Erik ten Hag finally within sight of matching a past Manchester United great... no, not that one
For Erik ten Hag, the soundtrack to an afternoon on the touchline consisted of plenty of choruses celebrating a predecessor. And not even his most celebrated predecessor, even though Sir Alex Ferguson watched on from the directors’ box as Ten Hag secured a first victory in three games.
But it took Manchester United a step closer to the Champions League, a competition that defines Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And as Solskjaer made his first return to Old Trafford since his sacking 18 months ago, memories of 1999, of the Nou Camp and of Bayern Munich being beaten in injury time, lingered. His legendary status has not been diminished by his disastrous final few months in the dugout.
Ten Hag has rejuvenated and roused United after inheriting a mess and yet, Solskjaer is entitled to argue, he is only on course to emulate him. The Norwegian twice secured Champions League qualification as a manager; Ten Hag only needs two more wins to follow in his footsteps after a victory that stemmed from the inspiration offered by Solskjaer’s finest signing.
Anthony Martial, a Louis van Gaal capture, got the first goal to defeat Wolverhampton Wanderers. Antony, Ten Hag’s own biggest buy, earned the assist. But the catalytic contribution, the key pass, came from Bruno Fernandes. The injury-time second, scored on his comeback by Alejandro Garnacho, came after Fernandes released him.
Many a Solskjaer favourite has fallen by the wayside – only four of his final starting 11 began for Ten Hag here, while his anointed leader, Harry Maguire, got a late cameo – but Fernandes has retained his prominence. On a day when United were without the injured Marcus Rashford, they required some inspiration.
Fernandes obliged when it felt few others could for a goal-shy side. So they recorded a 25th home win of the season, a feat they last achieved under Ferguson.
Solskjaer’s past tended to invite comparisons with the great Scot. The post-Ferguson United managers, however, are perhaps best assessed against each other and, with 66 points, Ten Hag’s United have equalled their tally in two seasons when Solskjaer was at the wheel, whether for part or all of it; they could yet top his best total of 75. The Norwegian’s legacy is undeniably mixed – three years offered evidence of progress only for United to regress alarmingly in the autumn of 2021 – and the sense is that the Ten Hag revival is built on sounder foundations, but defeats to Brighton and West Ham threatened the kind of end-of-season slide that would question that analysis.
Right now, United could do with the services of Solskjaer; but the potent striker rather than the well-meaning manager. Martial’s goal was their first in three games; in all competitions, Garnacho’s strike was just their fifth in seven. They lack the ability to blow teams away and victory became a grind.
They were minus the injured Marcus Rashford, whose absence underlined the need to sign a high-class forward in the summer, but Martial ended an eight-game goal drought with an opportunity he could scarcely miss. It was just his fifth league goal of the season, a statistic explained in part by his frequent absences.
It came from an incisive move, with Fernandes dissecting the defence with a pass, Antony showing the unselfishness and awareness to roll the ball into Martial’s path and the striker getting a tap-in. It was a rarity from Antony in various respects; a right-footed assist and, indeed, an assist of any kind.
The Brazilian was nevertheless the brightest of the forwards, if also the most profligate. He spurned a glorious early chance after Max Kilman slipped. He headed wastefully wide from Luke Shaw’s cross; somehow, a particularly one-footed footballer even seemed to use the left side of his head. He had a late shot clawed away by Dan Bentley. He was, at least, persistent.
But the debutant goalkeeper Bentley, who was deputising for Jose Sa, went untested for too long. Too often United were betrayed by a stray touch here and a moment of indecision there. Their decision-making was faulty at times, their confidence missing.
Eventually Bentley made a fine save from Jadon Sancho, who darted in off the left. When Casemiro whipped in a shot, Bentley tipped it away. But he was helpless when, with Wolves pushing forward in their search for an equaliser, Fernandes sent the substitute Garnacho sprinting clear. He marked his recent five-year contract with a fifth goal for the club, and it is likelier that he, and they, will spend next season in the Champions League.