Ralf Rangnick saw his unbeaten start as Manchester United interim manager come to an end thanks to Joao Moutinho’s late winner for Wolverhampton Wanderers at Old Trafford.
Cristiano Ronaldo captained the Red Devils, who produced a dismal performance in front of a frustrated Old Trafford crowd.
United were well and truly second-best in the first half, as Wolves carved out a fierce attacking display in the opening 45 minutes and ultimately came away worth winners, with Moutinho slotting home a sweet strike in the 81st minute.
The hosts rallied late on to no avail, with substitute Bruno Fernandes missing a golden opportunity by hitting the crossbar, before Ronaldo saw his header ruled out for offside and Fernandes’ free-kick in the final act forcing away goalkeeper Jose Sa into a spectacular save.
Rangnick admitted to the Old Trafford faithful in his programme notes that there was “a lot of work” to be done over the coming year and this match showed why.
Here are five talking points.
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Jones’ long-awaited return
After a long and painful 708 days, Phil Jones made his first competitive start for the Red Devils since January 2020,
Last appearing in an FA Cup fourth round tie at Tranmere Rovers, before coronavirus was declared a public health emergency in the UK and Bruno Fernandes had made his United debut, the 29-year-old was back on the team sheet due to defenders Eric Bailly, Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire all being unavailable.
Once news of Maguire’s surprise absence filtered through on Sunday evening, supporters speculated that Rangnick would employ Nemanja Matic at centre-back as opposed to risking Jones, whose injury woes have plagued his career since he was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2011.
But the German went for the “logical choice and told Sky Sports pre-match: “I can only judge Phil Jones from the last four weeks and he has always been very professional, very much involved and since all other three centre-backs out, he was the logical choice.
“Harry Maguire receieved an injury against Burnley and had problems the day after the game. Since last night, we knew all three were out.”
An assured header away in the first 60 seconds was a solid start for Jones, prompting cheers around Old Trafford before he produced a confident first half-time display, ranking first in the match for interceptions and blocks, while winning 100% of his duels.
Coincidentally, the ex- Blackburn Rovers centre-back partnered Raphael Varane in the back line, who Ferguson had been targeting before signing Jones more than 10 years ago.
On top of Jones’ inclusion and Fernandes’ exclusion from the starting XI, Ronaldo being handed the captain’s armband made headlines pre-match.
With Maguire out nursing a chest issue, the 36-year-old was given the captaincy by Rangnick over the likes of Matic and David De Gea.
Ronaldo first wore the armband for the Red Devils all the way back in March 2008, when the five-time Ballon d’Or winner bagged both goals as United beat Bolton Wanderers 2-0.
His place alongside Edinson Cavani up front also signalled his third start in eight days, proving Ronaldo is still a spectacular physical specimen.
Wolves’ strong start
Renowned for their troubles in front of goal this season, Wolves started the match in promising fashion by worrying the hosts.
Having scored just two goals in their last eight games – both coming in 1-0 wins – Bruno Lage’s side looked threatening from the off, and had De Gea and his defence on alert.
A signature long-range effort from Ruben Neves had the Spanish goalkeeper scrambling to save and that helped Wolves on their way to two early statistical feats.
Prior to kick-off, they ranked 20th for shots in the division, boasting just 9.9 per-game.
But in the first 27 minutes at Old Trafford, Neves and co fired off 10 to highlight their dominance when it came to creating chances.
Raul Jimenez almost profited from a wayward Ronaldo header back towards his own goal, but the Mexican narrowly missed the target with his own headed effort and was flagged offside once the ball kissed the outside of the net.
By the time referee Mike Dean blew his whistle to end the first half, Wolves had fired off 15 shots to the Red Devils’ four, while creating almost triple the chances.
Those 15 were the most an opposition side had managed at Old Trafford in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League match since Opta’s records began in 2003-04.
Greenwood hooked again
Rarely do boos ring around Old Trafford aimed at the home manager’s decision, but Rangnick felt the wrath of a large number of supporters when Mason Greenwood was hauled off on the hour mark.
The youngster made way for Fernandes despite being one of United’s more exciting players in the encounter at that stage, prompting jeers from the crowd.
But Greenwood’s substitution was the repeat of a regular occurrence of late, having been brought off before 70 minutes had been played in four of his last five Premier League starts.
And in this one, the 20-year-old had completed the most dribbles on the pitch (four) prior to his hooking.
Nevertheless, Fernandes almost made an instant impact when he rattled the crossbar from close range to seemingly wake up his teammates.
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Just as the Red Devils were rallying, Moutinho produced a moment of magic to break the deadlock with nine minutes remaining.
Seeing their team score only their 14th goal this league term, the Wolves section of the stadium erupted as De Gea did his best to stop a sweet strike from the edge of the penalty area nestle in the bottom left-hand corner.
Jones had headed away Adama Traore ‘s cross but it was not enough to clear the danger and the Portuguese, one of nine from the country on the field at the time, buried the chance to give his side a deserved three points.