1) Cowardice? Perhaps that charge is a touch too strong to level at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard. But it was certainly fear that dominated their approach to a game which promised plenty if either manager was brave enough to risk going in search of a victory rather than just a clean sheet.
Instead, wariness got the better of both United and Chelsea. Solskjaer and Lampard can point to some progress over the last week and while another positive result could have provided both with reinforced cover from the flak flying their way in the early weeks of the season, neither was prepared to gamble ruining a week’s solid work.
Understandable? Perhaps. Acceptable at this stage in either manager’s reign? You could argue not.
2) A productive week, though, it may have been, longer term progress is harder to assess from either side.
Lampard was returning to Old Trafford for the first time since his Chelsea side were thumped 4-0 in his first game as a Premier League manager in August last year. It was a strange game where Chelsea had more possession and more shots but they shot themselves in the foot. Four times.
Fourteen months later, the same issues remain for Lampard. Five times they have conceded this season as a result of individual errors, the highest number of any Premier League side. So perhaps Lampard will happily justify the means given Chelsea went 90 minutes without sh*ting their bed at Old Trafford. But in the wider context of their attacking talent and their recruitment spend, it’s an extremely low bar for a manager expected to produce after a season’s grace last term.
3) Solskjaer’s approach is rather harder to justify.
“We’ve certainly got our form back,” he said after United turned in an extremely creditable performance against PSG in midweek. It was achieved using a back-three, a system which has brought Solskjaer success in the big games, a couple of times against Chelsea last season.
The assumption was that Solskjaer would stick with a winning formula but instead he reverted to the 4-2-3-1 which reaped two wins and two hugely embarrassing defeats this season in the Premier League. Solskjaer justified the reversion by saying ‘sometimes you have to reward players who have played well’ but it seems last season’s FA Cup semi-final, which Chelsea won by matching up against United’s three-man defence, seriously spooked the United boss.
He said that he expected Chelsea to go for three at the back, which is usually easiest beaten by wingers, or split strikers, as Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial played in Paris. Solskjaer chose neither, with Rashford ploughing a lone furrow while United’s wide players were never likely to go on the outside.
It was not a side chosen to win; it was one selected not to lose. The United way?
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 24, 2020
4) One of those wingers was Daniel James. The Welshman was a surprise selection, especially since he was almost set up to fail by Solskjaer. In an attacking sense at least…
When James gets up a head of steam, he’s like an express train. But departing from the left flank, he will only ever stay on the inside track. If he was ever to escape Reece James, who rarely left his station for the hour that James was on the pitch, then Cesar Azpilicueta, himself a natural right-back, would be across to halt James’ advance.
From all Solskjaer’s options, this was the strangest call. James wasn’t particularly impressive last week at Newcastle where his performance was in-keeping with his form over the last 10 months. The only justification can be that Solskjaer trusted the Welshman to best handle the threat of James going the other way. Which he did. But his inclusion was another hint towards the fear of losing which dominated both manager’s mindsets.
5) From an entertainment perspective, we definitely preferred it when these two sides were crap at the back.
Prior to the last week, United and Chelsea have been almost comically bad defensively while both sides eased themselves into the new season. It was great to watch.
But the improvements offered by Thiago Silva and Victor Lindelof helped make for a dour affair. Kudos to both. The centre-backs established themselves as the leading contenders for the Man-of-the-Match award, with neither putting a foot wrong, in stark contrast to the pre-international break period.
The fear for Silva and Lindelof was that both could be easily outpaced by the speedsters in United’s and Chelsea’s forward lines, but through canny positioning and clever judgement, neither allowed themselves to be unwillingly entered into a foot race.
Timo Werner only once squared up Lindelof, but the United centre-back mitigated for the Chelsea striker’s rapid turn of pace by shepherding him into a dead end as the game finally became a little more stretched in the final 10 minutes.
It was then that Silva produced the best block of the night to deny Edinson Cavani a debut goal, with the Brazilian reading his former PSG’s team-mate’s run across the near post before getting in the way of the United new-boy’s goal-bound shot.
🔵 Chelsea's results in their three matches with Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva both starting
4⃣-0⃣ 🆚 Crystal Palace
0⃣-0⃣ 🆚 Sevilla
0⃣-0⃣ 🆚 Chelsea pic.twitter.com/mS1vLCIExi
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) October 24, 2020
6) A measure of both side’s reluctance to be enticed out of their shape came in how long we had to wait for a shot on goal: 28 minutes. And even that was a poorly-executed free-kick from wide from which James never looked likely to catch out David De Gea.
Let us never speak of that opening half hour ever again.
7) At least then Edouard Mendy tried to liven proceedings – by almost passing the ball into his own net.
It was too close to catastrophe for the Chelsea goalkeeper, a feeling Lampard had become all too used to with Kepa Arrizabalaga. But pleasingly for the Blues, Mendy regained his composure almost immediately and for the rest of the game gave Chelsea the kind of shot-stopping presence that the hologram he replaced could not.
Mendy denied Rashford and Juan Mata towards the end of the first half, but his best stop was reserved for added time.
Rashford toiled in Paris before bagging a late winner and it seemed like he was going to repeat his party trick tonight when he unleashed from the edge of the box a curling shot destined for the far corner. But Mendy sprung to his left to parry the ball two-handed to safety while Solskjaer prepared to celebrate another smash and grab.
Aside from his apparent competence, there is one obvious technical difference between Mendy and Kepa. The Spaniard arrived at Stamford Bridge as the world’s most expensive goalkeeper with a flaw he stubbornly refused to address. Many continental keepers bounce into their set position and thrust their hands forward and as the shot is fired, but the swing of Kepa’s arms was always exaggerated and late. On numerous occasions in his first two seasons at Chelsea, he never gave himself a hope of making a save. Almost literally, he had his hands tied behind his back.
Mendy stance is far lower, with his hands almost closer to his knees than his hips. It allows him to explode into a save, as he did to deny Rashford and ruin Solskjaer’s premature celebrations. Different strokes for different folks, but Kepa’s method clearly isn’t working.
8) No matter how dire the opening half might have been, there is no excuse for Stuart Attwell sleeping on the job in his Stockley Park cupboard.
Chelsea should have had a penalty five minutes before the break when Cesar Azpilicueta sneaked between Harry Maguire and Lindelof while trying to reach a free-kick from the right. Maguire stopped the Chelsea captain from doing just that by foul means. Anyone who saw the replay could see that.
If Attwell bothered to take a look, it was just the briefest of glimpses. The VAR official scrutinised in far greater depth some minor contact between Thiago Silva and Marcus Rashford in the other box a few minutes later, almost to prove that he was still with us.
Harry Maguire clearly prevented Cesar Azpilicueta from being able to play the ball, which in the process allowed him to head it clear.
52nd game of the season, and still only 3 penalty-related (non-handball) VAR decisions in the Premier League. And one a cancellation. #MUNCHE
— Dale Johnson (@DaleJohnsonESPN) October 24, 2020
9) Could you pick a seven-a-side team from United’s starting XI that would beat their bench? Probably not.
Pogba, Cavani, Greenwood, Van De Beek, Tuanzebe, Nemanja Matic and Dean Henderson… the technical quality among United’s substitutes is hugely impressive and deprives Solskjaer of the excuse of a lack of squad depth further down the line.
Chelsea’s bench too looks seriously strong – and similarly expensive. A seven-a-side game between the benches would have produced more entertainment than the starters mustered.
10) Cavani had 30 minutes, though he needed only 20 seconds to make an impact.
The Uruguay centre-forward went straight from the bench into the Chelsea box and his near-post run was timed to perfection to meet Fernandes’ low delivery. Unfortunately for Cavani, his flick was narrowly off target.
But in that moment, and when he was denied by Silva late on, Cavani suggested that he will offer United something they haven’t got. Martial and Rashford, fine forwards though they are, have yet to demonstrate that they have the killer instinct that all top-class centre-forwards require.
Cavani had seven touches in 33 minutes. But with two of them, he came as close to anyone to breaking the deadlock.
11) Paul Pogba entered the fray with Cavani in his new job as United’s impact substitute. Unfortunately for Pogba, he offered little to suggest why he should be promoted from that reserve role.
The France midfielder was given 25 minutes in his preferred attacking role, with Solskjaer even willing to move Fernandes out to the right to give Pogba a chance to shine. In that time, he made no key passes and mustered one tame shot on Mendy’s goal.
Pogba was shuffled back into a deeper role that he appears to hate when Greenwood came on in the 83rd minute with Fernandes restored to his natural position. Still, with Solskjaer’s fondness for a Fred-McTominay screen in midfield, at least Pogba won’t have to worry about defensive responsibilities when he returns again to the bench.
12) Kai Havertz saw more of the bench tonight too than he would have liked and the Germany attacker could not complain when his number came up.
He was largely anonymous in the first half playing from the right and though he came inside more in the second period, he still found good possession too hard to come by. His only opportunity to stamp his mark on the game came with the game’s first hint of incisiveness on 25 minutes, when he took Ben Chilwell’s pass and tried to play in Werner but his pass was astray.
Lampard has a riddle to solve here with Havertz, and the rest of his front line. How can he find the balance between protecting his defence and servicing his attack?
Chelsea’s frontline is as potent as they come but even they need service and support. Lampard, though, isn’t prepared right now to provide ample of either if it means exposing his rearguard even slightly. It is early days for Havertz, Werner, and Christian Pulisic too, but Lampard has to find a far better blend between attack and defence sooner rather than later.
13) Neither manager made a decisive move to go for the victory as the game threatened to peter out. Lampard’s changes were simply like-for-like with freshness the aim rather than impetus.
At least Solskjaer tried to change something by withdrawing McTominay and shifting Pogba further back, but it was a token effort and in the 83rd minute, too little and late.
With Chelsea content to sit on a point, Solskjaer could have been braver much sooner. A win would have taken United to eighth, above Chelsea, whereas they remain 15th and could slip to 16th on Monday, which isn’t a good look. Speaking of which…
14) Hardly Fergie-esque, this…
Solskjaer: ‘The last time after PSG we struggled big time, lost to Arsenal, went 12 games and probably didn’t deserve to win any. We got a point on the board.’ #mufc
— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) October 24, 2020
If Solskjaer genuinely feared a post-Paris repeat, it would suggest he fears the mentality at United remains as weak as it was then, 19 months ago. He’s had 595 days to correct it yet we – and apparently he – remain to be convinced that he has achieved that.
15) Spare a thought for Donny van de Mkhitaryan.
The £40million midfielder is yet to start a game for United that isn’t a Carabao Cup tie and he must be starting to wonder why he bothered leaving Ajax for this.
Solskjaer has credited Van de Beek for his attitude but the manager must have similar concerns over his suitability for the Premier League as Jose Mourinho held towards Henrikh Mkhitaryan when he first arrived in 2016. It seemed a questionable move given United already have Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba desperate to play in the position Van de Beek prefers, but Solskjaer’s reluctance makes it even more strange, and the scrutiny will only increase the longer he remains on the fringes.
16) This stalemate was further proof that football without fans is nothing.
Both managers would likely have played the same tactics but we have to expect that 75,000 punters would have inspired far more intensity on the pitch, or certainly provoke it before the final 10 minutes, which is how long it took for either team to show just the hint of ambition to win.