That was much, much better from Manchester United thanks in large part to their new goalscoring talisman Scott McTominay. But thanks also to the generosity of an infuriatingly soft Chelsea team.
1. A significant and deserved win for Manchester United, but a huge night in the Old Trafford reign of Erik Ten Hag. A day he started as favourite in the Sack Race ended with a victory in which every big call he made was vindicated and in which the team showed the heart, commitment and above all togetherness the absence of which was so brutally exposed at Newcastle.
With Steve Cooper’s Nottingham Forest going down 5-0 at Fulham and Roy Hodgson turning on his own club’s fans after Palace’s 2-0 home defeat to Bournemouth, Ten Hag would probably be safely off that particular top spot even without this much-improved performance from his team. Until those two get the actual sack, anyway.
2. The identity of Manchester United’s goalscoring matchwinner would, before this season have come as a surprise. Now it’s just what he does. Scott McTominay’s reimagining as a kind of Lampardian goalscoring midfielder has been a wildly unexpected change of tone, but for club and country it’s working out. He’s now United’s leading scorer this season and even though that’s a statistic that arguably says even more about several other players than it does McTominay it’s still quite something.
They really were goalscorer’s goals too, if that makes even the slightest lick of sense. A smart control and finish from 12 yards out to open the scoring and then a late run into the box to outjump and overpower a defender before heading forcefully home to win the game in the second half.
3. And McTominay could have had many, many more goals, such was the frankly astonishing ease with which he especially but United generally were able to get around, behind and beyond an alarmingly fragile Chelsea backline. McTominay had seven attempts on goal in all – although two came in quick succession in the same incident featuring an impressive-yet-also-kind-of-straightforward-really double save from Robert Sanchez.
But that wasn’t even the most attempts from a United player tonight. Alejandro Garnacho had eight – including an inevitably doomed attempt to recreate his Everton insanity. In all, United rained down 28 shots on Sanchez’s goal and while that was at least in part due to the quality of their football on the night, it’s also just far too many for a team with any kind of pretensions to be allowing. Especially given the general goalshy nature of United’s Premier League season to date.
4. There will be two concerns for United after this broadly excellent evening’s work. The first, most obviously, is that those 28 efforts translated only to two goals. Had Chelsea packed their own shooting boots the result could have been very different given the chances they themselves were able to carve out on the break. Given the overall balance of the game was so firmly tilted United’s way, it would have been absurd but it could easily have happened.
The second concern will be that only one of those 28 attempts on goal came from Rasmus Hojlund during his 83 minutes on the pitch.
He actually started the game brightly and that one attempt on goal was a decent one, forcing Sanchez into a save that looked better on a second watch than it had at the time, when the game was still goalless. But his early prominence receded and it’s now 764 minutes and counting for Hojlund as he awaits that first Premier League goal.
5. But while that number does illustrate Hojlund’s own struggle, it also points to precisely where Chelsea’s main weakness on the night was to be found: the full-back regions. Even that Hojlund chance came when he took up a spot down the left channel to catch Marc Cucurella unawares.
Quite why Cucurella was deployed at right-back with Reece James on the bench is one of many mysteries Mauricio Pochettino may be required to unravel from a disappointing and disjointed performance, but Levi Colwill at left-back was equally culpable.
6. Both Garnacho and Antony revelled in the opportunities Chelsea’s makeshift full-backs provided for them, though. Both turned in perhaps their most-rounded and best overall performances in Our League to date. Both were hugely influential in what was comfortably United’s most convincing attacking performance of the Premier League season.
7. Antony’s first major contribution, though, was tinged with farce. It was he who won an early penalty for Manchester United, awarded by VAR after being understandably but incorrectly waved away on field. Much like the penalty Anthony Martial won for United at Everton a couple of weeks ago, it was an example of VAR doing things rather well. It didn’t really look like much of anything at all in real time, but one replay was enough to show Enzo Fernandez’s boot crunching down on the top of Antony’s. Undoubtedly a foul and therefore undoubtedly a penalty.
8. It remains one of those that still slightly irks us because the crime and punishment feel so distinctly at odds. Fernandez was distinctly unwise to make a challenge that carried such risk and offered so little reward given where Antony was headed but it’s still just hard to square the offence with a punishment that equates to something like 0.75 of a goal. In pre-VAR days it kind of sorted itself out because they were just so often not given. Now it’s an offence that you know will see a referee hauled to the monitor and asked to have another look, with the outcome of that process almost inevitable. Even when VAR is correct we’re really not sure it’s always an improvement. Funny game, football.
9. Anyway, happily for everyone, Bruno Fernandes agreed and decided to do one of those penalties with a run-up that absolutely demands you stick the ball in the back of the net. Instead, Sanchez refused to fall for the dancing horse performance, guessed right and made a smart save. To summarise, then: we think it was a foul, we think VAR was right to award it, we’re sort of not really happy about that because the punishment doesn’t really fit the crime, and are therefore glad it was saved. Clear? Not really. But we do sort of reckon it makes sense in our own heads. There are lots of fouls in the penalty area where it doesn’t really feel like it should be a penalty.
10. We’ll stop talking about the penalty in a moment, but it was our favourite part of the whole match. Which makes the match sound a lot worse than it was, because it was very decent indeed. But this is a bug-bear of ours and we’re warming to the theme now. A big part of why it was so funny, and also kind of why we don’t really like the penalty decision (despite it being a decision that, as the laws currently stand, we think was entirely and uncontroversially correct), is that Antony essentially won a penalty by accident after getting his decision-making and touch all wrong. When the ball came to him it seemed the most obvious thing in the world to go on the outside, where all the Chelsea players weren’t, rather than back inside, where all the Chelsea players were. And yet, that perplexing decision ended up with a penalty. Which was missed anyway. So… was it the right decision in the end or not? What does any of it mean? Does any of it mean anything?
11. United didn’t have long to wait to turn their dominance into a deserved lead in any case, and it was a beautifully taken goal by McTominay, bringing a loose ball under instant control with his right before swiftly drilling home with his left. We’ve come away from this game with the distinct sensation that an awful lot of its elements looked a lot better on replay than they did in real time, and this touch and finish was definitely another example. Currently working on a theory that this is because the match was co-commentated by the magnificent Ally McCoist, a man who is constantly more impressed by everything on replay and the only co-commentator in this or any other sport so cheerfully and frequently willing to change their mind upon closer inspection of an incident.
12. Chelsea’s equaliser was both unlikely given the balance of play yet also an easily predictable event given the warning signs had been there on the few occasions the visitors could get on the ball. Mykhaylo Mudryk and Raheem Sterling were both guilty of bad or mistimed decisions to butcher promising breakaways, while Nicolas Jackson should have done better despite Sterling not quite nailing a pass to him when presented with the sort of non-existent defence he hasn’t encountered since that batshit Spurs game the other week.
The one time Chelsea did find some composure in front of goal, it came – almost inevitably – from Cole Palmer, a player who is rapidly becoming a talisman for the Blues. That’s credit to him, but also doesn’t really reflect too brilliantly on some pretty senior and enormously expensive footballers elsewhere within this still wildly inconsistent, underperforming squad.
Lovely goal, though. Really lovely goal. Victor Lindelof must have thought he’d got Palmer covered as the Chelsea player and boyhood United fan shift and shuttled his way across the face of goal. But Palmer is a young player filled with rare confidence right now, and it manifested here in his patience to wait and wait for the crucial alleyway of space to appear and then with the composure, technique and clarity of thought to realise that slow-rolling the finish would work wonderfully as long as it carried with it the necessary precision. It was a masterful and pleasingly intelligent piece of football.
13. Chelsea never really built on the psychological blow that goal could have inflicted, though. It was interesting that at half-time the mood around Old Trafford remained generally positive despite conceding such a sucker-punch equaliser. It was clear that the much improved performance and obvious maximum effort being put in by those in red was appreciated, and a sense that more of the same would be enough to eventually force a result against a Chelsea team that remains less than the sum of its considerable parts and currently embroiled in a non-stop taking of one step forward and two steps back.
If anything, Chelsea’s counter-attacks became less of a feature in the second half as United assumed near total control. The belated introduction of Reece James at right-back did allow for some attacking intent but did alarmingly little to improve things at the other end. Twice he gave the ball away carelessly in dangerous areas with loose headed clearances. At least one of those should have resulted in a United goal, the ball falling to Bruno who opted not to shoot and instead played in United substitute Sergio Reguilon to flash the ball across goal where Garnacho could only slice wide.
Once McTominay had powered United back into the lead, there really wasn’t all that much doubt or jeopardy about the result.
14. That fact is, to a large extent, on Pochettino. It was a frequent gripe from Spurs fans even when his team was at its best that he could be far too slow to make changes, to react to what was going on in front of him. While he did acknowledge and correct the Cucurella-James mistake at half-time, there can be only partial credit for that. He was merely clearing up his own mess when it would have been a dereliction of duty to do different. While his bench options may not be what they should be, it was still infuriating to see him wait and wait until the second half’s obvious direction of travel resulted in that predictable second United goal before he sought to do anything about it with tweaks of tactics or personnel.
15. There is a sense with this Chelsea side still that – with a couple of notable exceptions – they play the game almost passively. That games happen to them, and sometimes their response is enough but very often it’s not. United were a team vulnerable after the weekend but also one always likely to produce a response. Chelsea didn’t appear ready with a plan for either of those facts. They neither set out to counter a fast United start with one of their own nor made a concerted effort to ride out the start and then look to impose. They had their moments, because even when the fight and commitment is there from United the underbelly of the team remains soft.
But this was a game played almost exclusively on United’s terms and the way United wanted to play it. Given how far from the case that was on Saturday evening, there are legitimate questions to be laid at the door of manager and senior players about just how prepared and up for this game Chelsea were. It’s Manchester United away! It should be bigger than this!
16. It’s still not really at all good enough from Chelsea given the vast nature of their outlay. There remains precious little evidence of consistent improvement, and they remain a team that can be entertaining enough on their day but look an absolute mile short of competing back at the top of the table.
But while United were good on the night, the same remains true of them. They’re still inconsistent, still bad at least as often as they’re good, still beset by problems in plenty of areas that will require far more than one good game to solve. It’s still pretty remarkable to watch this fixture and find yourself looking at two upper mid-table battlers trying to find solutions to problems that shouldn’t exist for the teams who took first and second in the net spend table this summer.
When McCoist was trying to get his head round this on commentary he was moved to bafflement at the idea that these two great clubs were to be found scrambling at best for fourth place. Jon Champion spoke for all of us with his correct and entirely malice-free instant reaction to the notion of either of these teams finishing fourth: ‘That high?’
It really shouldn’t be this way.