The manager is refusing to be drawn on whether his side have what it takes to be up there at the end of the season but they showed grit against Wolves
This game was destined to be filed in the ever-expanding category of annual goalless Premier League draws between Manchester United and Wolves.
That was until Marcus Rashford popped up with a deflected winner in the 93rd minute. The reaction on the United bench to the goal was one of the loudest it has been in lockdown. They knew that this victory brought with it a massive three points.
Last-gasp winners were synonymous with the Manchester United of old; the Sir Alex Ferguson era when they ground out results on their way to back-to-back titles even when they didn’t always deserve them.
Sir Alex was win the stands at Old Trafford, wrapped up against the late December cold, watching his former side. He will no doubt have been warmed in the Baltic Mancunian weather by traits of his league-winning sides starting to become noticeable in this team under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This is a United side, who like the glory days, don’t give up. In 10 of their 15 league games this season, they’ve scored in the last 15 minutes. Only Liverpool have done it more.
At times during this 1-0 win, they didn’t play like a team who you would seriously consider to be title challengers, but being second at the turn of the year – just two points behind the league leaders – isn’t something to be sniffed at.
There are things they certainly need to work on; on Boxing Day it was defensive fragility and this time it was the way they struggled again to break down a well-organised and resilient Wolves back line.
Solskjaer had put plenty of attacking talent in his starting XI: Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani and Bruno Fernandes were all in from the start, but they struggled to really test Rui Patricio in the visitors’ goal, with Nuno Espirito Santo’s side setting up camp inside their own penalty area.
However, United’s grit, determination and drive to get over the line cannot be faulted, and it has contributed to a nine-game unbeaten run in the league.
Four times during that period they have had to come from behind on the road, and then there was Tuesday night.
Solskjaer made six changes and there was little cohesion – especially in the first half – with the manager understandably trying to rotate his squad through a hectic festive period. But again, just when it looked likely they were going to drop points, they came up with a big result.
“Today was tough but we expected a tough game. But we managed to get over the line,” Rashford told Amazon Prime Video after the game.
And that’s what is important for United during this busy fixture schedule – getting over the line.
Solskjaer said ahead of the game against Sheffield United 13 days ago that there would be a clearer view of a potential title race at the turn of the year.
United host Aston Villa at Old Trafford on New Year’s Day in another key game and if they can extend their unbeaten run to 10, it will be hard to count them out.
Post-match, with another win under his belt, Solskjaer wouldn’t be drawn into any type of title talk.
“There’s no title race after 15 games, you can lose the chance of being in a race in the first 10 games, of course you can, but play another 15, get to 30, and maybe we can start talking about a title race,” he said.
However, what he can see clearly in his team is the fruition of talks that came about in pre-season about the side’s mental strength. That is helping to push his side back closer to where they want to be – the top of the table.
“We go back to Bruno’s debut against Wolves [in February] and we are a different outfit now, better mentally and physically. Physically and mentally, that belief has come through performances and results, and players that we have on the pitch that can change games in a second,” Solskjaer said.
“You get that by personalities, by recruitment, added spark and when you get results, things are going your way that helps.”
They need to build on that. A win against Villa would show a real statement of intent and United’s next league game after that is away to Liverpool, a real litmus test.
They got the three points they deserved at Old Trafford against Wolves but it will take more than grit, determination and a little bit of luck to ensure they get their hands back on the Premier League trophy.
The big positive for United is that they are in contention, whether Solskjaer wants to admit it or not.