Manchester United appear to be a work not in progress but regression. Ralf Rangnick is overseeing a team who set out with a structure against Crystal Palace, his first game in charge, but have since slid slowly backwards.
João Moutinho’s sweet 82nd-minute volley handed Wolves a first league win at Old Trafford since 1980 while starting an inquest into where United are headed under an interim manager whose two main tenets seem to have gone awol.
First, the “godfather of pressing” seems, oddly, to have eschewed his beloved mode of intensive shutting down. Second, the 4-2-2-2 to which he adheres has become aimless and misshapen.
Before Moutinho crashed home – from a Phil Jones headed clearance – Romain Saïss hit a free-kick off the excellent David de Gea’s bar. United had existed in a quasi-survival mode for the entire game, which is hardly how to prosper.
This, though, is precisely what Wolves did, moving to eighth place, one behind Rangnick’s side, courtesy of scintillating team play and the brilliance of Moutinho who, at 35 years and 117 days, is the oldest player to score a Premier League winner at United.
“What I want is to help the team,” he said. “Winning here at Old Trafford is amazing for us. Phil Jones headed out the ball – I said I need to shoot: a beautiful goal.”
Jones’s first appearance since January 2020 – an FA Cup tie, 707 days ago – vied with Bruno Fernandes’s failure to be reinstated following a one-game suspension, as the headline team news. Jones, who suffered a string of injuries including a serious knee problem, was chosen because of the unavailability of Victor Lindelöf, Harry Maguire and Eric Bailly – the first two with knocks, the latter because of Covid – as the 29-year-old partnered Raphaël Varane in central defence.
Fernandes’s non-selection was different: an uneven season featuring five goals, plus United’s win against Burnley here last time out, meant Rangnick felt neither Mason Greenwood nor Jadon Sancho should make way for a footballer who has, in essence, been the de facto captain.
From the opening kick United were forced to ball-watch. And when they did wrest hold of it Cristiano Ronaldo, captain for the night, and Luke Shaw were both careless. But Greenwood showed the way: a Nemanja Matic chest-and-pass to the youngster was as slick as the latter’s skip infield and arrow into Sancho. This had him bursting in on goal, and though his shot disappointed – and ignored the overlapping Ronaldo – United hoped this might settle them.
But no: the rest of the contest was dire from them, as De Gea again emerged as their finest performer. Jones – until the error that allowed the winner – also impressed, following one commanding header with an intercept of a Nélson Semedo crossfield ball. The former England man, though, was unable to stop Daniel Podence’s run-then-shot which forced De Gea into a sharp save. From the subsequent corner United’s goalkeeper next had to leap towards his top right-hand corner to repel Rúben Neves when he blazed from 20 yards out.
Wolves were a blur of gold. Podence nipped in and Aaron Wan‑Bissaka toed the ball out for another corner. When United threatened a breakaway from this, Jones passed straight into touch. “Control” has been Rangnick’s mantra yet United enjoyed zero. After Semedo became the latest Wolves man to burn De Gea’s fingers from close range, a sequence involving Ronaldo, Scott McTominay and Wan-Bissaka ended in Sancho’s effort being blocked.
Podence next slipped by Jones, swivelled, and tested De Gea’s reflexes with nothing close to the Rangnick high press in evidence. When Semedo did exactly this on Sancho suddenly Raúl Jiménez was keeping De Gea honest – once more – from distance.
Remarkable, too, was how Edinson Cavani, McTominay, Wan-Bissaka and Ronaldo could commit schoolboy howlers. The right-back did so in a phase that allowed Wolves to break before Ronaldo’s intended backpass of a header went close to setting-up Jiménez for the opener.
A Cavani 30-yard attempt that sailed over José Sá’s goal summed up United before the interval: toothless. Francisco Trincão being stymied at the death by Jones at close range was Wolves in microcosm: impressive.
So the visitors continued in the second half. Podence and Jiménez were thorns up-front and a Saïss 50-yard surge from centre-back posed United another problem. Only Greenwood’s rapier thrusts appeared to offer the insipid home outfit a chance of what would be a shock strike yet when Fernandes came on it was the England youngster who was hooked.
This caused boos and Rangnick’s thought-process baffled – Sancho had been far less effective. Still, Fernandes soon crashed the ball off Sá’s bar, and Ronaldo headed in – he was offside – then hit a chance wide when racing clear.
These misses were costly – Fernandes had an added-time free-kick beaten away by Sá, too. By the final whistle, huge credit had to go to Bruno Lage and his team. But Rangnick now has to show what he possesses as this was the poorest outing yet under him. He may wish to point to the five unbeaten matches before this reverse, but all of these were against moderate opposition.