Sky Sports got it wrong: Wolves weren’t ‘magnificent’, Man Utd were bad - and VAR was even worse

What can we take away from a poor game between Manchester United and Wolves, other than further evidence that VAR needs to go?
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It wasn’t going to take long for the first VAR controversy to cause ructions around the Premier League - but given that we’re meant to be entering a new dawn for English refereeing, overseen by the almighty figure of Howard Webb, it’s less than ideal that the PGMOL have had to offer up their first apology of the campaign on the first Tuesday of the season. But hey, at least we’re clamping down hard on the wafting of imaginary cards. Baby steps…

In any case, the mistake the officials made in not giving a foul against André Onana for clattering through the upper body of Sasa Kalajdzic like he’s Owen Farrell wasn’t the only one in evidence towards the end of Manchester United’s 1-0 victory over Wolves. The other was Sky Sports co-commentator Andy Hinchcliffe describing the visitors as “magnificent”. They weren’t – in fact, they were pretty poor. It’s just that United weren’t any better.

Raphaël Varane’s close-range header gave Manchester United three points they scarcely deserved at Old Trafford.Raphaël Varane’s close-range header gave Manchester United three points they scarcely deserved at Old Trafford.
Raphaël Varane’s close-range header gave Manchester United three points they scarcely deserved at Old Trafford.
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There’s a tendency to give excessive credit to theoretically “bad” teams when they perform passably against “good” teams, even when the supposedly decent side has actually played poorly and made life easy, and some of that was in evidence last night. Perhaps Hinchcliffe is simply a better and more generous man than I am, but what I saw wasn’t a good Wolves side but a mediocre squad able to get some joy against a Manchester United team who had no right to be that bad.

A perfect example of the narrative imbalance was the moment that Matheus Cunha surged past Lisandro Martínez in the first half, taking the ball from his own half to the edge of the box before laying it off for Pablo Sarabia to fire just wide. Cunha’s run looked thrilling but was, frankly, easy – Martínez completely misjudged his intervention and came steaming into a space that Cunha was already vacating. All the Portuguese forward had to do was keep running in a straight line. It looked impressive, perhaps, but wasn’t all that, especially given that his final ball, under no pressure, was played slightly behind Sarabia.

Anyway, even as the visitors piled the pressure on in the last ten minutes, they looked a little ropey. Chances to deliver good balls resulted in inaccurate, bobbling crosses which the forwards couldn’t control. When the ball did land at the feet of a striker – usually Fábio Silva, a young man in need of a redemption arc – the shots were snatched. The only time Wolves really fashioned a clear opening of their own accord was when Cunha clattered an effort against the outside of the left post with Onana flailing and the goal gaping. They also gave the ball away persistently in their own third, which could have resulted in a thrashing had they not been largely giving it away to Antony.

To be fair to Wolves, even a slightly shoddy performance was better than could be expected given the chaotic start to their season and the lack of new recruits. Gary O’Neil’s first outing as the Midlands club’s manager suggested that his impressive season with Bournemouth was no fluke – Wolves may have had the cutting edge of a blunted cake slice but they were at least organised, compact in defence and disciplined in midfield. It’s hard to say any of that about the hosts.

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Manchester United looked dreadful, both individually and as a team. There were errors aplenty. Bruno Fernandes barely got a touch right all evening, Antony was typically frustrating, the defence was disorganised and Mason Mount was so anonymous that his substitution may have been the first time many viewers noticed that he was on the pitch at all. Only Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who put in an energetic if not necessarily incisive performance at right-back, could claim much credit for his display – and Onana, too, at least up until the moment that he leapt like a salmon up the human waterfall of Kalajdzic.

There were chasms between defence and midfield, and between midfield and attack, and far too many examples of players – especially Martínez, on this occasion – dashing into spaces unwisely and leaving room in behind. This looked like a team who, in the process of transitioning from a double-pivot in midfield to a more fluid three, have lost their way tactically and are in dire need of being drilled into shape. It was an incoherent performance at the heart of the park, and one that will be punished severely by better, sharper sides with functioning and in-form strikers. It is a mercy for United that Wolves simply don’t have any of the latter in the locker room.

Mason Mount’s only highlights were in his hair after a quiet competitive debut for United.Mason Mount’s only highlights were in his hair after a quiet competitive debut for United.
Mason Mount’s only highlights were in his hair after a quiet competitive debut for United.

So, while Wolves were fairly bad, United were even worse for large parts of the game and can count themselves extremely fortunate not to drop points, and not just because of VAR’s failure to intervene on what seems to be a fairly glaring error. The bar for fouls committed by goalkeepers may be high, and the Austrian striker may not have been in any danger of getting to the ball, but it’s still against the rules to completely wipe an opponent out, no matter how little intent was involved. Wolves should have had a chance of a point out of a disappointing, low-quality match, and the fans’ aggravation is justified.

The big question after the game – apart from what on earth can be done to make VAR less capricious – is how much we’re meant to read into the performances of either side. Wolves were a blunt instrument but their manager only had a few days to prepare for a difficult curtain-raiser, and O’Neil deserves time to prove he can marshal the attack and cut down on the errors before us journalists render our judgements. The midfield, without Rúben Neves, looked surprisingly decent – albeit that their counterparts were dreadful.

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And while there are few excuses for Erik Ten Hag after a pretty desperate display, it’s worth remembering that United started last season with a home defeat at the hands of Brighton before taking a 4-0 pasting at Brentford, and still made the top four at a canter. They were, at least, no worse last night than they were against the Seagulls last August, and even came away with three points. Ten Hag had got his house in order by September in 2022 and we should probably presume that he can do the same again – although one does have to wonder why they seem to be so close to square one again after a season of apparent progress.

In the end, then, a bad night all round – for United, who were poor, Wolves, who weren’t much better and lost, and for VAR, which somehow leaves yet another dreadful hash in its wake. And, of course, for those neutrals among us who spent two hours of our lives watching a pretty unedifying spectacle.

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