Raphael Varane’s second-half header was enough to edge Manchester United to a 1-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the two sides’ opening fixture of the 2023/24 Premier League season on Monday night.
Varane nodded home from close range with just under fifteen minutes remaining at Old Trafford to earn his team the points, but football fans and pundits alike would admit that Erik ten Hag’s men were fortunate to win the match given their surprisingly under-par performance that coincided with an impressive Wolves display.
The visiting side’s new boss Gary O’Neil was vocal after the match after a dubious refereeing decision late on not to award a penalty in stoppage time after Andre Onana clattered an opposition player inside the area, but it had already been and gone at that point as United got up and running for the new campaign.
How it went down
After having just five days to work with his new set of players, Wolves boss O’Neil would have been impressed early on in the match with his team’s structure and cohesion as United struggled to create any passing sequences or shooting opportunities of worth.
The away side were edging the mental battle early doors, enhanced after Lisandro Martinez was cautioned with a yellow card following the Argentine’s rash challenge on Pedro Neto as the pair raced down the line in the 17th minute.
The first big opportunity of the match came just after twenty-five minutes when Matheus Cunha escaped a wrath of challenges and set up Pablo Sarabia, but the former Paris Saint Germain player could only drag it wide after a slight deflection sent it out for a corner.
The Wanderers squandered another big chance soon after the half-hour mark after Cunha raced in behind Martinez down the right-hand side of the attack before powering a finish across the face of goal and narrowly wide.
The underwhelming home side had a penalty appeal waved away in the latter stages of the first half when Marcus Rashford- teed up by Aaron Wan-Bissaka- had his goal-bound header blocked, but appeals for handball were waved away as the defender in question clearly had his hands by his sides.
Martinez was withdrawn at the interval by Ten Hag, assumingly due to his earlier booking, but it was later revealed by Varane after the game that the centre-back was nursing a minor injury at half-time and the manager felt it was better for him to come off. On came Victor Lindelof in his place.
Wolves had by far the best of the chances at 0-0 just minutes after play resumed when Cunha failed to convert from a matter of yards away as Onana and Varane scrambled across goal to block the effort. It looked like it hit the outside of the post from a tight angle as a golden opportunity went begging.
A frustrating period of the game endured for United as they struggled to create any decent opportunities to score. The moans and groans were ringing around the Theatre of Dreams, and rightfully so as a group of professional, international footballers failed to make the simplest of passes.
It was not until the 69th minute when Christian Eriksen and Jadon Sancho replaced Mason Mount and Alejandro Garnacho, respectively, that the Reds had some quality and urgency about them.
The sudden burst into life was what prompted the winning goal. In the 76th minute, Bruno Fernandes played a pin-point, chipped pass to Wan Bissaka inside the area, who lofted a looping ball across goal where Varane nodded it in to score his second Premier League goal and save United from what looked like inevitable opening weekend blushes.
Facundo Pellistri- scorer of the equalising goal in stoppage time of the draw with Athletic Club in United’s last game of pre-season- came on to replace Antony after the goal, with United looking to manage the game accordingly now they were ahead. Rashford made way for Scott McTominay with only a couple of minutes left of the ninety.
Bizarrely, referee Simon Hooper opted to add seven minutes of additional time onto the match, leaving just about everyone puzzled.
Wolves huffed and puffed in added time, with a weary United side struggling to get out and play the ball. Luke Shaw made a notable block to prevent a shot from getting anywhere near Onana, with just about every red shirt camped in Wolves’ final third.
The Old Trafford crowd held its breath as a VAR review was called after Onana appeared to have wiped out Sasa Kalajdzic when he came to claim a cross in the last minute. The decision not to award a penalty has sparked widespread debate in the footballing world, with referee Hooper, video assistant referee Michael Sailsbury and assistant VAR man Richard West not having any involvement in this coming weekend’s league fixtures. The decision comes after the PGMOL were forced to come out and appologise for what has been deemed an obvious error.
Nonetheless, United got over the line and the game finished 1-0.
Final Score: Manchester United 1-0 Wolverhampton Wanderers (Varane 76’)
Player ratings and lineups
Starting XI: Andre Onana (6), Aaron Wan-Bissaka (7), Raphael Varane (7), Lisandro Martinez (off 45’) (5), Luke Shaw (6), Casemiro (6), Mason Mount (off 69’) (5), Bruno Fernandes © (5), Antony (off 77’) (5), Alejandro Garnacho (off 69’) (5), Marcus Rashford (off 88’) (5).
Substitutes: Dean Henderson, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelof (on 45’) (6), Diogo Dalot, Scott McTominay (on 88’) (6), Christian Eriksen (on 69’) (7), Facundo Pellistri (on 77’) (6), Jadon Sancho (on 69’) (7), Anthony Martial.
Man of the match
In a game of such little attacking quality, it is hard to overlook the match-winning defender, Varane, for Man of the Match.
The Frenchman came up with a vital header in the later stages of the game to give his side the win that they never looked like getting.
Yet, aside from his obvious contribution on Monday night, the 30-year-old was one of the better outfield players on the pitch across the course of the ninety minutes. It would be naïve to call it a sensational showing, as United did concede a lot of chances, but it was steady from the centre-back on a personal performance level.
Varane commanded from the back and was tidy in his passing. As simple as that is, it was more than what a lot of players offered up, and for that reason- alongside his match winning header- he has to be the one to take the award.
The bigger picture
It is disheartening to think that many fans were expecting a comprehensive, three or four-goal thumping from United against a club that has got rid of its better players over the summer and has signed very few faces, also having let go of their manager Julien Lopetegui in the last week.
Wolves had the most shots at Old Trafford (23) than any other side has had at the ground since Chelsea back in 2005. Any other side in the Premier League would have punished United on Monday.
Fortunately, yet ironically, the Wolves were toothless when attacking.
You would have to question why United were so poor. Many suggest that it was down to United underestimating Wolves, but that would be a sorry excuse given the competitive nature of the English Premier League.
Woefully, certain United players were absolutely wasted for energy after seventy-five minutes, which was concerning given that Wolves and other sides this weekend have looked like they have never been away.
Onana, aside from a reckless lunge late on, looked good on his competitive debut. As for Mount, he simply looks like his confidence is a bit shot from his poor season last campaign. It looks like it will take a goal or two to get him into gear, but his effort cannot be disputed. One of the biggest cheers of the first half from the home crowd came when he won the ball back inside his own penalty area.
Rasmus Hojlund will hopefully be integrated into the first team squad soon, as Rashford does not really suit that striker role like the manager will be wanting him to, through no fault of his own, though. Martial did make the bench, but with his injury record, fans should have low expectations of him.
Seeing Fernandes and Mount operating so far forward and leaving Casemiro to cover two or three players on his own is a concerning sight. If Wolves can topple the Brazilian defensive midfielder, any side in the league can, really. Perhaps a more grounded midfielder needs to play alongside him like Fiorentina’s Sofyan Amrabat to help him out, but with Mount being the new no.7 and Fernandes now the captain, where would another midfielder fit in?
Seeing Henderson and Maguire on the bench was a sight for sore eyes in the context of United’s transfer window. Outgoings are just as important as incomings, and funds are currently not being raised like they should be. The manager has given every indication that he wants neither of them to stay, so some movement needs to happen around those two securing transfers, soon.
Fans can only hope that United were rusty. Time will tell.
What is next?
Next up for Ten Hag and Man United, it is a visit to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London as United take on Spurs at 17:30 (BST) on Saturday 19th August in the Premier League.
After that, a week later on Saturday 26th August, United host Nottingham Forest in the Premier League, kicking off at 15:00 (BST) at Old Trafford.