Manchester United host Wolves as the race for Europe gains momentum, and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer will be keen to build on midweek’s victory over Manchester City, all be it in a losing cause over the two legs of the League Cup Semi Final.
Solksjaer has had to adapt to the loss of Marcus Rashford through injury, and this has seen a tactical switch to five at the back in recent weeks, and whether he continues with this tactic against Wolves awaits to be seen, as they meet for the third time in a month after clashing twice in the FA Cup.
Wolves sit seventh in the league, level on points with Manchester United, and Nuno Esporito Santo will be eyeing this up as a key opportunity to close the gap to those in front and reinforce their European ambitions, particularly with four of the top six playing one another.
Both sides have made signings in recent days, and whether these players will feature awaits to be seen, but with United’s squad further stretched by Nemanja Matic’s suspension, Bruno Fernandes could be thrown straight into the action, as Solksjaer searches for answers to their attacking problems.
With the sides meeting once again, it has been hard to split the two teams with both tactically cancelling each other out, and the two sides have mustered just one goal in the previous two meetings. The reverse in the league was a 1-1 draw, but with the injury woes United have since suffered, and the tactical improvements from Santo, there can’t be too much read into that clash.
However, the two most recent cup games will give an indication of how both sides will set up, and another tight affair should be expected, especially as Solksjaer tries to juggle his side in among a busy run of fixtures.
Solksjaer will try and place the impetus on Wolves to dominate the game, and they showed in the FA Cup replay they are more than capable of taking the game to United, with them unfortunate to come away without the win, much down to their wastefulness in front of goal, coupled with an unfortunate VAR call. United’s winner on the break also highlighted how Solksjaer side will approach the game, but without the influential Marcus Rashford, they may struggle on the break, as in the whole Wolves are well equipped to deal with these attacks with Connor Coady cutting an assured figure at the back.
As a result, a large impetus will be placed on Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho to create from central areas and dominate the midfield, and given United’s struggles in selecting a working system, as well as finding control themselves in midfield, the Portuguese duo could be in for a dominant evening. Fred and Nemanja Matic have improved in recent weeks, whilst Solksjaer has experimented with a back five, and in Rashford’s absence, he may choose to go with this once again. Matic’s suspension following his red card in midweek will have a huge bearing on the game, and United risk being overrun in central areas as a result, with Andreas Pereira potentially dropping into the deeper role, a position he has struggled to impress in.
United could continue with the back five, and it does allow extra cover out wide against the threat of Adama Traore and Diogo Jota, the pair of whom have been fundamental to Wolves’ success so far this season. Traore in particular impressed once again against Liverpool, and it was the combination of the Spanish winger and Matt Doherty overlapping from right wing back that cause Liverpool’s backline a whole host of problems, even when sitting deep to try and alleviate the concerns of his pace.
The winger’s final product has massively improved this season, and this was evident as he crossed for Raul Jimenez to head home, and this is certainly an area Wolves will look to target. Whether Solksjaer opts for a back four or five, stopping Traore will be crucial, and the task will most likely fall to Brandon Williams, who coped well against his threat in the FA Cup draw at Molineux. He was well supported by Dan James from winger, as it did highlight the difference defensively not having Rashford on the wing makes, and offered the extra defensive support needed.
Interestingly, Santo opted to switch his system for the replay to allow Traore to go up against Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but also factoring in that Juan Mata was playing in front of the full back, meaning he could expose him 1v1. He switched Traore to the other wing once James was substituted, and this is certainly something to keep an eye on ahead of Saturday’s clash. It is worth holding off on backing the full back to be booked up against Traore until the line ups are announced, and this could offer up value with bookies expecting him to be placed against Williams.
Solksjaer will look for his side to play on the counter, and the pace of Martial and James will be key to his sides hopes. The FA Cup clash highlighted exactly how United will look to threaten Wolves, with their winning goal in the replay coming courtesy of Juan Mata, as they were able to open up Wolves on the break. With the wing backs expected to press on and provide overlaps for Wolves, it does leave them open on the break at times, and this has been how a number of sides have broken down Wolves throughout the season. As a result, Martial and James will be key for United in these areas, and whilst it is hard to decipher which system Solksjaer will opt for, the overlapping wing backs in a back five will be an interesting prospect, and could look to provide support on the break much like Wolves have done to other sides in the past.
The sides have cancelled each other out in the match ups throughout this season, and it would be no surprise to see this play out once again with two evenly matched sides, and how United adapt without Rashford is particularly interesting. The defeat to Burnley highlighted their difficulties in breaking down a low-block, and Wolves may look to invite United on to hit on the counter, suiting their own style, but in a game where both sides are looking to employ similar tactics, a tight affair is expected.
All three of the meetings so far this season have been tight affairs, and it would be no surprise to see the sides play out a similar, cagey affair. Opposing goals would be favourable, but at odds of 1.72 (SportingBet), better value may be found elsewhere.
Given the wide play that Wolves look to play, coupled with the back five United could opt for allowing space in these areas for Santo’s side to attack, corners take appeal. Priced at 1.80 (Bet365), Wolves to have over 4.5 corners takes appeal, particularly when factoring in an average of 5.38 corners for throughout the season. Doherty and Traore in particular should have plenty of joy down these avenues, and with Jimenez to pick out centrally, this stands out.
The injury worries for United mean they are hard to support on the win market, and the signs in the previous meetings have been that Wolves have been unlucky not to be victorious at least once. Wolves are best priced at 3.60 (UniBet), and this is an appealing price, but more cover is offered on the draw no bet market, which still sees them priced at 2.53 (MarathonBet). Matic will be a huge miss for United in midfield, and could see Wolves dominate these areas, and whilst Wednesday’s win was a massive positive for Solksjaer, they rode their luck and created very little, and with the problems United have shown in breaking teams down, I’d expect similar issues once again.