There was a general consensus that this summer’s transfer window was the most important in United’s recent history, representing a chance to clear out deadwood collected by three former managers and replace them with much-needed fresh blood.
To an extent, that was achieved. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Daniel James were brought in, while Romelu Lukaku, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia were moved on. United fans and perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, though, expected more incomings and outgoings.
When you consider that Marcos Rojo has been a Manchester United player for longer than Eric Cantona, it is abundantly clear that the club have struggled to offload average players on big contracts and there was an expectation that a midfielder and possibly a striker would arrive at Old Trafford.
The feeling ahead of Sunday’s game then was a strange mix of pre-season excitement and antipathy towards Ed Woodward and the Glazers. By 6.20pm such feelings had been replaced by a sense of euphoria after United had swept Chelsea away 4-0 with goals from Marcus Rashford (2), Anthony Martial and James.
Convincing result, unconvincing performance
It was an impressive margin of victory if the manner of it was slightly misleading. Chelsea twice hit the woodwork in the first half through Tammy Abraham and Emerson, while David De Gea, back to something resembling his best, made seven saves – more than any other goalkeeper in the Premier League last weekend.
United played well in patches, but equally so did Chelsea. It was the visitors who looked the more accomplished side in the opening period, but the key differences between the two were that United avoided making costly individual blunders and were far more ruthless with their finishing.
Although the result was one-sided in United’s favour, the statistics told a different story: Chelsea had more attempts on goal (18 to 11), greater possession (56% – 44%), a higher passing accuracy (85% to 81%) and surprisingly given the abject nature of their defending, won more tackles (21 to 15).
Frank Lampard insisted post-match that Chelsea were the better side for ’45 to maybe 60 minutes’ of the match but acknowledged that United’s ruthlessness in punishing individual mistakes delivered ‘harsh lessons’ to his side.
Ahead of their Super Cup tie against Liverpool, Chelsea reverted to a 4-3-3 from a 4-2-3-1, Lampard selected Olivier Giroud to lead the line with Christian Pulisic making supporting runs off him and recalled fit-again N’Golo Kante to the team and they were far better and well-balanced as a result.
Giroud scored the game’s opening goal from a well-threaded pass by Pulisic, Kante was far and away the best player on the pitch on the right-side of a midfield trio and Chelsea were unfortunate not to beat to the Champions League holders, succumbing to a penalty shootout defeat.
The sharp contrast in terms of result and performance from Sunday to Wednesday indicates that United came up against Chelsea and their new manager at the best possible time, before their system, style and personnel had been fine-tuned.
Hungry Wolves pose a threat
In contrast, Wolves represent a well-oiled machine with this season marking Nuno Espirito Santo’s third at the helm. Whereas Lampard is still juggling with different tactics and players, Nuno has had two years to imprint his style on his players and has done so extremely successfully.
Although Wolves made a few new signings over the summer, including the eye-catching purchase of Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan and loan of Jesus Vallejo from Real Madrid, Nuno stuck with a familiar side last weekend against Leicester, with all of his starting players having featured last season.
It was a quintessential Wolves performance too. Setup in their customary 3-5-2 formation, Wolves frustrated Leicester City in attack – a side tipped by many to challenge the top-six this season – and created chances of their own at the other end, with Leander Dendoncker seeing a goal ruled out by a VAR decision.
As with every side that performs above expectations upon promotion to the Premier League, there have been questions asked over whether Wolves can avoid the dreaded ‘second season syndrome’ that has afflicted others, particularly given their Europa League commitments.
The game against Leicester, therefore, coming less than 72 hours after a 6,370 round trip to Pyunik in Armenia, was seen as a potential banana skin but Wolves managed to steer clear of slipping up with impressive ease.
Lessons learned from last season?
They are also a team that relishes the challenge of taking on one of the big boys. Wolves, rather generously, contributed towards two of Huddersfield’s three Premier League victories last season, but against the top-six their record in 14 games read six wins, four draws and only four defeats in all competitions.
United found their meetings particularly tricky, drawing 1-1 at Old Trafford before losing 2-1 twice in as many weeks in the Premier League and FA Cup at Molineux, with Diogo Jota and Raul Jimenez causing all sorts of mayhem across both matches.
Those defeats – the third and fourth of Solskjaer’s reign in charge – had damaging consequences for United’s season, ending their only realistic shot at silverware while also initiating a sharp downturn in performances that saw any top-four hopes rapidly fade away.
The manner of United’s collapse after those uninspiring losses at Molineux raised legitimate question marks over the quality and attitude of Solskjaer’s squad.
Monday’s reunion could well show whether United truly have progressed since or whether Sunday’s flattering result merely masked the same old fragilities.