Manchester United beat Wolves without Marcus Rashford
Everyone needs an Alejandro Garnacho in their life. That shock of dyed blond hair, the exhilaration of acceleration, the impetuosity of youth, shirt off in celebration, thereby assuring his yellow card, and chest tattoo exposed: it gives you hope. And it gave Manchester United a lovely gloss on their victory here.
Of course, a raw 18-year-old Argentine is not the answer. And yet the roar that accompanies his introduction to a game indicates that people believe in him. He gives credence to the idea that United might be on the right lines.
It is a symbolic phenomenon rather than something substantial, for now at least. And yet here, having come on in the 82nd minute after seven weeks out injured, he provided sunshine on a drab afternoon.
What looked to be a laboured 1-0 win — though nothing wrong with that after defeats by Brighton and West Ham — became a comfortable 2-0 victory in the 94th minute, a moment of joy sending fans home inspired.
Defending a corner, United cleared to Bruno Fernandes. One touch from him and that blond bombshell was scampering into space, ball at his feet, turning Nelson Semedo — the lone Wolves defender back — this way and that.
Manchester United beat Wolves 2-0 at Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon to get their top four charge back on track
It was Anthony Martial who found the back of the net first in the 32nd minute of the game to put Erik ten Hag’s side ahead
Alejandro Garnacho extended Manchester United’s lead in stoppage time to see them win the game 2-0 at Old Trafford
He stopped, checked back and then went with his right foot after all, trying to curl the ball around keeper Dan Bentley. It was probably the wrong option and the ball spun off the post. And yet, fortune favours impulsive youthful instinct. The spin and trajectory of the ball saw it bounce along the goal-line and eventually veer into the net.
‘One of the aspects of the biggest talent is they take responsibility,’ said Erik ten Hag of his super sub. ‘They have the skills and the belief that they can dominate opponents and once again he did it.
‘He has a big impact in many games, either when starting or coming on. He is showing that when you score some winners — Fulham, or the assist against City and now the second goal here. Sometimes he lacks some things: the defence and transitions, pressing and you have to step up.’
A further list of improvements was suggested by Ten Hag: ‘Making decisions, scanning situations, when to go into one on ones, or get behind. When to go for goal, or give the extra pass, or get the assist rather than to go for your own success.
‘It’s decisions like that that make a good player a top player. That is the difference. But when you see it all over he is a huge talent and is brave.’
He is. He does not wont for confidence. And his goal was a counter attack straight from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer play book.
Which was fitting, as the stir around the directors’ box was for Solskjaer, serenaded from The Stretford End and the most in-demand selfie of the day, on his first return since departing last season for Ralf Rangnick.
As such, it was hard therefore to avoid comparing this team to his. Solskjaer’s team didn’t win a cup but were third and second in his full seasons on charge. Ten Hag is fourth.
Ten Hag (right) gave his young match-winner a ruffle of the hair at the end as United strengthened their top four hopes
Martial ended a goal drought when he punished Wolves to put United ahead midway through the first half on Saturday
There was an acknowledgement of his service on the day from his manager when he was taken off in the second half
It was a dismal afternoon in the Manchester sunshine for Wolves striker Diego Costa, who struggled to have any impact at all
That said, Solskjaer’s team were broadly set up to play on the counter attack against the best teams, Ten Hag’s maybe have more chance long term of competing with the best on their own terms, dominating the ball. He may be laying deeper foundations than Solskjaer’s short-term fix.
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
Man Utd (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 7, Varane 6 (Maguire 81), Shaw 7; Casemiro 6, Eriksen 6 (Fred 81); Antony 7, Fernandes 8, Sancho 5 (Garnacho 82); Martial 7 (Weghorst 69)
Subs not used: Malacia, Dalot, Pellistri, Butland, Elanga
Goals: Martial (32), Garnacho (90+4)
Booked: Shaw, Garnacho, Casemiro
Wolves (4-4-2): Bentley 8; Nelson Semedo 7, Dawson 6, Kilman 6, Gomes 5 (Bueno 62); Matheus Luiz 6, Neves 7, Lemina 6 (Traore 75)Pedro Neto 4 (Hwang 46); Matheus Cunha 6 (Podence 61), Costa 4 (Jimenez 78)
Subs not used: Jose Sa, Collins, Sarabia, Joao Gomes
Booked: Costa, Dawson
Referee: John Brooks (Leicestershire)
A major trophy secured, on course for Champions League qualification, what is not to like about Ten Hag’s first season at United.
The 7-0 defeat by Liverpool aside. And the collapse at Sevilla in the Europa League. Oh, and perhaps the 6-3 defeat at Manchester City.
We will ignore the 4-0 at Brentford: that was early days. BC in fact: before Casimero. An unlikely FA Cup win over City, especially if it were to deny their rivals the treble, would mark this down as the best season since Sir Alex departed 10 years ago.
Yet, as with Garnacho, they remain a work in progress. ‘It is in the DNA of the club,’ said Ten Hag. ‘United never go the easy way but again we have made the goalkeeper of the opponent man of the match. We have to be more clinical.’
Credit Wolves pair Mario Lemina and Ruben Neves with their midfield work in frustrating United. The introduction of Adama Traore late on almost provided the late equalising twist with his pace, Harry Maguire stepping in to cut out an 85th minute cross headed for Raul Jimenez to tap in.
There was perhaps too much caution prior to that, not enough thrust from Wolves. Their most notable moment was on 72 minutes, when Hee Chan Hwang was one on one with De Gea. He pushed the ball past him but too wide.
For a second he stumbled, trying to convince the referee he had been fouled, but the through better of it, picked himself up but the chance was gone.
Though United were playing like a team unsure of themselves after two defeats, Fernandes was swaggering in the freedom afforded him at the top end of a midfield three.
Raphael Varane made a first appearance in the first team since suffering an ankle injury against Sevilla in the Europa League
Wolves goalkeeper Daniel Bentley impressed deputising for Portuguese star Jose Sa in between the sticks, with the No 1 on the bench
The defeat for Julen Lopetegui’s side is their 18th of the season, however Wolves are no longer at risk of going down this term
After 32 minutes, he played the perfect pass for Antony to chase.
He reached the ball, pushed it on and anticipated the charge of onrushing keeper Bentley, who was making his Premier League debut at 29, neatly squaring the ball into the path of Martial for 1-0.
United’s second half was notable for its failure to build on their foundation. There were a succession of corners, there was the expected midfield stability from Casemiro and Eriksen.
What there was not was a potent threat or a build-up of momentum. Still, a win is a win and fourth place would represent a decent season, wouldn’t it Erik? ‘Ask me that question in two weeks,’ he said.