield as the Brazilian has not done much good to his chances of landing a starter’s role.
United are lacking creativity beyond Pogba. The rumoured transfer of Christian Eriksen was hence more of a necessity than luxury and the Red Devils should have pursued the Denmark international with more conviction.
The defensive aspect of the midfield is secured by McTominay with Matic as cover but an injury to Pogba could see United suffer in an attacking sense.
Attackers – B
United’s attack, much like it’s midfield, is hit and miss. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have quality but lack consistency. The duo can comfortably score a brace against a top team but fail to keep a healthy goal-scoring streak.
James showed promise while at Swansea and scored a goal against Chelsea on his debut as a United player. The Welshman has the potential to make the right-wing role his own.
Mason Greenwood and Alexis Sanchez add to the depth in attack. The former can certainly develop into a key player in the future.
Sanchez starred at Arsenal but has failed to establish himself at his new club. He may still have the quality to turn around his fortunes and showed that with a couple of decent games during the Copa America.
United’s attack is well-equipped to create all sorts of trouble for the opposition but the lack of a prolific goal-scorer is alarming