Over the course of a chaotic game at Molineux, United won it twice, threw it all away and won it again in the 97th minute thanks to a wonderful solo goal from 18-year-old midfielder Kobbie Mainoo.
Man United were good, bad and ugly all wrapped into one. But most importantly for manager Erik ten Hag, a week that has been dominated by questions about squad discipline and more speculation about whether he’s still the right man for the job at Old Trafford ended with a much-needed win.
It should have been far more comfortable than it was after United dominated the first half and went in at half-time 2-0 up. They were 3-1 up after 75 minutes only to concede twice in 10 minutes, the second of which arrived in five minutes into stoppage time. It looked at that point as if United would be lucky to escape Wolverhampton with a point but Mainoo had other ideas.
The 18-year-old danced into the penalty area and curled a delightful finish into the far corner to score his first Premier League goal. Mainoo will never forget it and neither will the 3,000 travelling fans who almost spilled onto the pitch amid the jubilation.
“One side, very pleased, of course, it’s a massive win,” said Ten Hag. “I think for a neutral fan, a spectator of this game, it was great to see. But a manager, when you see you dominate a game for an hour and then the way we concede the goals we should manage that better on the pitch. This can’t happen.
“Then you see the spirit of the team and the resilience and especially in Kobbie Mainoo, that is great to see.”
There will be questions for Ten Hag to answer once the dust settles, like: How can his team control such large spells of the game yet still look so vulnerable? Even if you look past Pablo Sarabia‘s penalty to make it 2-1 and forget Max Killman’s close range finish to score Wolves’ second, how on earth were United caught on the break while leading 3-2 in stoppage time to gift Pedro Neto the chance to make it 3-3?
It all came from a United corner and after a number of defensive changes designed to hold the result. Raphaël Varane, Harry Maguire and Jonny Evans were all on the pitch and yet Neto was still allowed the space to race into the penalty area and drag his finish inside the near post to get Wolves within 90 seconds of a crucial point.
“We should manage it better,” Ten Hag said. “We have to hammer out these mistakes, they can’t happen. We had some more stages in the games in the season as well. What is asked is leadership and it can’t be that this happening that you concede such goals.
“It is quite naive. Stay calm, keep the ball and make sure your defending organisation is always good.”
But as the home fans bounced around the stands at Molineux in celebration as the clock ticked into stoppage time, they probably hadn’t banked on Mainoo, a youngster with fewer than 20 senior games under his belt, being the calmest man in the stadium. It was a run and finish — nutmegging Killman on the way — which Lionel Messi would have been proud of, let alone an inexperienced teenager.
Quite how Mainoo summoned that amount of composure at the end of such a heart-stopping game, only he will know.
“It’s wonderful to see and I hope he stays calm like he is, as he did with his goal,” said Ten Hag. “He is determined, he is a good character and I hope he keeps going with this progress.”
Ten Hag admitted afterwards he had “mixed feelings” about a game that had so many positives but also many of the same negatives which have plagued much of the season.
Marcus Rashford scored after his ill-advised trip to Belfast and Rasmus Hojlund found the net for the third game in a row. But then there were the chances that went begging and the leaks in defence — such that it wasn’t a night to talk about a corner being turned for this Man United side, despite the win. On this evidence, that’s still a long way off.
At the very least, though, Ten Hag can point to the character of his team to drag themselves off the floor to find a winner and also the hope for the future illustrated by Mainoo, the player who got it.
Ten Hag’s job now is to make sense of what happened against Wolves in an effort to build on it ahead of West Ham’s visit on Sunday, but that may take him a while.