What a way for Premier League football to return to Molineux. There really wasn’t a better suited opposition to come and launch our league season at home. A grand old name, beset by issues over the past few years, some of which they suffered most with against ourselves. If our last three fixtures against Manchester United were anything to go by, we were favourites going into this game.
The way we dismantled a pretty wretched side last season, gave us a sense of parity with our supposedly more illustrious opponents. This is, however, an opposition that managed to splurge over £130m on a shaky defence. They immediately looked more confident. Nuno himself is one of the biggest exponents of ensuring a solid foundation. Aaron Wan-Bissaka feels unbeatable at times at full back. Harry Maguire is a formidable presence, and a first team captain from a young age, no matter the price tag. United were simply a lot better now.
The other thing that perhaps took us by surprise was the amount of respect they paid us. This was a genuine effort to stop us playing, as much as a way to get a foothold in the game. Solskjaer spoke post match in reference to ‘last season’ and he wasn’t generalising – this was specifically about those games at Molineux in March and April. They duly succeeded in overwhelming us and a number of our contingent were having their poorest games in recent memory. Ruben Neves was being pressed like a pair of trousers, he stood limp and unable to change the flow for basically the entire first half. The movement of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial seemed to frazzle Ryan Bennett, Conor Coady and Matt Doherty. Both were moving into the channels between wing back and centre back, finding too much space and time on the ball.
There was an inevitability to us going behind, an effervescence to United that we seemed unable to get to grips with – I’d not seen us so open under Nuno for seemingly months. Our front two seemed at odds with each other, seemingly moving in the opposite direction to each other for the entire 45 minutes. It was disjointed and chaotic – the antithesis of our modus operandi. The game perhaps hinged on a moment just before half time, when Mattial pounced on a slack pass, before treading on the ball on his way to goal. A lifeline.
While there was applause at half time there was a sense of concern around the ground. Had we lost our mojo against the Top 6? Have we not progressed as a team? The second half went on to prove we had more in the locker. We all knew we weren’t doing ourselves justice, but a brave substitution proved pivotal. Many a fan will have admitted to not trusting Adama Traore on the off chance that Matt Doherty was unable to continue. Many a fan would have happily nodded in agreement if Ruben Vinagre emerged at half time, with Jonny switching to the right flank. But Nuno was a braver man than all of us, entrusting his summer’s coaching of Traore into a delicate situation. He got his rewards.
Traore is nothing if not a walking, talking ignition, ready to set fire to any game. As with fire, the results can be spectacular or disastrous. This was more towards the spectacular end of the school as roasted Luke Shaw on a spit on numerous occasions. He again, may not have been overly productive but given the passive nature of Doherty’s performance – seemingly injured or otherwise stricken – this was just what the doctor ordered. We do tend to improve after half time although I often think that’s a deliberate ploy. This time we needed Traore’s fire lit under our backsides.
We came roaring out the traps and while Neves was frankly poor for most of the game, we always retain the ability to produce a moment of quality. That is what it took to equalise and that is what we will fall back on at times this season. There’s no shame in not creating lots of gilt-edged chances if you can just pop the ball into the top corner from the edge of the box.
My second blog of the league season and my second mention of VAR. Impetus, momentum, whatever you may call it, is an important facet in football and ours was robbed by the absolute shambles of a VAR check that came after this goal. Nuno summed up my thoughts perfectly – I need not scribe any more on the matter. It did mean though that we failed to really capitalise on our fast start to the second half and United grew back into the game. The penalty or a similar level of chance was coming again and our defence will need to be checked over in the aftermath of this. Patricio came to the rescue though and we should be pleased with a point.
The games are coming thick and fast and teams will look to overwhelm us with intensity. Everyone will see the hectic schedule and think they can be the ones to knock us out of our stride, but squad depth has passed test number one in the right wing back position at least. There won’t be too much time to reflect, but game-by-game we move forward. What a week we have in prospect.