16 Conclusions: Chelsea 0-2 Man United

Date published: Tuesday 18th February 2020 12:21

1) It was, in essence, a game between two sides in mid-table. Chelsea started Monday 11th in the Premier League in terms of points accrued at home, with Man United 12th and below Crystal Palace and Burnley away. Both teams had won one of their last five matches and neither was in a state of collective satisfaction with either their manager or squad.

For one team, that remains the case. But for the other, despite the gap of three points to their vanquished opponents, there is a sense of contentment. Man United are the first side to win away at both the Etihad Stadium and Stamford Bridge in the same league season as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in October and November 2015.

That is entirely coincidental; the sort of metamorphosis Anfield has witnessed remains a fantasy for United. But they have to start somewhere, and while United are still behind the Blues, they do feel somewhat closer to that holy grail in the enervating distance.

 

2) But this was much more instructive an insight into Frank Lampard’s Chelsea than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Man United. The two disallowed goals offer as much mitigation as the unfathomable decision not to dismiss one of the two scorers. The overall performance in the context of an atrocious run destroys any residual sympathy.

To have one shot on target – that from a 30-year-old left-back in the 82nd minute – is incriminating evidence of a team low on confidence and impetus. The statistics suggest this is one of Chelsea’s worst Premier League seasons ever at Stamford Bridge and the eyes corroborate it.

Lampard seems utterly powerless to stop this slide. Split Chelsea’s campaign in half and they were fourth after 13 games with the fourth-best attack masking a troubled defence. Based on the subsequent 13 matches, they would be 14th and scoring almost half as many goals, with only a marginal improvement at the back. The manager has overseen a stark depreciation in both his and his players’ stock over a matter of months.

 

3) That decision not to invest in January will only be further ruthlessly exposed before May. Chelsea lost one exhausted player in N’Golo Kante to injury after ten minutes, with neither Tammy Abraham nor Callum Hudson-Odoi fit to even make the squad. There was another enforced change at half-time due to Andreas Christensen’s knock and this, their oldest Premier League starting XI of the season by far, only looked more weathered and withered by full-time.

Compare that to Man United, for whom Bruno Fernandes was excellent and even Odion Ighalo was influential in a late cameo. Chelsea weakened from a position of ostensible strength and it will take an almighty effort to maintain that grip on fourth for much longer.

 

4) They were the better side early on. Mateo Kovacic was wonderful, dribbling through midfield with ease but being greeted with stasis instead of movement. Mason Mount helped in that regard after replacing Kante yet he can only be expected to do so much.

Kante, even in his short stint, showed why Chelsea might genuinely consider selling him this summer. The Frenchman turns 29 in March and a combination of his high-intensity style and the amount he is relied upon is taking a clear physical toll. He is no longer at a stage where his value can increase, nor is he irreplaceable or invaluable.

His 12 minutes included four passes, two of which were misplaced, and one instance where Brandon Williams ghosted past him on the left-hand side a matter of seconds after kick-off. Kante is far more of a natural starter than an impact substitute, yet he seems unsuited to this team and 11 Chelsea players have made more appearances this season. Lampard would be naive not to consider a future without him.

 

5) Save for a few routine headers and six-yard passes, Harry Maguire’s first real touch came in the 21st minute. Looking to make a clearance under pressure from Michy Batshuayi, the captain felt a slight nudge in his back and subsequently tumbled to the ground. In the process of falling, he delivered a kick straight into the Belgian’s release clause. David Beckham would have winced at the lack of subtlety.

Anthony Taylor can be forgiven for not seeing the incident, but VAR Chris Kavanagh has no such defence. He might justifiably suggest that Maguire got the ball first. Heung-min Son may question the difference between that and this. It was a red card and would have changed the entire complexion of the match; the lack of any punishment whatsoever was a damning indictment of technology that offers more angles but no less subjectivity.

 

6) Soon after, that mistake was partially atoned for. Willian collected a pass from Kovacic and had only Fernandes between himself and a good ten yards of space in the United area. He followed a step-over with a quick change of direction to the left as the Portuguese duly dangled a leg for him to stumble over.

Willian failed on two counts of deception: his dive into the area was not enough to disguise the fact the incident had occurred outside it, nor did the exaggeration succeed in persuading the officials that the contact was sufficient for a foul. And it wasn’t.

But the pertinent point is that Willian had beaten Fernandes. He had space and time in abundance to choose between a couple of options, yet not the ability to exploit it because he went into his first one-on-one with the single-mindedness of playing for a penalty.

The best players either dictate or react to the situation. Willian wasted one of Chelsea’s better openings by doing neither.

 

7) The story of the game was quite neatly summed up by the fact Chelsea and Man United shared 11 shots before the first effort on target in the 45th. Anthony Martial wasted two promising opportunities and Batshuayi was a terrible casting choice in the role of elite finisher; it was an effective advert for the benefits of fielding an actual centre-forward.

Then it happened. The first genuine moment of inspiration in attack shattered the monotony of profligacy. Martial’s glancing header from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s cross was an exquisite island in a sea of mediocrity.

The finish was sublime but the assist must have been cathartic. Wan-Bissaka twisted Willian one way and then the other before delivering a sumptuous cross. After three assists in 58 Premier League appearances came not only a second in seven, but a timely reminder that this is a 22-year-old learning a much more expansive way of playing in a side still finding its own collective feet. The unflattering comparisons with his contemporaries will keep coming, but Wan-Bissaka is a fine talent in his own right.

 

8) The goal would not have been possible without the input of Fred. With Wan-Bissaka being closed down by Kovacic and Willian in possession on the right, Fred exploited the vast gap left in midfield and provided a passing option that broke the lines in one swift movement. He carried the ball a few yards before returning it to the right-back to deliver in style.

He was the man of the match. No player has embraced the challenge of guiding a seemingly aimless United quite so impeccably, taking the mere suggestion of a meek defeat as a personal insult. Considering the position he was in, it has been quite the transformation.

Man United, at this stage, would be utterly foolish to put any more eggs in the basket marked by Paul Pogba’s name. Move on, acknowledge the experiment has failed and proceed on this current track. It might damage a few egos to abandon one of the final vestiges of their transfer market aristocracy, but it will do no harm to results to build around talented players who are committed to the cause. Fred is chief among them.

 

9) The entire sequence was condemnatory for Chelsea. Jorginho’s positional mistake can be seen above but he was hardly the sole culprit.

It started with a free-kick in their own half after a lengthy stoppage for a head injury to Christensen. By the time the centre-half had rushed back onto the field of play Chelsea had infuriatingly ceded possession, Batshuayi venturing offside from the dead-ball situation and giving United a chance to build patiently from the back. The Blues did not touch the ball again until United had scored, with Christensen failing to track Martial’s run to prevent his glancing header.

It was another show of the sort of catastrophic in-game management that is starting to become commonplace under Lampard. The naivety that was endearing and channeled to great effect in the first half of the season has become damaging. When there is no accountability and little leadership, complacency and mistakes often follow.

 

10) Kudos to whoever’s decision it was to cut to a shot of Olivier Giroud slumped on the bench straight after a miss from Batshuayi in first-half stoppage-time. The juxtaposition was glorious.

Batshuayi really was poor. The only possible reason for him to have started is for his finishing and his pressing, such is the superiority of Giroud’s physicality and link play. But his two shots were off-target and he and Willian were bypassed effortlessly. Pedro carried the burden as far as he could.

It came as little surprise that Chelsea’s best period coincided with Giroud’s introduction. The Frenchman created more chances in 23 minutes than Batshuayi in 67 and, while correctly adjudged to be offside, took his goal wonderfully. If those respective displays were not enough to convince Lampard to change their places in the pecking order then nothing will.

 

11) Kurt Zouma’s goal should have stood. Fred nudged Cesar Azpilicueta in the build-up, with the Spaniard subsequently thrust into Williams’s path as Willian’s corner came in. It was disallowed on the basis of the second action, which begs the question as to how the first was overlooked.

It was another officiating mistake that will be accompanied with a lacklustre explanation. The truth is that when push came to literal shove, VAR was found wanting.

 

12) Salt was applied to the wound within about ten minutes. A Fernandes corner helped Maguire conjure those glorious memories of the summer of 2018 with a fine header to make it 2-0.

But what did Roy Keane make of the celebrations? And at what stage do Sky Sports stop giving him money and a platform to tell everyone things he never did and never would do as a player? It is neither entertaining nor perceptive.

 

13) It was the second Fernandes set-piece to threaten Chelsea in as many minutes. The Portuguese struck Willy Caballero’s post with a free-kick shortly before sweeping in Man United’s first successful corner of the Premier League era.

There are questions to be asked about why United delayed his arrival for so long, but Fernandes is making up for lost time. He has added a couple of dimensions to a previously shallow attack and will surely only improve in terms of rhythm and relationships over time. His short, sharp interchanges with Fred to create an early shooting chance offered a brief vision of an incisive United based on one-touch passes and constant movement. He was a delight.

 

14) So too was Eric Bailly, making his first appearance of the season in any competition since April. You would have been forgiven for assuming he was a regular starter, such was his brilliance.

It felt as though the risk had backfired within three minutes when Pedro dispossessed him in United’s half in a move that came to nothing. But Bailly soon steadied himself and delivered a consummate, commanding performance.

Most players would take that early mistake as a warning sign; Bailly embraced it as an encouraging old friend, proceeding to thwart an advancing Batshuayi by dropping a shoulder in his own area, then putting in a sensational block on Kovacic to accompany an earlier tackle on Azpilicueta.

The 25-year-old is, on his day, the best centre-half at Man United. The challenge now is to make this performance the standard.

 

15) Perhaps the one shame for Man United was Ighalo’s stoppage-time miss. Played in by Fred, the striker made use of the gap between Zouma and Rudiger to take one touch and force a clever save out of Caballero. Had it gone in, United might genuinely have imploded.

The four minutes he was given was enough to prove that January move as a justifiable ridiculousness. Of course Man United should not be signing a Chinese Super League striker on loan. Of course it is absurd that he couldn’t train with his teammates because he was in quarantine. Of course the entire situation is baffling. But he gave them something different, something tangible when it was needed.

His first few touches were a basic lesson in how to relieve pressure. His last was tantalisingly close to delivering the boyhood dream. As a short-term solution to a long-term problem, he will be mightily effective.

 

16) How Lampard must crave that sort of impact. It seems he has the opposite Midas touch at the minute, his pointed change of goalkeeper resulting in four goals conceded in two games, and his faith in youth making way for an over-reliance on the old guard.

It is difficult to see where the slump ends. Chelsea have essentially been sustained by that run of six straight wins between September and November; that is their only instance of consecutive league victories this entire season.

They have been sleepwalking, falling to fourth with a defeat to City on November 23 and not moving up or down in the intervening 87 days. It feels like the only thing that could wake them is a jolt in position, the sort Tottenham would happily provide at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. By that point, the tide might have turned a little too far.

Matt Stead

 

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