Football Features

“Rarely did they look capable of genuine footballing quality” – Five things learned as Wolves hold Man Utd at Old Trafford

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 19:50, 1 February 2020

In a tight and tense night of football, Manchester United and Wolves played out a 0-0 draw.

The match was always going to be interesting given that both sides like to play on the counter, and interesting is about all it was. There wasn’t much created by either side. What did we learn?

1. Bruno Fernandes is different gravy

Bruno Fernandes starts the attack deep, shifting the ball around nicely before letting play develop as things go wide. He hangs back as United advance up the field and Wolves send men wide to cover. As this happens a space opens up ahead of the Wolves defence, a massive gap that Fernandes stands on the edge of. One pass into that space and the Portuguese can race forward and get a strike off.

But the pass never comes. And Wolves regroup, closing the space up.

This happened at least four times in the first-half, and only once did the ball even go to Fernandes and that was an accident as Luke Shaw’s cross was deflected by a Wolves defender into Fernands’ path. The Portuguese’s snapshot stung the palms of Rui Patricio, but no more. However had he received the pass on any of the other occasions, who knows what could have happened?

Now Wolves permanently closed that space up second-half, but throughout the game, Bruno Fernandes played with a composure and intelligence orders of magnitude higher than his United team-mates. He knows when to hang back, when to push on. Despite being a cavalier, risk-taking kind of player he was remarkably restrained, which bodes well for his future adapting to the hapless ways of United when Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba are missing. When they return and link with Fernandes? It’ll be different gravy.

2. The prison of ideology

Manchester United are a side built to play on the break. They have precious little capacity to have a lot of the ball and do intelligent things with it. They thrive in the wide open spaces on the break, running into channels, catching opponents moving backwards, that sort of thing.

Wolves are a side built to play on the break. They have some capacity to break teams down but it tends to rely on Ruben Neves or Joao Moutinho conjuring a pass from nothing, or a moment of Adama TraorΓ© magic. Primarily they thrive in the wide open spaces on the break, running into channels, catching opponents moving backwards, that sort of thing.

These two teams are ideologically identical. So when they faced off, who would blink first? Turns out, the answer is: neither of them. Being the away side, Wolves had , no intention of opening up in a meaningful way. United felt the pressure of being the home side and so as a result of this, had more of the ball and more of the initiative. Yet save for Bruno Fernandes and Fred, rarely did they look capable of any moments of genuine footballing quality and mostly were just hoping to catch Wolves on the break.

This is the prison of counter-attacking ideology. Either one team plays outside of their comfort zone, or we get a defensive affair where neither side wants to commit fully to attacking so chances, and fun, are at a premium.

3. Wolves look tired

Wolves are a phenomenal side, so well structured and organised, but they have played a lot of games. Thanks to Europa League qualification, their season started much earlier than everyone else’s and given their small squad, there’s way more minutes in those players’ legs. They have won just once since they beat Manchester City on the 27th December.

The fatigue showed today as they notably tired in the last 10-20 minutes and couldn’t even muster the energy to counter-attack properly against a wide-open United side. Adama TraorΓ© had to go off injured, Raul Jimenez was subbed off exhausted, could game-time catch up with Wolves? It would be a great shame for their season to peter out but so far it looks like it could be happening. Four defeats, three draws and just the one win in the last month is not good. Only Ruben Neves is continuing to excel, and one man can’t do it all.

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4. Luke Shaw and the infinite turning of the corner

Luke Shaw was excellent as a teenage full-back at Southampton. He joined Manchester United in 2014 and quite literally hasn’t improved since. Part of that has been his bad luck with injuries, part of it the revolving door of coaches with their various different directions and assessments of Shaw, part of it his own immaturity and United’s failure to realise that a 19-year-old leaving home for the first time might need a bit of life guidance. Whatever the reason, he’s not been good save for various brief performances that have been hailed as the moment that the Englishman turned the corner.

Tonight against Wolves was one such game. Despite being ripped apart by Adama TraorΓ© in his last meeting with the Spaniard whilst Brandon Williams had kept him quiet for two successive games, Shaw got the start today and repaid his manager with a genuinely impressive performance. Shaw was solid in defence, and alright he wasn’t great in attack but the fact that he essentially shut down TraorΓ© as an attacking force whilst also moving the ball through midfield smartly was a massive improvement. The question is posed once again: has Luke Shaw finally turned the corner? Or is this yet another false dawn? Time will tell.

5. Manchester United didn’t do enough in January

The Red Devils spent a lot of money to bring Bruno Fernandes into the club in January. They even brought Odion Ighalo in on loan on deadline day. That’s good, especially Fernandes, but United needed a defensive midfielder too to run the show from that position and truly unleash Fred and Fernandes as attacking forces.

They also need a right-winger of genuine quality to ensure that their creativity in the final third isn’t entirely dependent on Marcus Rashford. Daniel James has struggled so much because he’s not ready to be a starter and should instead be operating as a back-up and impact sub, but as United didn’t sign a winger, James has been overplayed (and Andreas Pereira or Juan Mata has to start with Rashford out).

Bruno Fernandes should be free to dominate in the final third but the lack of a proper defensive midfielder pulls the Portuguese deep to help organise things there, so he struggles to assist in attack which makes the lack of a winger even worse, compounding the problem of Aaron Wan-Bissaka being at his best on the defensive end of things.

They missed a golden chance to close the gap to Chelsea to four points today (ahead of a match against the Blues that could have reduced the gap to just one point). This was a huge blow. Manchester United are only two or three players short of being a genuinely great side (when everyone is fit, obviously) but the thing is, until they get those players back they are a million miles away from even being a consistently good side.

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