* The last time Manchester United and Chelsea met, on April 18, they were a combined eight points from the top of the Premier League, in first and third positions. Less than nine months later, the combined points gap to the top was 28 (and Leicester have a game in hand), and they started the match in sixth and 16th. Whatever the conclusions drawn from the 90 minutes, these are two of European football’s biggest underachievers this season.
With that in mind, a draw was the predictable result. Chelsea are in disaster prevention mode, while United were simply trying to clamber away from their worst run of results in over 20 years. The temptation could be to praise Louis van Gaal and Guus Hiddink for the improvements (and there will be an element of that to follow), but there was really no lower place for either to stoop. A ragged and ramshackle Chelsea got what they came for; United couldn’t get what they needed.
The principle conclusion is this: No Premier League team has taken fewer points than United over the last six games, who sit bottom of the form table. Over those six matches, Van Gaal’s side have played teams currently second, seventh, ninth, 14th, 15th and 16th. That’s appalling.
* After the farce of Van Gaal’s team selection against Stoke, this was at least a far more logical United line-up. Marouane Fellaini was dropped to the bench – praise be! – and replaced by Morgan Schneiderlin, while Bastian Schweinsteiger returned after suspension. Ander Herrera was moved further forward, with Anthony Martial pushed out wide again. That still leaves a slightly sour taste.
There was also a return to the side for Wayne Rooney, after the experiment to drop him from the team failed to spark any significant improvement.
Hiddink’s biggest selection dilemma came up front, with Diego Costa suspended. Rather than rely on the misfiring Loic Remy, the Dutchman opted for Eden Hazard in a false nine role. He ended up having to do the job of a No. 9 and No. 10.
“We try to play with some variation,” Hiddink said before the game. “We have several players who can play there so we hope to be flexible.”
Hiddink also explained that Gary Cahill was missing through a foot injury and Cesc Fabregas had a temperature. The latter’s absence sparked rumours that he had asked to leave the club, all denied.
* If United needed a moment to ignite the Old Trafford crowd, it arrived after less than three minutes.
Things have got so bad that Juan Mata even refused to write his blog this week. We would read 1,000 words on how sweetly he struck the ball against Thibaut Courtois’ bar.
Yet within two minutes, Chelsea came just as close to taking the lead. Hazard capitalised on Daley Blind’s slip and won a corner. Rooney was given the questionable role of marking John Terry, which went as well as you’d expect. David de Gea’s tip over the bar was majestic.
Earlier this season, Van Gaal bemoaned his side’s finishing as the biggest limitation on their results. Not only was that extremely one-eyed, it also ignored the performances of his goalkeeper. De Gea is comfortably United’s best player. Where would they be had he joined Real Madrid?
* There were dubious claims in some quarters that some of United’s players wanted to lose at Stoke in order for Van Gaal to be sacked. Those spouting such obvious nonsense have now been disproved, as if there was any doubt.
Whether the intervention came from the manager or a collective will from the players, United looked different in the opening half-hour. The energy, invention and attacking ambition that has been so sadly lacking in recent weeks (months?) was finally on show, the ball being played forward regularly rather than rotated limply around the defence and midfield. United were proactive, not reactive.
Even Rooney looked something close to sharp for the first 25 minutes, involved in United’s attacks and stinging Courtois’ palms with a drive from 25 yards. We can’t remember the last time he drilled a shot on target from that distance rather than limply bending it either over or straight into the goalkeeper’s midriff.
* It was not just with the ball that United impressed. Too often recently, ceding possession has led to an unsatisfactory reaction, heads dropping as the opposition attack at will. In the first half, United’s front four pressed Chelsea’s players, often forcing mistakes. Rooney even chased down Courtois and forced a skewed kick.
The benefit of that tactic was clear. Without Costa (and therefore a focal point up front), United’s best route to success was to make Chelsea’s midfielders and defenders go direct, a tactic that was unlikely to succeed when Eden Hazard and Oscar were the most obvious recipients. The ball was simply delivered to Blind and Chris Smalling, who started the next attacking assault.
* That said, for all United’s improvement, Chelsea played a crucial role in their potential downfall. Quite what has happened to a defence that conceded only 32 goals last season goodness only knows, but panic is now the default response to every attack. They were lucky to survive until half-time.
Nemanja Matic has regressed beyond any possible prediction, while calmness under pressure has never exactly been John Obi Mikel’s forte. Being booked for spoiling attacks with cynical challenges is, however. Mikel was cautioned after 27 minutes.
If this is a crisis of Chelsea confidence, then there will be no quick fix. It might sound hyperbolic (though shouldn’t with Chelsea so close to trouble), but if Hiddink’s side play as they did in the first 20 minutes until the end of the season, they will be in relegation trouble. Play as they did in the second half, and they will be back in the lukewarm glow of mid-table security.
* Having hit the woodwork three times all season prior to Monday, United made it twice in 25 minutes through Anthony Martial’s low shot. While Martial’s best position still surely remains through the middle, he has proved himself more able than Memphis Depay in making the best of an unideal situation out wide.
Facing Branislav Ivanovic has become a wide player’s dream during this calamitous Chelsea run, and the ease with which Martial beat the Serbian for his chance will cause Hiddink as many headaches as it caused his predecessor. While Mata’s shot hit the bar flush, Martial’s effort rebounded back off the inside of Courtois’ right post and out of danger. United supporters might have feared then that the goal would not come.
* Hazard has been well below last season’s best (or even last season’s worst), but United’s players still targeted him with some physical treatment. Ashley Young was the first culprit, lucky to avoid a caution when stopping the Belgian streaming forward. Ander Herrera was the next player to kick out at Hazard, again hugely fortunate to avoid a booking. It was Chris Smalling who finally broke Martin Atkinson’s patience, barging the Belgian off the pitch on the right wing.
Only three players were fouled more than once, and two of those (Matic and Willian) were fouled twice; Hazard was fouled six times. United’s offences on him accounted for 27% of all the fouls given in the match.
* United and Chelsea are fortunate to have two of the top five (three?) goalkeepers in the world. Amid a sea of disharmony and disappointment, they stand out like beacons in the grey dusk. Anything De Gea can do, Courtois can at least replicate.
The Belgian’s match-saving moment came when he somehow stopped Herrera’s point-blank shot from crossing the line in the second half. The Spaniard was not able to get a great connection on Martial’s cross, but still deflected the ball towards goal with enough power to end in celebration. Like De Gea before him, Courtois prides himself on making the unlikely a reality.
* Dwelling on penalty decisions is an unpleasant pastime, but it’s worth discussing United’s appeal against a potential handball from Willian.
On BT Sport, Howard Webb was sure that a mistake had been made and United wronged, but the laws of the game offer far less clarification.
‘A direct free kick (or penalty) is awarded to the opposing team if a player handles the ball deliberately,’ the rules read, with further guidance offered in the interpretations to those laws.
‘Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm,’ that guidance states. ‘The referee must take into account… the movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand).’
There is no question that Willian handled the ball, nor that it assisted him to do so. But deliberate? Surely not, with his miscontrol causing the ball to rise up to where his hand had moved. Why would he have handled it deliberately with nobody around him, when standing in his own area?
I’m not saying such decisions shouldn’t be given, but the grey area is substantial enough to cause disagreement.
* While United didn’t quite slip back into the bad habits of the Britannia, their second half was far less impressive than the first. It’s worth noting that United still only managed two shots on target, a statistic diluted by their flirtations with post and bar. They also had fewer shots of any kind than Chelsea after half-time.
For all Van Gaal’s post-match insistence that his side had “forced the luck”, they too were fortunate to find Matic in typically dire form when sent through on goal. Darmian (and others) had over-committed, leaving United open to the counter. Matic’s finish summed up his season: No composure and no confidence. The chance to win the match was spurned over the bar.
There is one United inadequacy more infuriating than the rest, and it reared its ugly head during the second half. Why can’t Van Gaal’s players cross the ball at a level beyond abject?
There were two honourable exceptions (Borthwick-Jackson for Rooney and Martial for Herrera), but on the whole United’s accuracy from out wide is appalling. Young seems content to hit the ball as hard as he can rather than actually pick out a team-mate, while the rest simply lob the ball into the area.
We’re not asking for the quality delivery of David Beckham, but when was the last time a teasing cross was played into the area for a United player to head or volley home? As for the standard of corners and set-pieces, it was worse than during the Grimsby vs Lincoln game on Monday lunchtime. The anger is building inside.
* It’s easy to understand why commentators, pundits and journalists might give Rooney – England’s captain – an easy ride, but the bias is becoming more than a little tiring. Punditry is supposed to contain a degree of analysis; Rooney remains so far away from the microscope.
Rooney’s display against Chelsea was better than his average over the last year, but that is merely damning with very faint praise. He created three chances and showed a willingness to press Chelsea’s defenders in the first half, but also missed his best opportunity when Borthwick-Jackson’s superb ball found him seven yards from goal. It was an acute angle and the chance had to be taken on the volley, but the finish was wild.
Then there was ‘the incident’, with Rooney planting his studs into the right leg of Oscar. He was incredibly fortunate that referee Atkinson deemed the challenge worthy of only a yellow card. It was a ludicrously generous assessment of an awful challenge, and Rooney can now face no further punishment.
Within five minutes, BT Sport had named Rooney as Man of the Match. It beggars belief.
* Having spurned the official choice, a word of praise for the game’s true best performer: Kurt Zouma. The Frenchman has struggled alongside far more experienced and established names this season, but is exempt from much of the criticism aimed at Chelsea. Having only turned 21 in October, he can come out unscathed from this long-term Stamford Bridge funk.
Against United, Zouma was superb. This was not a defensive display of great bravery, no blocks or last-ditch challenges. It was a performance of composure and assuredness. Both have been lacking in Chelsea’s defenders too often this season.
Zouma occasionally gets caught out of position, but his pace acts as a safety net. His run and challenge on Martial with 20 minutes remaining was exceptional.
As with any young defender, his concentration and decision-making must improve over time. Yet those concerns are eliminated by just one sight of Zouma sprinting at full pelt and taking the ball off the toes of an attacker. Swoon.
* One doesn’t like to be unnecessarily harsh, but Glenn Hoddle’s reputation as a commentator is consistently hamstrung by his inability to pronounce the names of foreign players. We’re not asking for perfection with the intricacies of awkward and unfamiliar names, but a basic grasp of the Premier League’s most notable players wouldn’t go amiss.
Take Willian, for example. If one of the flagship commentators for a broadcaster lands on Will-Ann and Will-Am more than the correct pronunciation, someone should surely have a word? Of course it’s pedantic, but it gives off the impression that you don’t care enough about the job to get it right, unfair or otherwise.
* A 0-0 draw affords opportunity to discuss the bigger picture around Van Gaal, and the mess that is Manchester United’s hierarchy.
‘At best you made United functional, and at worst catastrophic. Expecting that to be sustainable is lunacy, even considering the inadequacies of United’s hierarchy.’ So ended our Boxing Day piece after United’s shambolic loss to Stoke City. A lesson has been learned: Never underestimate the incompetence of Ed Woodward.
On the day of one of United’s biggest fixtures of the season, the papers all ran the same story. Despite Van Gaal’s own admissions that he was struggling to motivate the players and halt the slide, despite the growing feeling that the players had lost faith in their manager and despite supporters resigned to Van Gaal’s exit, Woodward thought different. If United’s executive vice-chairman is the Premier League’s Mr Bean, this was the Christmas special.
In a sport of ever-decreasing tolerance levels, patience should typically be admired. Yet it cannot be used as a blind rule; patience does not outweigh logic and reason. When the Manchester United manager virtually admits that he can no longer carry out his job satisfactorily and expects to lose the next fixture, patience has warped into misplaced faith.
If the tenures of Van Gaal and David Moyes will eventually both end somewhere between disappointment and farce, what does that say about Woodward’s own suitability for such a high-profile role? He may be adept at attracting noodle partners, dealing with fizzy drinks manufacturers and establishing symbiotic relationships with tyre suppliers, but by every footballing measure Woodward has fallen short. His transfer negotiations, for example, have been award-winningly slapstick.
Woodward’s patience in Van Gaal is just another symptom of his embarrassing lack of proaction. While the Glazer family will be impressed by his expansion of the Manchester United brand, supporters grow increasingly disillusioned with the club’s increasing ability to make pig’s ears out of silk purses. Rarely has there been so many tickets advertised as spares on social media before such a big game.
“There is not any reason to resign for me, maybe the media wants that, but I shall not do that,” insisted Van Gaal after the game, who even talked of “fulfilling my contract”. The message was clear: You’ll have to ask me to leave.
Van Gaal also made the point of praising Woodward in his post-match interview, making apparent the dichotomy at play. Van Gaal has no intention of resigning, for he knows that the man who appointed him has little desire to make himself look the fool by conceding his mistake. By making the move, Woodward would effectively be writing his own P45. How thoroughly unappetising for those supporters after positive change (and I’m not talking about f**king banners).
A word too on Van Gaal’s possible replacement. If the Dutchman will soon clear his desk, Jose Mourinho is hiding under it, waiting to put up the cardboard cut-out of himself. No, I’m not joking.
Much of the recent opinion regarding Mourinho’s potential arrival at Old Trafford has offered warnings about a club selling its soul to the devil. Plenty of people would remark that such advice is over a decade too late, given the identity and strategy of the club’s owners.
Mourinho may not be the perfect long-term appointment for United, but can they really afford to be picky given the urgency of the situation? The most relevant question is whether the Portuguese could get more out of the current squad than Van Gaal. The answer is yes, uttered through light laughter.
If there was any further evidence needed, the alternative to Mourinho is Ryan Giggs. Does any realistic United supporter really think their assistant manager is a) ready to step up, or b) not tainted by the Van Gaal/Moyes era? The worry is that Giggs might be the perfect yes man.
* Finally, where you stand on that United display probably depends on your own assessment of Van Gaal’s continued employment. There is no doubt that United were better, but are we not in danger of judging them by the faeces that went before? Whatever the positives from the performance, this was a day on which United moved further away from the top four. The gap is now five points.
Van Gaal’s post-match assessment that his side were unlucky not to win has some weight, but hard luck stories are difficult to take. The Dutchman has now overseen a run of eight games without victory in all competitions. It was also their sixth 0-0 draw in their last 14 matches.
See too Chelsea’s recent away league results. 1-2 at Leicester, 0-0 at Tottenham, 0-1 at Stoke, 1-2 at West Ham, 2-2 at Newcastle and 1-3 at Everton. There is no doubt that Hiddink should be the happier of the two managers.
This was a step in the right direction for United, but Van Gaal needs to be dealing in giant leaps. Halfway through the season, his side are nearer to the bottom half than the top four.
“When the players are fighting for me, I always stay,” was Van Gaal’s last defiant message in his post-match press conference. “And that you have seen today.” Yes indeed, Louis, it’s just that we’ve only seen it today. When no team in the entire Premier League has taken fewer points in their last six matches, fight is about the least we would expect.