Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United kicked off their respective FA Cup campaigns against each other at the Molineux on Saturday, which means one of them had to say farewell to the possibility of winning the trophy straight away. A contest between these two, at full strength, would have been easy to predict once upon a time. After all, it is a clash between a team that is an occasional Premier League feature against one of the most successful clubs in the history of English football.
However, things are very different these days. The days of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United are long gone, and current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is just the latest name on the list of those who have tried (and failed) to pick up where the legendary Scotsman left off when he retired in 2013. On the other hand, Nuno Espirito Santo has put together a team capable of troubling anyone. They’ve done a league double over defending champions Manchester City, and even the runaway leaders Liverpool truly had a hard time against them not too long ago. They were undefeated in the last four encounters with United, winning and drawing twice.
Espirito Santo cannot count on Morgan Gibbs-White who has started training after a long injury absence but cannot play yet. The same goes for defender Wily Boly, but forward Diogo Jota is out, without a time-frame on his absence at the moment.
John Ruddy was in goal. Leander Dendoncker, Conor Coady and Max Kilman formed a three-man back line. Romain Saiss and Ruben Neves held the middle of the park, flanked by wing-backs Matt Doherty and Ruben Vinagre. Striker Benny Ashley-Seal was upfront, between wingers Adama Traore and Pedro Neto.
Solskjaer was without midfielders Paul Pogba and Scot McTominay through injury, while forwards Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard were both sent home from training on Friday, having fallen ill.
As expected, Sergio Romero stood between the posts. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were directly in front of him, with Brandon Williams on the left and Ashley Young on the right. Nemanja Matic and Andreas Pereira were the midfield pair, while Juan Mata played further up in the number 10 role. Daniel James and Tahith Chong supported striker Mason Greenwood in attack.
The First Half
The first notable moment of the game came after five minutes as Ashley-Seal broke forward for Wolves, but he wasn’t quick enough to escape the United defence. The visitors tried to respond soon after through Greenwood, but the youngster failed to get his shot anywhere near the target.
A lot of the battles were being fought on the flanks. On one side United mostly attacked and the pace of James looked potentially problematic for the Wolves’ defence, but on the other, Vinagre often pushed forward and forced Chong to retreat far back into his own half.
Traore was also active, and the home team came close in the 12th minute as Saiss’s header almost ended up in the net, and in the aftermath, Romero produced an incredible save to deny Doherty from close range. These chances led to Wolves taking the initiative, and United were forced to drop deeper collectively and defend.
Solskjaer’s men then went for a more patient approach, keeping the ball in their own half for longer spells to draw the opponent out, before trying to hit quickly, but the home team was very resilient when defending. It wasn’t easy, but with around 20 minutes gone it seemed United were slowly gaining control. Referee Chris Kavanagh was allowing a lot of contact, and Maguire and Lindelof took advantage of that to clatter young Ashley-Seal to the ground without consequences a few times.
But though they were now dominating possession, the visitors weren’t concentrated enough on the ball. Their passing left a lot to be desired, especially in the final third, making Wolves’ defending a lot easier. It happened sometimes near the halfway line and that’s when they could have been in trouble, but luckily for them it was mostly Ashley-Seal or Neto, and not Traore, trying to take advantage. In the 28th minute, however, Traore turned and left Williams for stone and would have probably escaped Matic too, had Maguire not produced a well-timed tackle to dispossess the pacey winger.
Three minutes later United had a penalty appeal as Dendoncker’s mistake almost allowed Williams a clean view of Ruddy. As the Wolves defender tried to make amends Williams went down, but the referee waved ‘play on’ and VAR later confirmed his call.
Most of the first half passed in the two teams alternating in short periods of looking dangerous, but as the break approached, United were tightening the ring around Ruddy’s goal. Wolves’ defence was occasionally put through serious tests, but it came out thumbs-up with captain Coady putting in another respect-commanding performance.
The Second Half
The first thing to note in the second half was that Espirito Santo had obviously decided to rustle some feathers during the break – Ashley-Seal was left in the dressing room and first-choice striker Raul Jimenez took to the pitch, much to the delight of the home fans.
Whether it was due to the presence of Jimenez or not, the home team came out strong and pushed United far back in the opening minutes. They had a few promising attacks, while the visitors had trouble getting the ball across the halfway line. Another big worry for Solskjaer was Romero going down holding his hamstring in the 50th minute. It could, of course, have been a trick of the Argentine goalkeeper to cause a disruption in the flow of the game – he recovered quickly and made a good save soon as Neto charged down the middle and blasted a shot on target from the edge of the box.
Two minutes later, it was Espirito Santo’s turn to worry. A head-clash between Lindelof and Neves left the Wolves midfielder on the ground holding the back of his head and the medical staff was called upon. Their intervention lasted quite a while, but Neves too continued playing.
United had a decent free-kick opportunity as Saiss earned the first yellow card of the game by taking out Chong some 25 yards out in a position good for a left-footed player. Mata stepped up and missed the far post by an inch as Ruddy stood rooted to the spot. It was as close as either team had got to taking the lead up to that point.
United were once again pushing their lines forward with an hour gone. It was interesting to note how efficient they became in dealing with the pace and trickery of Traore. Whenever he tried to burst forward on a counterattack he was caught in a tight triangle between James, Williams and Matic, completely closed off.
But the rest of the Wolves team were still to be reckoned with. They occasionally managed to disrupt United’s game and push them back again, and that’s when the visitors simply couldn’t afford three players on one and Traore looked dangerous again.
In the 70th minute, Solskjaer decided to shake things up and sent Marcus Rashford and Fred into the fray in the place of James and Mata. Rashford hadn’t spent 10 seconds on the pitch when a golden opportunity suddenly presented itself to him inside the box, but he was thwarted by another great piece of defending from Coady.
Soon afterwards, Kilman picked up a booking for taking out Chong with a cynical late tackle. Chong stayed down injured and had to be taken off the pitch for medical assistance, but it was Espirito Santo who made the next move. Jonny Otto came on to replace Vinagre.
Less than a minute later, Jimenez broke into United’s box but failed to score from a tight angle, and then a bit of controversy followed. A great cross from Otto found Doherty in the box and Doherty put the ball in the net, but the goal was disallowed due to his arm playing a big part in directing it on target.
But the moment caused United’s focus to drop significantly and Wolves had them on the ropes for quite a while. Jimenez looked particularly lively in that period, beating opponents several times and hitting the post from an extremely tight angle.
Whether as a precaution against injury or a tactical thought, Solskjaer then replaced Chong with Diogo Dalot.
United had another penalty appeal with seven minutes remaining as Rashford went down under challenge from Neves, but the United forward was actually lucky to avoid a booking for diving on that occasion.
Both teams appeared a bit more nervous late on. Desire to snatch a late win and avoid the game being replayed at Old Trafford seemed to engulf them and they both tried to get the ball in or around the opposition box as quickly as possible, which naturally led to many mistakes and changes of direction.
There were six minutes of time added at the end, and at that point the home side became much more threatening than United. Lindelof and Maguire had their hands full, and even the midfielders were occasionally forced into their own box to join the back line. But when they managed to clear it, they quickly came out and pressed high. The fourth minute of stoppage time was passing when Fred earned a free-kick just inside Wolves’ half and the players of both teams moved in front of Ruddy’s goal, but the cross was eventually wasted. Then Dalot tried to be the hero with a 30-yard effort which ended up grazing Greenwood on its way out for a goal-kick.
And that was it.
It was an equal contest and in that aspect, the draw is certainly a fair result. Both teams had their chances, but both were also better at defending than at causing the opposition problems. Both seemed to be lacking creativity, and there will be players of both sides, such as Neves, Moutinho and Mata – usually very creative, who will have been disappointed with their own performances when in possession.
Be that as it may, the tie remains undecided for now and the clash of these teams at Old Trafford in less than two weeks will decide who goes to the next round of the FA Cup.
WOLVERHAMPTON WANDERERS: Ruddy 7, Dendoncker 7, Coady 8, Kilman 7, Saiss 7 (71′ Moutinho 5), Neves 7, Doherty 7.5, Vinagre 7 (75′ Otto 7), Traore 7.5, Neto 7, Ashley-Seal 6 (46′ Jimenez 7.5).
MANCHESTER UNITED: Romero 7.5, Maguire 8, Lindelof 7.5, Williams 7, Young 7, Matic 7, Pereira 6, Mata 6 (70′ Fred 6.5), James 7 (70′ Rashford 5.5), Chong 7 (82′ Dalot N/A), Greenwood 6.5.
YELLOW CARDS: 57′ Saiss, 73′ Kilman, 86′ Young, 90′ Moutinho.
REFEREE: Chris Kavanagh.
DATE & VENUE: January 4, 2020, Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton.
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