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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

'Not creative enough, not sharp enough': Jose Mourinho's damning verdict after Manchester United held by Wolves

Superb Moutinho strike cancels out Fred's first-half opener

Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Joao Moutinho celebrates scoring his side's equaliser at Old Trafford. Reuters
Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder Joao Moutinho celebrates scoring his side's equaliser at Old Trafford. Reuters

Mourinho 1 Moutinho 1. There was a distinctly Portuguese feel to Alex Ferguson’s first return to Old Trafford since his brain haemorrhage. A game that, if not entirely seriously, could be dubbed the Jorge Mendes derby was shaped by the super-agent’s clients.

Jose Mourinho’s biggest summer signing, Fred, gave Manchester United the lead. Wolves’ most eye-catching arrival, Joao Moutinho, produced a classy leveller to give the promoted club a deserved point. Compatriots ended with contrasting reactions. “Not a good performance, not a good result,” Mourinho said. “Wolves deserved it. They play like I like to play which is like the World Cup final. We didn’t have that.”

An afternoon that began with Old Trafford echoing to applause for Ferguson, who acknowledged it, arms aloft, in trademark fashion, ended with the visiting fans chorusing: “Nuno’s the Special One.”

“I am proud of the way we start the game, proud of the character we show when we were under the score and proud of the way we played,” said manager Nuno Espirito Santo.

A game that indicated Wolves’ stay in the Premier League will not be a one-season affair suggested United’s wait to become champions for the first time since Ferguson’s retirement will not end in the current campaign. They are already eight points behind Liverpool after their winning run came to an abrupt halt.

Alex Ferguson, centre, attended his first match at Old Trafford since undergoing brain surgery in May. Reuters
Alex Ferguson, centre, attended his first match at Old Trafford since undergoing brain surgery in May. Reuters

But for the agility of David de Gea, who bookended the game with fine saves, Wolves may have been celebrating victory at Old Trafford for the first time since 1980. The Spaniard has long since proved his prowess as a damage-limitation specialist. Early stops from Raul Jimenez and Willy Boly preserved parity; so did a 90th-minute to deny the irrepressible substitute Adama Traore.

Each was a sign Wolves started and ended the brighter. Moutinho showed his set-piece prowess by setting up chances for Ryan Bennett and Boly, only for United to take the lead. Fred probably owed his place to Nemanja Matic’s suspension. He owed his goal in part to Paul Pogba. The pass was cushioned cleverly by the Frenchman, the shot drilled clinically by the Brazilian, who became United’s 500th scorer.

Yet although he drew a fine save from Rui Patricio with a free kick in first-half stoppage time, United did too little to extend their advantage. Perhaps they assumed that, as in Ferguson’s day, opponents would not have the temerity to respond. But Wolves, with twin Portuguese playmakers in Ruben Neves and Moutinho, were accomplished in possession.

Precision in passing was matched by the quality of the finish when Moutinho found the top corner to open his Wolves account. Jimenez, a selfless foil of a striker, had teed him up. Yet there was also an inadvertent assist: Pogba conceded possession on the half-way line, marring a performance of otherwise fine passing with a costly error as Neves dispossessed him. “It is a situation the players know perfectly,” Mourinho said. “The two Portuguese players like to press in midfield.”

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Jesse Lingard and Marouane Fellaini could have conjured winners, with Patricio denying both to underline the sense he will be one of the bargains of the summer. Yet the goalkeeper was not required often enough. “Not creative enough, not sharp enough,” Mourinho said.

His was a damning verdict, declaring his team performed better in the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur and criticising his players’ mentality. “I can’t explain the difference of attitude because I never have a difference of attitude,” he added. “It is a basic law of football, you have to play at the maximum of your potential.”

It was something Ferguson’s finest teams did. The returning great said: “It’s obviously been a long journey but I’m making steps forward, doing what my son tells me and what the doctors tell me.”

“Fantastic news for everyone, not just for Manchester United,” added Mourinho. “Who in the world of football is not happy with Sir Alex back?” Yet he was a picture of glumness, not happiness.