MANCHESTER, England — It says everything about Manchester United’s opening game of 2022 that Phil Jones returned for his first appearance in 708 days and was, by some distance, their best player.
It’s no disrespect to Jones, without a game since January 2020 as he came back from a serious knee injury. He did his bit admirably, but if you had to pick out the United player who hadn’t played for two years, he would have been well down the list.
Ralf Rangnick’s team slumped to a 1-0 defeat on Monday — Wolves’ first win at Old Trafford since 1980 and his first loss since taking over as interim coach — but without Jones it would have been far more comprehensive. The only surprise was that Joao Moutinho’s winner didn’t come until the 82nd minute. Wolves, dominant throughout, ended with 19 shots and eight corners. United had nine and three corners, two of which came in stoppage time.
“We didn’t play well at all individually or collectively,” Rangnick said. “We’re very disappointed about the result and parts of our performance. “Wolves were the best team we’ve played. We have more problems today than in other games.
“We didn’t press at all. We tried but we were not able to get into those pressing situations. In times we played well but today we have to admit they’re better than us.”
Rangnick has spent his first month talking about the need for “control” in games but United had none of it against Wolves. Their bright spell lasted all of two minutes when Bruno Fernandes, on as a second-half substitute, hit the crossbar and Cristiano Ronaldo had a header ruled out for offside. Other than that, it was wave after wave of gold shirts flooding forward.
Wolves have averaged 10 shots a game this season but here they hit that mark after just 27 minutes. By half-time, it was up to 15 — the most for a visiting team at Old Trafford in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League game since the statisticians began counting such things in 2003.
David De Gea made a wonderful save at full stretch from a Ruben Neves volley and more than once Jones was on hand to mop up the danger. Francisco Trincao would have scored right at half-time had Jones not been in the right place at the right time to bundle away Nelson Semedo’s cross, and he has every right to ask why, once he had headed clear Adama Traore’s cross, Moutinho was free on the edge of the penalty area to take a touch and shoot past De Gea into the corner of the net.
“The goal we conceded, we had enough players in the box,” Rangnick said. “The cross had been defended by Jones but the goal we conceded was like too many this season. Moutinho could shoot unmarked with no problems, no pressure.”
As United chased a late equaliser that would have been undeserved, their final chance — a Fernandes free-kick well saved by Jose Sa — only came about because Jones showed the fight and desire to risk a boot in the face to win the ball ahead of Fabio Silva on the edge of the box. A few of his team-mates could learn something from that alone.
With Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof ruled out through injury or illness, Rangnick perhaps hoped Jones could enjoy a quiet comeback against a Wolves side who arrived having scored just 13 goals this season, a total bettered by 18 of the 19 other teams. Instead, however, United made them look like 1970 Brazil with Moutinho and Neves strolling around in midfield like two older boys playing keep-away in the school playground.
“It is one more victory,” said Wolves boss Bruno Lage, who watched his team score for just the third time since Nov. 1. “Lovely stadium, a place with a lot of history but the most important thing is how we played.
“We played in our way, we controlled the first half and missed a lot of chances. We win three points and have more chances than goals. We deserved the three points.”
Rangnick wrote in his programme notes ahead of kick-off that “it may look and feel like there is a lot of work to be done but I hope everybody is looking forward to the coming months with excitement” — but it was another night when optimism was in short supply. There have been plenty of those over the past 12 months.
Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Liverpool spent the weekend serving up games filled with intensity and entertainment but there was none of that on display at Old Trafford. The result leaves United four points adrift of those teams in the table but after a chastening evening against Wolves, the gap feels far greater.