In a shocking night of football, Wolves upset Manchester United 2-1 in the FA Cup.
The result puts Wolves into the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in 21 years. Who were the winners and losers?
Winner: Jimenez and Jota
Strike partnerships are one hell of a thing. They died out for a while but are coming back into fashion now. Wolves’ defensive system is relentless and they leave the bulk of their attacking up to Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota. That is a huge ask of those two men, but on nights like tonight, it’s an ask that the two men relish answering.
The pair work perfectly; Jimenez is an old-school no. 9 type, a true battler whose skill and technique are augmented by a neverending will to work. He runs and runs and runs. Pressing, sacrificing himself. He is the tone-setter and the difference-maker. Diogo Jota, meanwhile, is lightning in a bottle. A quick wing-type, he excels at running into channels and dragging defenders all over the place.
Tonight against Manchester United, the pair were absolutely flawless. Jimenez bullied and battled the United centre-backs all night long, never once stopping his press nor his excellent hold-up play. He got his reward when his hesitancy actually led to a chance for him to take a snapshot and then for that snapshot to drive through bodies and into the back of the net.
— The Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) March 16, 2019
And then Jota, who had been pulling United defenders into channels all night long sealed the victory with a great run that made Luke Shaw look like a fool before obliterating the excellent Sergio Romero with a hammer shot in at the near-post. This superb strike partnership played an incredible two-man game to destroy Manchester United.
Loser: Nemanja Matic
When Nemanja Matic was added to Manchester United’s injury list, many feared this would make United more open to counter-attacks or vulnerable in defence. Turns out, it didn’t, as Scott McTominay proved himself a more than capable replacement.
It’s not that McTominay was particularly brilliant, but he didn’t have to be in order to outdo Matic, who is an average player riding on the memory of a great season from half a decade ago. The Serb is big and strong (so is McTominay) and moves the ball with very little imagination, only existing to thwart the opponent with size and malice (like McTominay).
But unlike McTominay, Matic is 30 and not really likely to improve. And when he plays United’s passing is prosaic through the middle of pitch because he moves the ball so slowly, taking four touches when one will do. Wolves exploited this perfectly, letting him have the ball with no trouble and then, when Wolves were in possession, they roared Matic’s way knowing he’d be out of position. And he was. Look at Jimenez’s goal; he scores it from where Matic should be but the Serb is nowhere to be found. When he was finally withdrawn it was the 86th minute and United were 2-0 down. Too little too late.
Winner: Ernesto Valverde
This Manchester United performance was a slog for most neutrals but one person who will have enjoyed it tremendously is Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde. His side have been drawn against United and United’s display will have probably warmed his heart.
Why? Well it’s not because United struggled but how they struggled. Wolves simply sat back and let them have the ball, and they were unable to do anything with it. They created very little in open play and their set-piece routines were bafflingly over-complicated.
How does this benefit Valverde? Well the Spaniard is a pragmatist by nature, and even though his Barcelona side tend to dominate possession, as all Barça sides do really, they are also comfortable out of it. If they are protecting a lead, they nearly always spend a significant chunk of the second half defending, sat deep in their own half inviting pressure on and counter-attacking into space. So watching United look so flat against an organised defensive block will mean that Valverde’s usual plan should prove most effective indeed.
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Loser: Paul Pogba
Paul Pogba turned 26 during the week and got handed the captain’s armband for the clash at Wolves. This should have been a special performance from the Frenchman, especially when Wolves elected to sit back and simply allow him to have the ball.
Except it turns out that Pogba struggles to break down defences when there’s little movement ahead of him, and as a result of an unfit front three and tremendous defending from Wolves, Pogba was largely ineffective. Sure, Nemanja Matic could have passed him the ball a bit quicker or maybe he could have avoided the horrors of Wolves’ cynical tackles, but honestly these things cannot excuse how little Pogba imposed himself onto the game. If United are truly going to be “a thing” under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, then Pogba has to do better.
Winner: Nuno Espirito Santo
What a man Nuno is, and not just because of his amazing beard. The back-up goalkeeper who was Jorge Mendes’ first-ever client has been rewarded by the super agent with a series of good jobs and, at Molineux, a squad full of supreme talent. But Nuno isn’t just coasting on good players, he’s actively making his side better.
Wolves simply outdid Manchester United tonight. They sussed that The Red Devils only thrive when attacking space, so they gave them none. They also realised that United’s full-backs are defensively weak so they exploited that as well with movements in and out of the half-spaces. Nuno set Wolves up perfectly to pick United off and after a good hour of solid defending that’s exactly what they did. Expect this gameplan to be deployed whenever they meet Manchester City (they’ll meet at some point, in the semis or final) and when it does, Pep Guardiola will have to go some to break it down.
Loser: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
This wasn’t a good night for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Unlike last week against Arsenal where his side played well and unluckily lost, here against Wolves they were poor and never looked like making anything happen. They moved the ball slowly, both in terms of passing and dribbling, their usual lightning movement was nonexistent because Wolves simply cut off the space to counter into.
Alright, he couldn’t have done anything about how unfit Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial were, and losing the in-form Romelu Lukaku was obviously another unlucky injury blow, but Solskjaer reacted so slowly this this game when the needed changes were obvious at half-time. His in-game management has to improve if United are to maintain course and make the top four. Ole is still at the wheel, for sure, but the bus is currently careening towards a ditch called Barcelona having just hit a massive pothole with Wolves graffiti’d all over it.