Apart from signing tractor partners, there is not an awful lot of conviction about anything that Manchester United do these days.
They acquired an ageing ex-Watford striker on Deadline Day, they have won once in their last five league games, they failed fairly miserably to break Wolves down and qualification for the Champions League is more and more in the balance.
Even the fans’ protest against the Glazer family and Ed Woodward that was supposed to have been organised for the 68th minute failed to materialise.
Manchester United (4:2:3:1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Lindelof 6, Maguire 7, Shaw 7.5; Fred 6, Pereira 4(Greenwood 72 6); Mata 6(Lingard 87 6), Bruno Fernandes 7, James 4(Dalot 87 6); Martial 5.
Substitutes not used: Sergio Romero, Jones, Chong, Williams.
Wolves (3:4:3): Rui Patricio 6; Coady 6, Boly 6, Saiss 6; Doherty 6.5, Moutinho 6, Neves 7.5, Jonny 6; Traore 7(Podence 77 6), Raul Jiminez 7, Jota 6.5.
Substitutes not used: Ruddy, Jordao, Neto, Gibbs-White, Dendoncker, Kilman.
Referee: Paul Tierney
The idea was that there would be a mass walk out but the 68th minute came and went and everybody stayed resolutely in their seats. That was something of a mystery in itself: there were precious few reasons to stay.
‘You’re not famous any more,’ the Wolves fans sang at the final whistle. The United supporters met the end of another average performance with a few desultory boos and some defiant applause for their players as they walked off. Nobody seems to know quite what is happening any more except that it is going to be a long haul back to the top.
There was some encouragement in the debut performance of United’s new £68m signing from Sporting Lisbon, Bruno Fernandes, and in the defensive displays of Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw but this is a squad low on quality. A draw was a fair result but Wolves were far more accomplished in possession. If anyone was going to win this game, it would have been them.
The result left United trailing in sixth place, having been leap-frogged by Sheffield United. Comparing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side with Liverpool became a sad irrelevance a long time ago but it is worth noting because it seems so outlandish that they are now 38 points behind Jurgen Klopp’s team and we are only in the first week of February.
If there was a consolation, it was that they did not lose. And that Fernandes made a good start. Slight and lithe, he darted around advanced midfield positions, always looking for the ball, always intent on keeping it. At the heart of a United team that often looks disjointed and unsure of itself, Fernandes exuded poise.
He did not attempt anything particularly ambitious but with his first 20 touches or so in a United shirt, he did not give the ball away once.
Fernandes’ first misstep came after half an hour when he overhit a free kick from a promising position on the edge of the Wolves box and it sailed into touch. ‘What a waste of money,’ the Wolves fans sang delightedly, although they must have realised by then that Fernandes was displaying the kind of technical poise that would have allowed him to fit into their own accomplished team.
Five minutes before half time, it was also Fernandes who managed United’s first shot on target. Luke Shaw, who had had a good game defensively, burst down the left and pulled the ball back into the path of the new signing. Fernandes hit a crisp, rising drive fizzing towards the roof of the net but it was too close to Rui Patricio and he caught it easily enough.
It was hardly a scintillating half but within its encounters and incursions, it was easy to see that Wolves were the more incisive team with the ball and United the more ponderous. Wolves moved the ball quicker and with more aplomb. Ruben Neves, in particular, oozed class. United looked as if they wanted to knock the door down with a battering ram. Solskjaer is recruiting players like Fernandes to try to change that.
The United manager faced plenty of scorn for the deadline day signing of former Watford striker Odion Ighalo until the end of the season although there is an argument that United are better-served with a short-term stop-gap than an eye-catching signing like Edinson Cavani, a brilliant striker coming to the end of his career. United have been down that route before. Look where it has got them.
Wolves caused United more discomfort early in the second half. The home team survived a handball appeal against Aaron Wan-Bissaka and then a few minutes later, Diogo Jota ran at the heart of their defence, bamboozling first Victor Lindelof and then Harry Maguire. Maguire grappled with him as he bore down on goal and put him off enough to make sure he only shot weakly at David de Gea.
Fernandes was booked ten minutes after half time for hauling back Raul Jiminez as he accelerated through midfield but a minute later, he forced Patricio to move sharply to his right to stop his free kick heading into the top corner. United were having a good spell: Juan Mata spun on the edge of the box and fired narrowly wide.
Fernandes went close again midway through the half when his speculative shot from 30 yards slipped through the hands of Patricio and bounced just wide of the post. But a minute later, Adama Traore hurtled through the middle and played the ball through to Jiminez who advanced on goal and forced De Gea to touch his rising drive over the bar.
United nearly achieved the breakthrough ten minutes from the end when substitute Mason Greenwood let fly from the edge of the box and it appeared a deflection from Willy Boly would wrong-foot Patricio, who was already committed. But it took another deflection off Conor Coady and bounced straight to the goalkeeper instead.