At the end of his press debrief in the Billy Wright Stand, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer half-joked he was ‘happy not to see you all for two weeks’. Solskjaer appeared unhappy with the final question about why he only made a substitution once Manchester United had conceded.
“He was just getting ready, Andreas [Pereira], wasn’t he,” Solskjaer bristled. “He was already stripped off, that’s just one of those things, might have happened just before but we didn’t do enough.”
For a man who was brilliant off the bench, Solskjaer was dormant on it at Wolves. His dissatisfaction with the first-half could be gauged by Fred, Andreas Pereira and Scott McTominay warming up within minutes of the restart. Around the hour mark, Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna leaned in under the dugout cover as Solskjaer appeared to prepare the first change. Only it was a reactive one.
Solskjaer’s proactive in-game management impressed even in defeat at Arsenal, where United dominated until Fred was harshly penalised. At Molineux, Solskjaer inexplicably persisted with the same 11 players in the same formation for 70 minutes, all as United gradually worsened. He was stumped.
The expectation was United would match Wolves’ back three set-up, just as they did midway through the first 45 at The Emirates six days earlier. United were deprived of Romelu Lukaku, returning first-teamers were not fully fit and there was only one right-sided option available in Diogo Dalot. Solskjaer suggested there would be a change of system on Friday and indeed there was, only it was the tried and trusted 4-3-3.
It was extraordinarily naive to assume the previously established front six of Nemanja Matic, Ander Herrera, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford could gel again at, of all places, the best non-top six Premier League side. Especially since half were patently not 100 per cent match fit; Martial and Lingard were recalled for their first starts in over a month, Herrera appeared for the first time in almost three weeks and Matic, pedestrian at the best of times, was not at his optimum.
A source close to Lingard said they were ‘amazed’ he had started and described it as a ‘massive risk’. Lingard appeared unwilling to contest physical altercations and wandered too deep when he is at his best operating closer to the penalty perimeter. Martial, cowed by the lashing rain at Huddersfield last season, regressed in similar conditions against the marauding Matt Doherty. Neither Pogba nor Rashford, the fitter forwards, could offset the attack’s ring-rustiness. Pogba, captaining United, showed just why Jose Mourinho felt he was not ready to assume full-time responsibility.
Solskjaer overloaded the side with his untouchables and too hastily discarded players with momentum, which also deprived him of game-changers on the bench. Scott McTominay’s stock has never been higher, partly due to his omission in the last two losses, and Fred could also feel affronted by his demotion. In what was a monumental match for Solskjaer, selecting his best outfield 10 was forgivable, if they were all fully fit. The international fortnight is an opportunity for Solskjaer to reassess his first XI.
And for Ed Woodward to atone for his lack of transfer activity in the summer. Solskjaer effectively encountered the same recurring problem Mourinho had in the first four months of the season, which is United do not have the desired quality of centre halves to play a back three.
Of all of Solskjaer’s misjudgements at Wolves, not picking a defensive trident was the decision which, as he put it, ‘played into their hands’. United opted for a rigid 4-3-3 against Wolves in September, when Nuno Espirito Santo’s produced perhaps the most accomplished display by a visiting side to Old Trafford this season. Eight of Wolves’ starters lined up again at Molineux and, of the three changes, one was in goal. That Solskjaer has referenced reverse meetings before his appointment as part of his analysis makes the oversight all the more galling.
Although Solskjaer, like Mourinho, is limited, for there is only so much you can do when the options to supplement Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof are Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo. Bailly, a walking disaster in Paris before he returned to the bench on 36 minutes, walked off the coach at Wolves and did not make the bench. Jones was back on it, having missed six matches through what Solskjaer said was an illness.