Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
José Mourinho has never lost back-to-back home league games as a professional football manager. But only some familiar Wolves profligacy kept that enviable record intact on Saturday afternoon.
No Premier League club has undershot their expected-goals (xG) tally more than Wolves this season. Just ask Burnley, who gave up five big chances to Nuno Espirito Santo’s side last week — yet only lost by a single goal.
Raul Jimenez has been the prime culprit in this regard. Only Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus has missed more big chances than the Mexican striker. No surprise then when the 27-year-old spurned the first of two big Wolves opportunities after six minutes. Repeating the feats of last season, David de Gea defied the xG odds with a stupendous reflex stop.
Mourinho once again plumped for a 4-3-3 here, with both wide players asked to come inside when Manchester United had possession. The onus, therefore, was once more on Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia to offer attacking width. Wolves, content to sit deep and counterattack, duly attacked the spaces United’s full-backs vacated.
Right-winger Helder Costa, who stayed higher and wider than fellow flanker Diogo Jota, found particular joy in behind Shaw. And it was Costa, in skinning the England left-back, who teed up Jimenez’s early miss, after a typically pinpoint switch-of-play from Ruben Neves.
With United focusing their attacks down Wolves’ right-flank, Shaw spent a lot of time in the opposition-half. Victor Lindelof, therefore, was regularly exposed by Jimenez’s frequent darts into the inside-right channel. And through his clever movement into that very space, the Wolves striker won two early corner-kicks for his side — both taken by Joao Moutinho, and both headed goalward by a Wolves centre-back. First Paul Pogba and then Chris Smalling lost one-on-one duels, as Ryan Bennett headed narrowly over, and Willy Boly directed his point-blank header straight at de Gea.
United were living a charmed life, but Costa’s threat also represented an opportunity. Nominally a 5-4-1 in the defensive phase, Wolves regularly left the zone to Moutinho’s right unmanned. Enter both Pogba and Alexis Sanchez who, along with Jesse Lingard on the opposite flank, won several dangerous free-kicks in the half-spaces. Pogba himself forced a wonderful save from Rui Patricio with one such dead-ball. But it was in open-play that the hosts would decisively exploit Costa’s absence.
Sanchez, otherwise maddeningly wasteful, popped up in that very zone. Pogba manufactured the Chilean’s cleared cross into an assist with an outrageously improbable piece of skill. And Fred finished the move with an accurate strike from outside the Wolves area. Fred and Pogba had combined well between the Young Boys lines on Wednesday night too, hinting at a potentially fruitful partnership to come.
The Brazilian’s excellent finish handed United an unlikely half-time lead, neatly masking the final-third dysfunction that once again beset his side. Mourinho’s men failed to attempt a single first-half strike from inside the Wolves area, as poor final balls from the likes of Sanchez and Pogba — looking for space in behind Wolves that wasn’t there — regularly lead to breakdowns. Unsurprisingly, Romelu Lukaku again cut an isolated figure, with the Belgian striker managing only eight first-half touches — only one of which was effected in the opposition 18-yard box.
Meanwhile, down the other end, Marouane Fellaini was tasked with protecting his own penalty-area. For the third consecutive league game, Mourinho gave the big Belgian the nod in the holding midfield role. Logical against the aerial heft of both Burnley’s Chris Wood and Watford’s Troy Deeney, Fellaini’s deep deployment came as something of a surprise here. Although, the suspension incurred by Nemanja Matic against the Hornets may go some way toward explaining it.
At any rate, Fellaini performed the same party trick again, dropping between his centre-backs to effect clearances when the opposition worked the ball wide. It was a tactic that worked perfectly against cross-happy Burnley, but its folly was highlighted at Vicarage Road when no United midfielder was in situ to intercept Abdoulaye Doucouré’s cut-back to Andre Gray.
Fellaini was in line with his centre-backs at the time, you see. And neither Matic nor Pogba, who was busy letting Doucouré reach the byline alone, twigged the danger. Santo must have watched the video, as Moutinho popped up free on the edge of United’s area to curl home a Jimenez lay-off. Fellaini was again acting as a fifth defender, and Fred bafflingly chose to act as a sixth. Pogba started the whole move off, with a self-indulgent flick that allowed Neves to pick his pocket.
And Shaw was guilty, too. Already on a yellow-card for fouling his tormentor, the full-back allowed Costa to reach the byline once again. Scenting blood, Santo introduced the dribbling king, Adama Traoré, in Costa’s stead. But, although the winger rocketed in behind Shaw on three occasions, poor final actions — the bane of his short career — cost Wolves a famous counterattacking victory.
Mourinho was looking for all three points too, of course. But only through some very rudimentary, and grimly familiar, means. Predictably, Fellaini was promoted to the number-10 position immediately after Moutinho’s leveler, and United proceeded to pump long balls at him until the final whistle. The Belgian positioned himself well up against Wolves’ wing-backs, but couldn’t make much of his teammates relentlessly hopeful diagonals.
United finished the game having fashioned precisely zero big chances, reliant only on good fortune and their goalkeeper to keep their manager’s famous home record intact. Against a newly-promoted side, albeit one overpowered by its profitable relationship with Jorge Mendes, that is simply not good enough.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112