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united boss coy Late heroics lifting United to heady heights but some old concerns still remain

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has plenty to smile about these days

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has plenty to smile about these days

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has plenty to smile about these days

It was almost the game that everyone was expecting. In some ways, even though Marcus Rashford’s stoppage-time winner lifted Manchester United to second in the Premier League table and earned three points against Wolves, it still was.

This was the fifth time that the two sides have met since the start of last season and the fourth time this calendar year. All those previous games had produced a grand total of three goals. They have now produced a grand total of four.

United’s struggles against low blocks under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are well-documented and long-established, and blocks do not come much lower than Wolves’.

The pattern of those many meetings last season – two in the league, two in the FA Cup – was repeated. United dominated the ball and waited patiently to create openings while Wolves kept their shape and looked for opportunities to break.

And everything went according to that script until Rashford’s late intervention. There is a temptation to look at the result and take it as evidence of huge progress, especially as United won just one of the four games against Wolves last season.

There is also a temptation to look at the game in its entirety, point to United’s familiar struggles to create chances and say little has changed.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. There remains plenty of work for United to do when it comes to consistently beating reactive sides like Wolves, but plenty of work has already been done and the improvement is there for all to see.

That was certainly Solskjaer’s assessment, delivered in his post-match press conference.

“Fantastic attitude, great result, the desire to keep going and to create that little bit of luck that we earned,” he said. “We earned the goal by the desire to keep going. It’s a good way of ending the year.”

Bruno Fernandes made his United debut in last season’s corresponding fixture, which ended in a goalless draw, and though still an issue, United’s problems against low blocks are not nearly as prevalent as they were before his arrival.

Fernandes did not put in his best performance on Tuesday night but still walked away with his customary assist. No player symbolises the progress Solskjaer’s side have made in 2020 better than the Portuguese.

And when given the opportunity to hark back to Fernandes’ debut in last season’s corresponding fixture, Solskjaer agreed that the difference between then and now is clear.

“(We’re) better mentally and physically. Tactically, I think,” he said. “The physical and mental aspect, we’ve grown and developed that. That belief has come through performances, results and also the players we have on the pitch that can change games in a second.

“You get that by personalities, by recruitment. We’ve added that spark but also when you get results and things are going your way, that helps.”

As one reporter put it to Solskjaer, this felt like a game that United might not have won last season. Of course, they might not have won it this season either. If not for Rashford’s sheer persistence in those closing stages and then the telling deflection off Saiss, they would only have taken a point.

But unlike much of last season, there is now a sense that United still always have a chance of winning these contests, that they have players capable of the spectacular following Fernandes’ arrival and Rashford’s leap forward. They will keep going when in the past they might have raised the white flag.

“We brought it up in pre-season, we need to add more points towards the end of games,” revealed Solskjaer, no strange to late comebacks himself of course.

“That’s something we do as a club, we’ve done it so many times and we’ve done that a few times this season as well. And physically, that means we last in games more.”

That last point may be where the scheduling was in United’s favour and to Wolves’ disadvantage. Nuno Espirito Santo and his players had just one full day’s recovery between their hard-fought draw with Tottenham at Molineux and this defeat. Solskjaer sympathised with them on that.

United, though, are navigating one of the top flight’s busiest Christmas periods, with the fewest recovery days on average over this spell.

Seven of Solskjaer’s players on the pitch at the time of the Rashford goal started the St Stephen’s Day draw against Leicester. Six started a few days earlier in the EFL Cup quarter-final victory away to Everton, another game won by late goals.

And despite such a compressed schedule, they are beginning to dig out results, even when not at their absolute best.

The cliché suggests that is the ‘mark of champions’. Solskjaer, for what it’s worth, still believes it is too early to talk about a title challenge.

“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.

He is right to show caution. There are still improvements to make, questions to answer and games like this to navigate, ones where opponents like Wolves will sit in and frustrate and the result could go either way.

At the same time, United are coming out on top in these contests more often now and for Solskjaer, that represents unmistakable progress.

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