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For Manchester United, the bare minimum was to make a better start to this season than last and the bare minimum was what they delivered. The least convincing of 1-0 wins required a goal from centre-back Raphael Varane when their midfielders and forwards rarely looked like scoring and when United often looked like conceding.
They were spared by Wolves’ toothlessness as they scraped their way past a team widely tipped for relegation and whose manager had walked out last week. Even that is an improvement on 12 months ago, when Erik ten Hag’s reign began with a home defeat to Brighton and a 4-0 thrashing at Brentford, but this was a different kind of false start to a campaign.
Even the clean sheet for the debutant Andre Onana was partly an indictment, of both his defence and the officials. The £43m goalkeeper somehow avoided conceding an injury-time penalty for clattering into the substitute Sasa Kalajdzic. He had already made two smart saves in as many minutes from another replacement, Fabio Silva.
The problem was that he needed to.
In a match where Wolves had 23 shots, six on target and an expected goals total of 2.23, all significantly more than their hosts’ tallies, perhaps the deceptive statistic was the scoreline. It flattered United.
The more coherent gameplan came from Gary O’Neil, the manager getting to know his players, not Ten Hag, the one who has spent the best part of £400m assembling them. The side with the energy and the ideas were the one who were supposed to be in disarray, Wolves. If the players Julen Lopetegui left behind suggested his complaints that they needed new signings were overblown, they showed a solitary, but familiar, flaw at Old Trafford: they lacked a goalscorer.
With one, they would surely have won. The division’s lowest scorers last season assembled a compilation of misses. United, the lowest scorers in the top six, discovered defenders were their best form of attack. After Bruno Fernandes dinked a pass forward, Aaron Wan-Bissaka lobbed a cross and Varane headed in. The presence of each in the box was a sign desperation was starting to take hold. As United had barely created anything of note since Jose Sa saved Marcus Rashford’s 11th-minute shot, their intervention assumed particular importance.
Fernandes grew in influence in the latter stages but too many of the other attack-minded personnel were underwhelming. Mason Mount had been substituted at 0-0 and his was not a debut to savour. Alejandro Garnacho earned a starting spot with his performances in pre-season but, when it mattered, offered reminders he sparkled last season when brought off the bench, not when beginning games. One lob aside, Antony did not impress, even though his opponent, Rayan Ait-Nouri, is a left-back with defensive deficiencies.
With injury denying Rasmus Hojlund a debut, Rashford led the line, threatening intermittently but often starved of service, in a performance to indicate why he is actually better coming from the left. Meanwhile, Lisandro Martinez was booked for needlessly chopping down Pedro Neto and hauled off at half-time before he could be sent off. That Victor Lindelof replaced him was another slight to Harry Maguire, whose last taste of Old Trafford may be as an unused substitute.
But United were less than the sum of their parts. If the statement results this weekend, in different ways, came from Manchester City and Newcastle, they can at least take solace in the fact they are not playing catch-up from the opening weekend.
Wolves, meanwhile, may have the bittersweet distinction of producing the best performance among the teams who remain pointless.
Wolves manager Gary O’Neil is shown the yellow card
This was supposed to be an ideal time to play them after a summer of strife. They had done a fine impression of a club in chaos off the pitch, but not on it. O’Neil’s first game came five days after he was parachuted in, six after Lopetegui finally talked his way into unemployment, but the former Bournemouth manager seems a skilled troubleshooter.
There was continuity on the pitch, however: all 11 starters were at Molineux last season and the sole newcomer, substitute Matt Doherty, is also a Wolves old boy. A team with technical excellence and considerable physicality missed only the finishing touch.
Otherwise, they counterattacked well. Pablo Sarabia shot just wide after Matheus Cunha galloped 50 yards to lead a break. A barnstorming run, followed by an effort Onana saved, was another illustration of what the £44m man can bring Wolves; the problem is that, so far, he has not delivered goals. He drove a shot past the far post. He clipped the upright from four yards, following a delightful flick from Neto. He took his return since the start of last season to two goals in 38 games.
Ridiculously, Wolves did not start with any player who scored more than two league goals last year. None opened their account for the season and United could be grateful for their impotence.