Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, this rejuvenated Manchester United team have won in Paris and London – five times in the capital, in fact – but it is in Wolverhampton that they always seem to find themselves down and out.
This was the third defeat in four games for United’s newly appointed long-term manager and the second in 17 days at Molineux, where a team who will play in a FA Cup semi-final on Sunday have now beaten United twice in a season for the first time since the 1979-1980. Eliminated from the FA Cup last month, United’s second defeat was damaging to their top-four prospects in a week when Arsenal took third place, two points clear of United in fifth with a game in hand.
There was a red card in the second half for Ashley Young that came just as United had tried to recover from a first half in which they had let the game slip out of their control. For Solskjaer, the challenges of the new era were clear to see, and nowhere more so than in his old skipper Young, one of the few left in the squad who never hides when it gets tough, but who is increasingly vulnerable against opposition as sharp as Wolves.
He went for two yellow cards in quick succession before the hour, the rare honour of being the 100th player to be bid an early farewell in the august Premier League career of referee Mike Dean. This was a United team with echoes of the Jose Mourinho era: a dominant start betrayed by an inexplicable falling away and then individual struggles, including another night when David de Gea did not seem to be quite the goalkeeper he might be.
It was also one of those nights when Solskjaer seemed to be casting around for the right formation, this time with three central defenders, one of whom was Young. The winning goal for Wolves was eventually pushed in by Chris Smalling, the unwilling recipient of a badly aimed downward header from Phil Jones, on as a substitute in the post-red card organisation.
“We created our own downfall,” Solskjaer said, his team having taken the lead via Scott McTominay in a flurry of three chances in the first 17 minutes that United should have done better with. The United manager said he had played Young as a centre-half in the Champions League second-leg comeback against Paris St-Germain and believed he could do it again. Solskjaer praised the performance of Rui Patricio in goal for Wolves, and seemed to think his team were unlucky to come away with a defeat.
There were so many improvements that could be made to this United team, and not just in midfield, where Joao Moutinho and Ruben Neves got the better of Paul Pogba. Fred, starting just his third league game this year, looked far from a player who cost £52 million. By way of comparison, Wolves paid £5 million for Moutinho.
For the home side, Nuno Espirito Santo played all the big guns, having paid the price for resting some of his first-choice side against Burnley at the weekend. His side go to Wembley on Sunday to face Watford with their first league win in four and full of confidence. Diogo Jota, the scorer of Wolves’ equaliser, looks like one of the sharpest attacking players in the Premier League and the man whom Young fouled twice in five minutes to earn his red card.
Solskjaer was without Marcus Rashford, who reported ill earlier in the day and did not travel. In that strong opening for United, Romelu Lukaku missed with a simple header and so too did Jesse Lingard. Between times, Fred fed the ball to McTominay on the edge of the area and he swept a fine low right-footed shot past Rui Patricio’s right hand.
United lost their way after that, with Moutinho and Neves permitted to dictate. By the end of the half, Wolves should have had more than just their single goal, beautifully taken though it was. Fred slipped on the ball and Wolves pounced with a sharpness that had eluded them in the opening stages. The ball went from Moutinho to Leander Dendoncker and Raul Jimenez’s sweet pass found Jota with the space to score.