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The lessons Manchester United learned from the Wolves game

by Darragh Fox

There were a host of potential lessons to be learned from Manchester United’s dismal performance in their opening match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, despite actually coming away with three points.

The Athletic’s podcast – featuring Carl Anka, Andy Mitten and Laurie Whitwell – believe the imbalanced United midfield and the continued development of Aaron Wan-Bissaka are the two most salient takeaways from the game. Erik ten Hag’s desire to acquire Benjamin Pavard should be another.

Wolves were able to cut through United’s midfield with ease on Monday evening. The Midlands club had twenty-three shots on United’s goal – the most by a visiting side since 2003 – and were desperately unlucky to not come away with anything for their efforts.

Anka referenced the space between Casemiro and his midfield partners as the reason behind this Wolves onslaught, believing Ten Hag may need to “tell [Mason] Mount to relax the press a little bit” and sit deeper against Tottenham Hotspur.

The reporter further asserts United’s front line – Alejandro Garnacho, Marcus Rashford and Antony – were not pressing correctly, enabling Wolves to play out too easily. The introduction of Jadon Sancho through the middle, with Rashford returning to the left-wing would be a more effective change however.

The combination of these factors underpinned Monday night’s poor performance. A full breakdown of the conundrum facing Ten Hag in relation to his midfield can be found here, which goes into detail on the prospect of the box midfield unit which didn’t last beyond half-time at Old Trafford.

Such a system could, despite the initial setback, be pivotal in helping to buttress United’s midfield, with Casemiro often overwhelmed during Wolves counter-attacks despite actually playing reasonably well.

The Athletic reporters were far more optimistic about the performance of United’s right-back however. With good reason.

Whitwell was adamant Wan-Bissaka is “showing development” in terms of his technical abilities and defensive positioning, while Mitten praised his “impressive” physical improvement. His carefully placed cross assisted the winner for United and demonstrated the attacking refinements Wan-Bissaka had made.

It represents a far cry from the early stages of last season, where it appeared the former Crystal Palace man was closer to the exit door at Old Trafford than the pitch.

Whitwell believes this experience – being dropped in favour of Diogo Dalot – made Wan-Bissaka “knuckle down” last year, with the desire to improve particular aspects of his game growing “sharper.” Whitwell feels he’s now “ahead” of Dalot in the right-back competition.

Anka, conversely, contends the Wolves game demonstrated exactly why United are continuing to pursue Benjamin Pavard as the role of the right-back may no longer exist in Ten Hag’s evolving system.

The consequence of Luke Shaw inverting into midfield entails United’s remaining defensive unit shift into a back three, Anka detailed. This means the RB tucks into a more central area while the two centre-backs shift to the left.

Pavard has reportedly expressed a preference to play centrally, rather than on the right. This inverted fullback system would create a structure in which this positional request could be satisfied, without having to displace one of the indispensable pairing of Raphaël Varane or Lisandro Martínez.

Anka also references Pavard’s height and aerial ability as desirable traits given United’s team has grown smaller in stature since José Mourinho’s tenure as manager.

Inter Milan have entered the race for the Bayern defender’s services, though he has already expressed a concrete desire to join United. The German club are extremely unwilling to let Pavard go, however, having seen their pursuit of Kyle Walker fall through.

The breakdown of Harry Maguire’s move to West Ham is reported to be a key stumbling block in the club’s pursuit, further hindering the prospective transfer.

The fact Ten Hag was adamant in his desires for Pavard, however, suggests the three-man defensive unit, which enables a box midfield, may be a long-term goal for United’s continued evolution under the Dutchman.

Based on the performance against Wolves it’s a concept which requires more time on the training field.

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