The Red Devils escaped with three points from Molineux after thriving in both penalty areas
“You’re allowed to have good players in either box,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer gesê. As someone who built a fine career on being sharper and quicker-witted in the penalty area, he is proof. In this instance, egter, he was defending Manchester United’s defence, citing Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s remarkable goal-line clearance and David de Gea’s brilliant double save, plus an assured, auspicious debut from Raphael Varane.
Dit was, as Solskjaer swiftly added, a theory that was equally applicable to the other penalty area, equally pertinent to Mason Greenwood’s clinical winner at Wolves. Unmentioned in that answer, maar framing everything was Cristiano Ronaldo, who arrived at Old Trafford the first time as a flamboyant figure on the flanks and will return having transformed himself into arguably the most potent penalty-box player since Gerd Muller.
A cardboard cut-out version of Ronaldo was in the stands at Molineux. The real thing is unlikely to spend too much time in the Old Trafford dugout. “He’s not signed to sit on the bench,” said Solskjaer. “I want him in the box, scoring goals. I see him more as a centre forward.” It renders Ronaldo a threat to Greenwood before he can even trouble opponents. The last-ditch move for the Portuguese – whether inspired, opportunistic, sensational, unnecessary or any combination of them – alters the striking equation at a time when the teenager has scored in every game for the club so far this season and was seeming to leapfrog Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial to take the job as United’s main centre forward. His finishing has been magnificent. His three goals have come from shots with an expected goals value of 0.08, 0.10 en 0.06 onderskeidelik. He is turning half-chances into goals, whereas Wolves turned golden ones into another blank. United beat Wolves in the penalty areas. They could defeat plenty of other teams in similar style: na alles, 198 of Ronaldo’s last 215 league goals have come from inside various 18-yard boxes.
“You’re allowed to have good players in either box.” In as much as there is a footballing doctrine of Solskjaerism, maybe it boils down to that. Perhaps there is no grander philosophy, beyond a belief in counterattacking, youth, pace, adventure and a love of all things United, but in recruiting Varane to join Harry Maguire in the middle of his back four and in getting an excellent defensive right-back, in Wan-Bissaka, he has got better players in United’s own box. He has often insisted De Gea is the world’s best goalkeeper, despite some evidence to the contrary, but perhaps his Molineux heroics suggested a player who will never pass the ball like Alisson and Ederson is returning to his best as a shot-stopper.
Their rivals may have more attacking midfielders, perhaps more creative figures just outside the box, but United have more out-and-out forwards: factor in Marcus Rashford and they have five potential No 9s plus the most prolific No 10 in the division. Solskjaerism has come down to good players, to Cavani, to Rashford, to Paul Pogba, most of all to Bruno Fernandes.
But while Pogba stroked some fine passes and was instrumental in United’s best period at Molineux – as well as a controversial presence in Greenwood’s winner – they had certain issues between the two boxes. Taking Pogba away from the left wing, where he proved so creative, felt a pre-emptive move to cram in another attacker even before Ronaldo arrives. He and Fred were a mismatched duo, the Brazilian enduring a second-successive traumatic trip after his poor display at Southampton. Varane is accustomed to being shielded by Casemiro at Real Madrid. A debut may have provided a shock.
United were disjointed and disconnected with Wolves more convincing in midfield, aided by Ruben Neves. They looked the better-coached side, the slicker, the more coherent. Perhaps it makes United the anti-Manchester City, given Pep Guardiola’s famous fondness for midfielders. But maybe they are also the anti-Liverpool and the anti-Chelsea: Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel prize players who bring positional sense and control and leave the goals and assists to the front three. With the quintuple assister Pogba pressed into service in a deeper role, United were more open but the finisher in Greenwood enabled them to prevail in the penalty areas.
Solskjaer’s rivals may feel games are dictated in midfield. The Norwegian would argue they are determined in the box. In Ronaldo, he will soon have one of the most dominant box players of all, but United are looking to outstanding individuals to compensate for collective deficiencies and failings elsewhere.