Pre-Match Social Media Talking Points
Competitive football returned to Old Trafford tonight as Manchester United clashed with Wolves to kick-start the 2023-24 league campaign for both outfits, with Erik ten Hag coming to grips with Gary O’Neil, who made his managerial debut for the club as the youngest Wolves manager this century.
With expectations surrounding the Red Devils sitting high coming into the season after the club added André Onana, Mason Mount, and Rasmus Højlund during the current summer window, most felt that anything less than a comfortable three points to begin life anew once again would have been below par.
Wolves appeared to be more bright under O’Neil in the opening stages, committing bodies forward in transition and into the final third given the quality on offer in the forward line, but it was United who nearly broke the deadlock at the ten-minute mark when Marcus Rashford was put through into the penalty area via the right half-space by Antony only for his effort to be kick-saved away by Jose Sá.
Wolves’ ability in transition and on the break was on display once again in the 27th minute when Matheus Cunha picked the ball up in his own half before going on a rampaging run through midfield and skipping past three defenders before laying off Matheus Nunes to have a crack at Onana’s goal, only for his effort to be deflected wide of the mark.
O’Neil’s troops so nearly found the back of the net once again seven minutes later, with Cunha critical in another break into the final third when the Brazilian was put through by Nunes, but the former Atlético Marid and RB Leipzig forward could only hash his effort wide when he should have otherwise tested Onana at the very least.
United had appeals for handball turned away from match official Simon Hooper three minutes later when Rashford’s goal-bound header in the wake of Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross struck Semedo’s arm, but it was deemed incidental with the Portuguese unable to avoid contact.
Last-gasp defending by Max Kilman spared Wolves blushes after they gave possession away in their third of the pitch after Rashford smartly got into the penalty area only to see his effort blocked before likely beating Sá with pure power, and the resulting corner would come to nothing before both sides went into their respective changing rooms at half-time.
Ten Hag would make one change at halftime, bringing on Swedish international defender Victor Lindelöf in place of Lisandro Martínez after the Argentine became an increased risk to receive a second booking before proceedings were concluded.
But it would be Wolves, again, to so nearly find the back of the net with Nunes marauding 60-meters from his own half and into the United third before putting a shot-come-cross across the face of goal was nicked on by Sarabia to Cunha only for the Brazilian to somehow miss an open near post and instead rattle the vertical woodwork.
It was Cunha yet again who drove from midfield through the lines and into within 20 yards of goal but his bending effort was comfortably turned away by Onana as alarm bells began to sound across all corners of the Theatre of Dreams.
Ten Hag would make two more changes with a little more than 20-minutes left, taking off debutant Mason Mount and youngster Alejandro Garnacho, for Christian Eriksen and Jadon Sancho in a bid to inject some semblance of creativity on a night where the Red Devils were sorely lacking.
And yet again, however, it was Wolves to look the better side despite Sancho immediately getting into the area, but a poor pass by Antony would see Wolves once again break through Cunha, who ultimately laid off second-half substitute Hwang Hee-Chan, whose effort founds its way to Neto before the Portuguese could only hash his effort right at a grateful Onana.
But almost as if this story has been written so many times across so many years of Premier League football, United found a way to take a lead no one can say they deserved when Fernandes put Wan-Bissaka into space down the right channel for his lofted cross to find Raphaël Varane to head home past Sá with just fourteen minutes remaining.
Wolves would keep pushing as they did all night in the final ten minutes, forcing Onana into two saves at his near post to deny substitute Fábio Silva twice in two minutes, with O’Neil throwing in his last remaining dice when he brought on big Austrian international striker Saša Kalajdžić in the final moments before stoppage time in a bid to earn a point that Wolves undoubtedly deserved at the very least.
In the dying embers of the match, Onana’s attempts to come out and claim a cross saw him not only miss the ball but also punch Kalajdžić in the face, only for VAR to review the incident and shockingly not give Wolves a deserved penalty.
United would come away with a 1-0 win which gave them the desired result to start the campaign on the surface, but the inquest is sure to begin after the Red Devils put in a performance that otherwise would have finished with Wolves comfortable winners should they have put their chances away. In truth, United was poor, and there is plenty of time to amend matters on the pitch, but this was hardly a way that Ten Hag would have wanted to start the engine.
As for Wolves, it’s unquestionably heartbreaking for a side that, at the very least, deserved a draw but probably should be coming away as winners, Ultimately, O’Neil deserves immense credit for banding together a side that many tipped to be in and around the relegation dog fight, but on this evidence, will certainly bag wins this season in sufficient quantity to remain out of the bottom three...provided they find form in front of goal.