1. Good performance – deserved more
In spite of receiving plenty of plaudits for their victory over Chelsea, I was less enthused than most with United’s performance and felt that the score line could have been the other way around had Chelsea got the first goal.
The performance against Wolves however was a big improvement, with United more than deserving of the win and very unlucky not to pick up all 3 points. Wolves spent the bulk of the match penned into their own half thanks to United’s high press and tireless work off the ball. Anthony Martial got the opener with a devastating finish. United’s domination of territory should have resulted in United increasing their lead, however it was Wolves who got the only other goal of the game via a well worked set-piece. In truth they were unlikely to score in open play such was United’s domination.
With an average age of just 24 years and 173 days, United’s response to the equaliser was impressive, with their dominance quickly reasserted on the game. The lack of cutting edge to capitalise on this dominance is something that may re-occur as the season progresses – with many baffled at the decision not to add to the midfield and attack during the summer window when it seemed so badly needed. Perhaps the mob in Florida could shed some light as to why not.
2. Solid at the back
Solid at the back: 4 words you could not have uttered in the same sentence as Manchester United last season (as images of Phil Jones doing his face; Chris Smalling’s pineapple head haircut and, well, Ashley Young come into view).
In fairness to the Florida Mafia, they did open their wallets to enable Ole to significantly upgrade right back and centre half in the mould of Wan-Bissaka and Maguire this summer. Both have made a telling impact already.
Wan-Bissaka has carried on his very impressive tour form into the new season and it doesn’t look like any winger will get the better of him at the minute. His style of defending is certainly unique – and shows a complete disregard for the common coaching instruction to avoid diving in. Diving in is associated with recklessness, however Wan-Bissaka seems to always time his lunges to perfection. At 21, he looks like he will be a key player for years to come.
The first time I saw Harry Maguire play was in the 2011 Youth Cup Final, where a United side featuring Paul Pogba, Ravel Morrison and Jesse Lingard got the better of Maguire’s Sheffield United. If you were to inform me that two of the players on the pitch over those two legs would be worth upwards of 80 million pounds over the next few years I would have been shocked to hear that Ravel Morrison wouldn’t be either one of them, having been head and shoulders above all others over the two legs. Maguire’s stocky build and subsequent injury woes would have suggested the route to the top would be a far tougher negotiation but perhaps it is testament to his work ethic and attitude that he is now an £80 million pound player (with work rate and attitude the same reason Morrison is not).
It is those characteristics that United sorely lack and you can see why Ole pushed the boat to make sure he got his man over the line this summer. Maguire looks future captain material and gave another very assured display against Wolves – particularly in his forays from the back with the ball, which will add another dimension to United’s play.
3. Plenty of energy
It was evident that fitness was a key focus in pre-season, with Solskjaer appalled at the condition of the players he inherited from the not-so-special one. It certainly seems that the workings over the summer months have made a big difference, with United’s high press and energy to win the ball back the most impressive facet over pre-season and opening league games.
Obviously adapting the playing squad helps, with Wan-Bissaka and James natural athletes, fitting perfectly into a high-energy game. Letting go of Lukaku, one of the laziest players Old Trafford has seen, since Boris Johnson featured in a charity match a few years back, also helps.
Wolves enjoyed great success against United last season but were completely shackled and overawed by United’s newfound energy on Monday night. As Mourinho ironically pointed out on his sales pitch on Super Sunday recently, recovering the ball when you lose it is a key aspect of modern football (with Man City showing the way). I would be curious to see the stats on ball recovery time, but it seemed that Wolves struggled to string more than 2-3 passes together before a United player would win the ball back.
My one concern with this type of game is that United’s squad is light on depth/quality so it will be a big ask for the playing squad to maintain this level of energy week on week as the season wears on, but so far, so good.
4. Martial, number 9?
Most United fans expected Marcus Rashford to assume the role of United’s central striker following Lukaku’s departure but it has been Anthony Martial who has occupied the role for the opening league games and the bulk of the pre-season matches.
The experiment, of sorts, has worked out quite well thus far. I say it is an experiment, however Martial was effectively bought as a young striker, but has seldom featured there for United, aside from the opening 3-4 months under van Gaal.
Martial never seemed at home on the left wing, often running into blind alleys while trying to beat 2 or 3 oncoming defenders. Of course, with better movement and more work off the ball he might have had the one-on-ones he so desired. It is this lack of movement which has greatly frustrated Mourinho, as well as Martial’s sulky demeanour. One thing Martial has in spades though is talent and it does seem that he is starting to marry that with an improved attitude and demeanour.
Solskjaer has rewarded that with a starting berth up top – harsh as it may be on Rashford. It has worked well so far, with Martial scoring proper poacher goals in both league games. His work rate has also been impressive, assisting with the high-press. Both he and Rashford have interchanged quite a bit also, keeping defenders on their toes. Martial’s goal against Wolves was an excellent finish and showcased the type of movement Ole will want to see more of. There is still a strong case for Rashford through the middle, lending to the form shown in United’s best patch last season where Pogba profited from Rashford’s runs over behind opposing centre backs. It is easy to forget how devastating Rashford’s form was until he picked up an injury against Liverpool and played through the pain to see out the season. Either way, it is a good problem to have and the competition between the two is very healthy. All said, they are both only keeping the hot seat warm for a certain Mason Greenwood!
5. Positive signs but no quick fix
United’s problems were never going to be solved in one transfer window (queue the abuse from hysteric United fans still whinging about the club not signing players they have never seen play).
Although I separately touched on United’s neglect in adding to midfield and attack potentially causing issues as the season wears on, in truth the most important aspect this summer was getting the right type of players in and carrying that trend on over the coming windows.
It seems from the early signs that all 3 signings tick a number of boxes in terms of the qualities and characteristics required to be a United player. It is easy to point at players the club should have signed, but given the number of paid scouts on the club’s books, I think they are better placed to judge the right type of players for the club, than a few blokes on Twitter. I still remember the furore following the window under van Gaal that saw Di Maria, Falcao et al join up and it was seen that the big names would make all the difference – we have learned the hard way that it doesn’t always work out that way.
The foundations are certainly being relayed with the current crop. It will take a few more windows and astute additions to get to a level that United deserve to be so patience is required, but the early signs are very positive. Expect the likes of Jadon Sancho and James Maddison to be targeted in coming windows. Both would be difficult and very expensive to attain but would certainly provide cutting edge and would keep in line with the club’s strategy to buy the best in class in Britain.
Competition at left back would also be welcome, however expect Ethan Laird to make a big push over the coming year or two. Laird is in the Greenwood and Gomes bracket of talents and were it not for injuries he likely would have went on tour over the summer. More at home at right back, given the level of competition currently existing there, Laird may prefer his chances on the left.
On the whole though, the showing against Wolves signalled a team on the up and hungry for more. I for one am very much looking forward to the journey ahead.