Looking to build on the foundation of a solid season-opening victory, Manchester United face an interesting challenge at Molineux on Monday, when a confident and in-form Wolverhampton side look to further their stellar start to the campaign.
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United had some nervy moments to start their season last Sunday at Old Trafford facing Chelsea, with a poor clearance in the third minute leading to a Tammy Abraham shot that cannoned off the left post after it had beaten David De Gea. But a penalty earned by Anthony Martial led to a penalty converted by Marcus Rashford in the 18th minute, and those anxieties settled.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team would blow open the match in quick-fire succession in the second half, first through Martial in the 65th minute and Rashford completing his brace two minutes later. Summer signing and substitute Daniel James added a fourth nine minutes from time at the Stretford End, and while the 4-0 scoreline over Chelsea may have been flattering, the three points that came with it were deserved.
Aside from the near blemish early, United looked composed at the back as marquee summer signing Harry Maguire slotted in straightaway in central defence and worked well with Victor Lindelof. Solskjaer singled out the England international for his composed play with such high expectations given his record £80 million move from Leicester City and thinks there is more to come.
“He’s very level-headed,” Solskjaer said at his Friday news conference. “He’s just as composed off the pitch as he is on the pitch. He’s experienced, he’s a big presence around the place, he’s smiling and he’s a personality that you like to have around.
“To have a cool head at the back is important. The defenders who are level headed and not too emotionally affected are great to have, for a manager and for a team. Harry’s only been here for a little bit more than a week and he’s been very good to have around the club.”
The other trouble spot on the back line for much of last term – right back – was also a place of success as Aaron Wan-Bissaku looked confident both in attack and defence as little was generated by Chelsea’s left flank.
For all the talk of Paul Pogba moving on in the August transfer window – something that could still happen across Europe – the France international was composed in partnership with Scott McTominay. He assisted on Rashford’s second goal and was instrumental in the buildup for James’ first United marker.
“I think Paul can do many jobs. He can do the attacking midfield job. Today, he was more of the link player and when you’ve got Victor Lindelof, Maguire and David De Gea at the back, you can play like that,” Solskjaer said of Pogba. “He was asked to play that sitting role and he had to do lots of running in the first half, but we’re fit and he’s fit. That third goal is a fantastic pass and the run for the fourth – I just wanted him to go all then way and open his legs and finish it himself.”
Solskjaer also discovered his best formation may be a 4-4-2 to give Rashford and Martial more space to use their pace as United found more success when Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard were in more reserved roles.
As United continue to learn about themselves, Wolverhampton (0-1-0) will enter this contest as the grizzled, veteran squad in which one point will not do after their Europa League adventure took another step forward. Wolves are through to the final playoff round opposite Serie A side Torino after a 4-0 dismantling of Armenia side Pyunik at home Thursday to advance 8-0 on aggregate – a record goal margin in European play for the club.
If they defeat Torino over two legs they will enter the group stages of Europa League proper along with Arsenal and Manchester United.
“It’s a great challenge for the club. They finished in the same position – seventh – in Serie A as we did in the Premier League, so it’s a good battle,” Wolves No. 2 John Ruddy told the club’s official website about drawing Torino after notching a clean sheet. “The further you go in this competition, the tougher the opposition is going to be. We’ve got desires to do very well in this competition, and performances like we’ve put in already, in these early rounds, will stand us in good stead.”
The lopsided first-leg victory allowed Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo to make nine changes to the XI that opened Premier League play with a scoreless draw at Leicester City last Sunday, with only talisman Connor Coady and veteran Joao Moutinho as holdovers.
Summer signings Pedro Neto and Patrick Cutrone made impacts in their maiden starts – Neto scoring Wolverhampton’s first goal and Cutrone grabbing two assists in a 10-minute stretch when Wolves struck three times – and England Under-21 international Morgan Gibbs-White added his first competitive goal.
“My teammates have been dying for me to score. Every day they’re saying: ‘come on Morgan, when’s this goal coming?'” Gibbs-White said to the club’s official website, “And luckily enough tonight I got the goal in front of the Molineux stadium crowd.
“Pedro, Cutrone; they played fantastic. They came in, they’ve trained with us, they’ve took the words off the gaffer and they’ve been playing well.”
Despite coming off the bench as reserves, Wolves’ attacking tandem Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota continued their blistering start to the season by combining on the final goal. Jimenez has four goals and an assist through the first five matches, while Jota has two goals and four assists.
The defence has been equally impressive, conceding a solitary own goal through five matches. Jesus Vallejo, who is on loan from Real Madrid, made his debut Thursday and is trying to find space on either side of Coady in the three-man back ahead of fellow centre backs Willy Boly and Ryan Bennett.
Wolves took four of six points in the regular-season meetings that bracketed a 2-1 victory at Molineux in the FA Cup quarterfinals. Jimenez factored in the three of the four goals Wolverhampton scored in the three matches while Jota scored two of them, but it was an own goal by United defender Chris Smalling in the 77th minute that separated the sides in Wolves’ 2-1 win in the most recent league matchup in April.
Odds and Ends, per Ladbrokes:
To Win: Wolves 21/10, Draw 21/10, Manchester United 27/20
Both Teams to Score: Yes 20/23, No 5/6
Over/Under 2.5 Goals: Over 6/5, Under 8/13
First Goal Scorer Wolves — Jimenez 5/1; Jota 11/2, Cutrone 11/2; Gibbs-White 15/2
First Goal Scorer United — Martial, Rashford 5/1; Greenwood 11/2; Pogba 13/2; Sanchez 7/1
Anytime Goal Scorer Wolves — Jimenez 21/10; Jota, Cutrone 23/10; Gibbs-White 16/5; Neto 4/1
Anytime Goal-Scorer United — Martial, Rashford 9/4; Pogba 13/5; Sanchez 14/5; James 7/2
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Wolverhampton 1, Manchester United 1.
PREDICTED HALFTIME SCORE: Wolverhampton 1, Manchester United 0.
PREDICTED FIRST GOAL-SCORER: Raul Jimenez