WOLVERHAMPTON, England — Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s short-term aim is to finish in the top four. He said before bringing his Manchester United side to Molineux for the second time in three weeks that he needed 15 points from the final seven games.
After a second 2-1 defeat in the West Midlands, that target still stands at 15. That means, based on the Norwegian’s math, his team can afford only one more defeat in a run-in that includes a trip to Everton and home games against Manchester City and Chelsea.
Having been a player at Old Trafford for more than a decade, Solskjaer knows that it will not always be good enough to finish fourth. At his unveiling as Jose Mourinho’s permanent successor, he knew the question was coming, and it did not take long to arrive: “When can you win the Premier League title?”
Six years without one, he admitted, is too long, and it would be his priority the minute the curtain comes down on this roller-coaster campaign. Recruitment in the summer will be geared toward catching Manchester City and Liverpool. Decisions on players — both those coming in and ones going out — will be based on whether they are champions in the making.
On this cold, rainy night in Wolverhampton, there did not seem to be many on show.
Romelu Lukaku, the £75 million striker, missed a golden chance with a header in the first five minutes. The Belgian, playing because Marcus Rashford has an ankle injury, was also guilty of missing opportunities at Arsenal last month — a game United went on to lose 2-0.
Lukaku is a proven Premier League goal scorer — even during a difficult campaign, he has 12 — but at the top level, it comes down to fine margins. Those missed chances at Arsenal and Wolves will look significant if United finish fifth.
In midfield, Solskjaer dropped Nemanja Matic to the bench for the first time during his United career and instead picked Fred. The £52 million midfielder showed glimpses in the Champions League win at Paris Saint-Germain that he might be worth the money after all.
Here, though, his positive start to the game was ruined by a sloppy touch that saw him robbed by outstanding Wolves midfielder Joao Moutinho in the 25th minute. Seconds later, the ball was in the net courtesy of Diogo Jota, and Wolves had their equaliser. When Solskjaer was forced into a reshuffle following Ashley Young’s needless red card, it was Fred who was sacrificed.
It was not, of course, all down to Lukaku and Fred.
Young was sent off after picking up two bookings in the space of five minutes. Jesse Lingard should have scored with a header that would have put United 2-0 up. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones — both handed long-term contracts this season — will not want to watch a reply of Wolves’ winner, and David De Gea was at fault for both goals.
After the defeat at the Emirates last month, Solskjaer dismissed a theory that De Gea’s concentration was suffering because his future remains up in the air. His new contract remains unsigned, and his performance here will do little to silence the doubters. It was not so long ago that Louis van Gaal deemed it necessary to drop the Spaniard while he was at the centre of a tug-of-war with Real Madrid. We are not there yet, but United cannot afford many more mistakes from their goalkeeper as they chase the top four and Champions League football next season.
Tottenham and Chelsea both play Wednesday, and United could find themselves sixth by the time they play their next league game against West Ham on April 13 at Old Trafford.
Solskjaer says he is still confident, but this was a hammer blow to his team’s chances, especially after going ahead thanks to a rasping 25-yard drive from Scott McTominay, one of the only players to head back up the M6 having enhanced his standing. With six games left, there is no great scope for Solskjaer to make changes. He will rely on the players he has to collect the points he believes he needs and get United over the line and finish fourth.
But the wider issue is that in the summer, the focus will switch to the title. Which players are good enough to win it, and which are not?
For six games — and two against Barcelona — Solskjaer’s squad are playing for a place in the top four. Whether or not they know it, they are also playing for a place in the Norwegian’s new era.
McTominay did his claim no harm with his first senior goal during what Solskjaer described as a “fine performance” from the 22-year-old midfielder. Others might feel they have missed an opportunity.