The Weekend Match: Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 Manchester United
They keep on going it, and people keep on being surprised by it. There remain a couple of areas in which they could yet strengthen – the centre of the defence still feels somewhat brittle, at times – but if there is a club in the Premier League that seems capable of expanding the division’s top six into a top seven at present, it’s Wolverhampton Wanderers. Last night, with a performance of outstanding game management and tactical nous, they dumped Manchester United out of this year’s FA Cup and moved forward to a semi-final at Wembley which serves as a useful barometer for the progress that the club has made over the last couple of years or so.
It can hardly be argued that this wasn’t a match that Manchester United didn’t want to win. With last week’s Champions League draw having picked Barcelona for them to play in the quarter-finals, the FA Cup was United’s best chance of marking the end of Jose Mourinho’s reign of terror and the susequent quiet revolution overseen by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer since Mourinho’s departure in December. While there remain enough positives to be taken from Solskjaer’s first three months of his time in charge of the club for him to remain the firm favourite to be given the job on a full-time basis come the end of the season, this result was a reminder that this three months has been the start of something as well as the end of something else. Manchester United remain almost unrecognisably stronger than they looked under his predecessor, but they remain susceptible to off nights and there are still improvements to be made to this squad of players come the summer.
For the first fifteen minutes, with five players stretched across a congested-looking midfield like an elastic spider’s web, Wolves sat back and allowed Manchester United to try and poke a hole in their defences. Marcus Rashford, nowadays sporting a buzzcut which hints that he may be considering a side-job as a contestant on Robot Wars, looked perky, but his shooting aim needed recalibrating, and with half an hour played it looked as though this Saturday night’s viewing might end up having more in common with a gritty documentary than light entertainment. Seven minutes from half-time, though, Manchester United had a quarter of a shout for a penalty kick denied when Diogo Dalot’s shot hit Jonny Castro Otto squarely on the elbow.
The kiss of good fortune that blessed Manchester United in Paris a week and a half ago, however, was conspicuous by its absence on this occasion this time, preferring to show its face in Sergio Romero’s excellent save from Diogo Jota a few minutes later after the Wolves forward was put through on goal by Reuben Neves. Replays of the handball at half-time confirmed that, even slowed down and shown from as many different angles as humanly possible, it was impossible to form much of a case for asying that Dalot had moved into his arm deliberately in order to block the shot. In all honesty, had a penalty kick been awarded to Manchester United as a result of this, it would have been something more than their first half performance had merited.
Ten minutes into the second half, Manchester United had an even bigger scare than Jota’s chance near the end of the first. Wolves had stepped on the gas a little since the interval, and when Moutinho’s firmly place header was acrobatically tipped away by Romero, it felt as though these particular Wolves were now knocking fairly insistently at the door and finding themselves getting closer and closer to blowing Manchester United’s house down with each passing attack. Three minutes later, Moutinho tested Romero again with a shot from distance. All the warnings were there, but it took until seventy minutes had been played before the spritely Raul Jimenez finally found a way through with a low shot that fizzed along the ground and into the bottom corner of the goal to give Wolves a lead they thoroughly deserved.
Solskjaer shuffled his pack after the goal, but by this time Wolves were starting to disappear out of sight, and eight minutes after taking the lead they broke quickly again, allowing Jota to shoot past Romero and in to put the result beyond a great deal of doubt. The goalkeeper might have done a little better with it, but to suggest that the second goal was anything less than Wolves deserved would be disingenuous, to say the least. It was, however, a reflection upon the confidence that the Manchester United manager has instilled in his players over the last few weeks that the game wasn’t quite dead yet. It almost became so when Lindelhof was given a red card for clattering into Jota, but three minutes and the involvement of the VAR later, the red card was reduced to a yellow, and with four and a half minutes of five minutes of stoppage time played, Rashford finally found himself with a turn and shot from a Luke Shaw cross to pull something back for Manchester United. With just seconds left on the clock, though, this wasn’t enough.
Manchester United’s season could yet go one way or another. The Premier League title is beyond them, but finishing in third place is far from beyond them, and their recent win over PSG in Paris in the Champions League might even have fuelled a little optimism that they could beat Barcelona over two legs and perhaps even the competition altogether. It’s unlikely, of course, but it’s a long way from where the team was following the home defeat against Liverpool in December which ended up being enough to end Mourinho’s time at Old Trafford. On the other hand, though, the Premier League will be won by either Manchester City or Liverpool, and the Champions League might well be, too. And, while third place in the Premier League should be attainable, it would be premature to take the foot off the gas in those league matches. Arsenal are gathering up a head of steam, whilst Spurs and Chelsea will be both well rested by the time that the Premier League resumes after the international break. Failure to qualify for next year’s Champions League is almost as possible as qualifying for it, for the time being.
Sometimes, a football result gives an indication of where a club is in a broader context than just that one result could ever articulate in itself. There are plenty of reasons to consider the means by which Wolverhampton Wanderers came by this team to be suspect, and the greater involvement of agents in the management of clubs doesn’t suddenly become a good thing because this one happens to be playing attractive football. Having said that, though, when they swept to the Championship title at the end of last season, there were plenty who argued that the optimism surrounding the club at that time was hubris that would unravel in the harsher environment of the Premier League.
This, it now seems reasonable to conclude, is not going to happen. Last night at Molineux, Wolves weren’t only exceptionally well-organised and well drilled, they were also flamboyant in attacking positions, inventive and bold. In a Premier League season that has broadly followed its script to a tee, they’ve been a revelation to those who didn’t see them last season, and look capable of buildig still further. It’s been more than two decades since they last reached an FA Cup semi-final and almost four decades since they last won a major trophy. Last night, they ended one of those runs and gave the closest sign possible that they could end the other as well. A trip to Wembley feels like an appropriate reward for such progress.