A new Premier League season kicked off for Wolves at Old Trafford on Monday evening, and there was plenty of post-match talking points as Gary O’Neil’s side fell to a narrow – yet controversial – defeat in his first game in charge.
VAR causing a stir
Wolves received quite a few apologies from referees chief Howard Webb following decisions which went against the Old Gold last season, and in the opening match of the new campaign, O’Neil’s men are one for one. The head coach confirmed PGMOL referee’s officer Jon Moss had apologised to him following full-time last night after Sasa Kalajdzic was taken out by Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana in the closing moments of the 1-0 loss.
Referee Simon Hooper did not award a penalty, while Michael Salisbury on VAR checked the decision, but did not deem it a clear and obvious error – despite most pundits, viewers of Monday Night Football and O’Neil himself, who picked up a booking for his protests to the fourth official, thinking otherwise.
After the match, legendary Wolves full-back Andy Thompson said: “I’m still shaking my head. I’m looking at the replay in front of me and I’m just trying to think about what the VAR people looked at to not give a penalty. I just don’t understand.”
The Matheus’ shine
Monday was a good night to be called Matheus at Old Trafford as Messrs Cunha and Nunes put in a pair of superb performances for the Old Gold. Cunha walked away with the Man of the Match award, while Nunes showed a true glimpse of why Wolves brought him to the club just over 12 months ago, as he completed six dribbles against United – the most of anyone on the pitch.
Thompson: “How many times did Cunha keep breaking through that central position? We were able to play our way out from the back quite easily because of the confidence and also because of the positions of the players, and once Cunha set-off, he was gone and they couldn’t catch him. He did that all night.
“Nunes has just got great acceleration. When you watch him, he’s just so smooth with the way he moves. They’ve got great feet and they’re strong at running with it. Nunes is quite strong and he holds of players well, moves it with his feet and then he’s gone. If we can keep those two fit and keep them going the way they are, they are going to cause teams so many problems because there’s nothing worse as a defender than someone running through that central position and opening things up.”
🪄 83 touches— Wolves (@Wolves) August 15, 2023
💨 6 dribbles
🧠 5 interceptions
💪 16 duels won
Setting the tone for the whole team performance 👏 pic.twitter.com/92qAmbZ5Pr
Chances created but not taken
Wolves’ tally of 23 shots against United was the second highest figured recorded at Old Trafford since 2004 and only Chelsea managed more in November 2005, and they also lost 1-0. This time, the Red Devils snatched victory from O’Neil’s side with Raphael Varane’s late winner, but the visitors produced more than enough on the night to have come away with a positive result.
Thompson: “I thought Wolves played really well throughout the game and they broke through Man United many times and caused massive problems. They struggled to actually get anywhere near Cunha and Nunes, but I just thought it was a great team performance. We defended really well, got caught a couple of times from a little bit of sloppy play, but I think generally, Gary O’Neil will be pretty happy with how Wolves have played – apart from the result.
“My only concern is that we’re creating the chances we did, but we’re not scoring again. We can’t keep doing that, plus, we can’t miss easy chances. If you’re getting in front of goal and you’re getting an opportunity in front of goal, you’ve got to hit the target, make the goalkeeper work or you’ve got to score. But if you keep hitting the target, eventually you’re going to get the goal and score. Especially with the amounts of efforts we had.”
One lapse proves costly
Throughout Monday night’s match, Wolves were more than a match for Man United, and looked to be defensively sound. Centre-backs Craig Dawson and Maximilian Kilman combined for 10 aerial balls won – while the whole of the United squad won just seven between them. Nelson Semedo and Joao Gomes topped the charts for tackles within those in gold shirts with four each, while Kilman and Rayan Ait-Nouri made four blocks each. But despite this solidity, it took just one lapse in concentration which the hosts capitalised on.
Thompson: “I thought they defended really well as a team, all over the pitch. I thought they pressed well, they closed Man United down, they hunted in packs and made it difficult for Man United to play with the ball, and they just made it so difficult. But for the goal, a couple of players got caught out of position.
“Lemina switched off and got caught ball watching, and Ait-Nouri has then got caught outside by Wan-Bissaka and he’s put it into an area where there’s three Man United players to attack it. But that just shows you what the Premier League is about. Wolves have had all the good play and all the chances, but you can’t afford to switch off.”
Rayan's magic feet.— Wolves (@Wolves) August 15, 2023
A surprise package
Ahead of this season, Wolves were considered by many in the media as one of the teams who could end up finding themselves in the relegation places come May, but the 90 minutes of action at Old Trafford has changed the opinion of most. Throughout their summer dealings, Wolves have maintained the core of the team which helped to keep the club in the Premier League last season, and with the addition of Matt Doherty, Fabio Silva and Sasa Kalajdzic, as well as Cunha, Joao Gomes and Pablo Sarabia adapting to the Premier League thanks to six months of English football under their belts, it could be an exciting season at Molineux.
Thompson: “Everybody wrote them off. I can’t remember what programme it was, but about five pundits were looking at the teams who they thought would go down, and out of the five of them I think four went for us. I know everyone was disappointed with the amount of people who have left this summer, and I was one of them, but we’ve got some quality players in that squad and we’ve shown it with the way that they played.
“And the lads that came on, I thought Silva looked sharp, I thought Hwang looked sharp, so it just shows that we’ve got quality in depth as well. You look at the bench and it just shows the quality we’ve got. It was a really good performance from them in the end, but it was a shame that we didn’t get anything out of the result at all.”
Thompson was talking to Mikey Burrows on Wolves’ official post-match podcast, Matchday Live Extra, which is available to listen to now on all podcast providers.