The expression on Erik ten Hag’s face said it all: wide-eyed amazement, a mixture of joy and relief.
It felt like that same incredulity hit everyone at Molineux in the 97th minute as Kobbie Mainoo shimmied and styled his way to scoring a goal of breathtaking quality that bent the result back in Manchester United’s favour.
Ten Hag will be thankful Mainoo spared him from having to delve into the depths of another game thrown away by his team, and instead the image that lasts is of an 18-year-old scoring a Premier League winner for his boyhood club with the kind of composure usually found in players much his senior. That it was Mainoo’s first goal in the competition only makes it more compelling.
Mainoo had seen United cruise to 2-0 up, and have the match sewn up a second time at 3-1, only for familiar failings to strike. Wolves were able to break from a United corner to equalise through Pedro Neto, sending the home fans into raptures and spreading a sense of doom across United. Rasmus Hojlund, on the bench after being taken off, looked haunted at the turn of events.
Yet Mainoo took responsibility for swinging the pendulum United’s way again. When he received the pass from Omari Forson, another United youngster, there was no hint of a chance, but he saw an opportunity and went. Mainoo sprang past Joao Gomes with quick feet, flicked the ball in between the legs of Max Kilman and then used the run of Forson, which took away Mario Lemina, to move into the box and curl a shot of real precision around Craig Dawson and beyond the goalkeeper Jose Sa.
Mainoo had no right to score from where he did.
And so Ten Hag, a man who keeps his emotions in check, let loose. In the stands Sir Alex Ferguson once more wore a smile that said: “Football, bloody hell.” Alejandro Garnacho, already substituted, sprinted across from the bench to join in the celebrations in front of United’s fans, earning himself a yellow card.
Garnacho had his own wonder moment at Goodison Park in November and the progress of two players who starred in United’s FA Youth Cup win in 2022 has been one of the major positives in a turbulent campaign.
Garnacho started his 18th game in a row at Wolves and could have had a hat-trick of assists in the first ten minutes of the second half, only for Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro, and Hojlund to have their shots saved or blocked. It was a nice response from Garnacho after failing to pass enough at Newport County.
The occasion belonged to Mainoo, however. He scored his first senior goal at Newport but this was of much greater significance.
Ten Hag has mainly played him as a No 6, asking him to pick up the ball from defence and make forward passes. His ability to wriggle out of pressure is crucial for the role. At one stage in the second half, Mainoo got possession deep, turned, and slalomed out of trouble.
He has now shown he can do it higher up the pitch too, causing trouble to the opposition. Those who know that in his past he played out wide and even as a No 9 will have nodded knowingly.
Perhaps, had he not got injured in pre-season, Mainoo would have shown more of this flexibility earlier. At times against Wolves, Casemiro was the deepest midfielder, rather than Mainoo, but this was only their second competitive game together. They had just six minutes on the field at the same time during the tour of the U.S., before Maino damaged his ankle against Real Madrid in a fall with Rodrygo, as Casemiro watched on close by. Playing alongside the five-times Champions League winner will surely bring on Mainoo’s game.
Ten Hag feels Mainoo is improving every time he steps on the pitch. “Last last autumn (2022) I saw him for the first time. I thought he was playing too comfortable in the under 21s, he should be much more dominant, we pushed him a lot, by showing him but also in training, you see he makes such good progress.
“He is almost progressing from game to game. It is of course wonderful to see. I hope he stays calm, like he is, like he did with his goal. He is determined, he is a good character. Hopefully he can keep going.”
The calmness to which Ten Hag alluded was evident in Mainoo’s celebration, which told people to relax, like scoring a dramatic, spectacular winner was all in the plan. He provided a cool end to an action-packed game and left Ten Hag with “mixed feelings”, given that it was a good win against a team who had claimed victories over Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, but it could have been much more comfortable.
Mainoo’s impact meant Marcus Rashford’s return became a footnote, probably how he and Ten Hag would have liked it. Ten Hag started Rashford after his indiscretions, intending to draw an immediate line under the episode, and he was repaid with a purposeful performance and an excellent goal. That is three in three in the Premier League for Rashford.
Scott McTominay got the third goal at Wolves to mean three different academy players had scored in the same game. Hojlund even received a pass from a team-mate to score, after three goals in a row when nobody in a United shirt had assisted him.
But for his serenity in a storm, the acclaim goes to Mainoo.
(Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)