Truth be told, Manchester United would probably have been very happy to know that it would take four points from its first two games of the Premier League season, back when the fixture list was announced.
A home game with Chelsea and an away match at Wolverhampton Wanderers is hardly the way anybody would like to ease into the new campaign, let alone a team coming off a disastrous 2018-19 season and a transfer window that was a disappointment to a lot of its fans.
It’s early. Drawing conclusions at this point puts you in peril of endless ridicule over the 36 weeks of the season still remaining. But United has made a promising start to the new season, a 4-0 hammering of Chelsea and Monday’s well-deserved 1-1 tie at Wolves, drawing a stark contrast with last year.
That annus horribilis was lowlighted by Jose Mourinho’s December firing, never-ending player grumbling, a resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, only to then a stumble to the finish line with a mere two wins from the last nine league games, placing sixth, five points out of the Champions League berths.
But here are the Red Devils, who perhaps deserved more out of their night at the Molineux than a point. After all, they controlled all but the first phase of the second half, when Wolves hit the post and then bagged their equalizer from Ruben Neves’s long shot off the underside of the bar:
That goal canceled out Anthony Martial’s authoritative left-footed strike in the first half:
And if Paul Pogba had converted his own penalty in the 68th minute, United’s outlook would have been rosier still.
Still, United should be happy with their performance. Solskjaer’s team looks more solid than it has for many of the half-dozen season it has spent in the wilderness since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. His side looks simplified, in a strange way.
United once again expected to make splashy signings over the summer but did much less than that. To the annoyance of a vocal band of its fans, Pogba was not offloaded to Real Madrid. Neither did someone with the attacking profile of Gareth Bale, Christian Eriksen or Jadon Sancho arrive. Instead, defenders Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka came, as did winger Daniel James. Unspectacular signings, bought from domestic competitors. Hardly the momentum-shifting buys, or so it was believed.
Meanwhile, United dumped underperforming striker Romelu Lukaku on Inter Milan. Alexis Sanchez, stuck in the same kind of purgatory, appears to be following him in the coming days. Ander Herrera left on a free transfer. One by one, the excess pieces are leaving. It’s made for a more streamlined team, relieving the congestion in the lineup and on the training ground, making things a bit clearer and more straightforward, perhaps.
Solskjaer has kept it all fairly simple. The tactics aren’t complicated – a rudimentary 4-4-2, for the most part. The roles won’t be deemed revolutionary by anybody. United has become unfussy again, the way it was in its best days.
A relative calm has taken hold, it seems. There is no longer the perpetual stress of living under the operatic Mourinho. Or the fatigue of the pedantic and controlling Louis van Gaal. Or the panic when David Moyes withered under the glare and expectations. The Pogba thing seems to be settled and he’s playing well.
And players who had been underappreciated in the chaos have thrived. Luke Shaw has dominated the left flank. Martial has regained not only the No. 9 shirt, but also the confidence of fans and teammates and perhaps himself. Not long ago, Mourinho had given up on him and reportedly wanted to move him on. Never mind that he scored double-digit goals in three of his first four seasons in Manchester, in spite of never being made an automatic starter and that he is, today, still only 23.
United controlled the first half, moving the ball well, working steadily and methodically. They were controlled, confident, dragging Wolves around the field with solid ball movement. All they gave away defensively was a long Raul Jimenez dribble.
In the 18th minute, Martial came up just short of tap-in at the far post under pressure from defenders after Marcus Rashford teed him up. But nine minutes later, he applied a terrific finish on a lovely team move for his 50th United goal. Jesse Lingard and Rashford combined well, with Shaw running interference, to position the Frenchman for his terrific finish.
On the brink of halftime, Martial almost had a clear run at goal but suffered an unfortunate bounce.
Wolves were more assertive in the second half. Jimenez got an early look and then pinged a header off the far post from a free kick with David de Gea well beaten. And in the 55th minute, Ruben Neves curled a set piece corner in off the underside of the bar from outside the box for the dainty equalizer.
In the 68th minute, Pogba weaved through the Wolves box until he got taken down, but he insisted on taking his own penalty kick and it was saved well by Rui Patricio:
RUI PATRÍCIO SAYS NO ❌ pic.twitter.com/sUnNxHFAeq— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) August 19, 2019
United had regained control by then, but a late push for a winner fell short with a game long on scoring chances yielding no more opportunities. And the visitors’ frustration at the final whistle was telling. They’d have been happy with the point not so long ago. Now it felt like they’d left two on the table.
Because this United, this simpler United, right now, so early on, looks better than most anybody had expected.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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