In the Roman Abramovich era, has there ever been a time when expectations at both Chelsea and Manchester United have been so low? When these two behemoths of English football have looked so unkempt, so obviously flawed at the beginning of a new campaign?
It is scarcely believable that the team sheet for the standout fixture on the first weekend of the 2019/20 Premier League season will likely include the likes of Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount, Scott McTominay, Emerson, and Daniel James. It is a sign of the times that the two managers have only previously worked – without distinction – at Derby County, Cardiff City, and Molde.
The good news for neutrals is that, with so many unknowns, we could be in for an entertainingly chaotic game. Here are five tactical questions ahead of Manchester United v Chelsea:
1) Should we expect a bore draw or lots of goals?
There is always an element of tactical uncertainty on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, but this particular match is almost completely unreadable. We can (and will, below) pick out some key battles and noteworthy tactical areas based on pre-season form. But in terms of the overall pattern, the lack of quality and experience in both sides – on the pitch and in the dugout – leaves us with two very different potential outcomes.
On the one hand, we might get a clumsy, low-scoring game thanks to the general malaise in the Man Utd team (assuming want-away Paul Pogba is below his best, United’s forwards will find it difficult to find goalscoring opportunities) and because Frank Lampard’s attack reads Christian Pulisic, Ross Barkley or Mount, Pedro and Abraham. Both managers would probably settle for a cautious opening-day point, while both sets of defences look stronger than the options ahead of them.
Then again, complicated summers at Chelsea and Man Utd could create shambolic tactics; United’s dreadful form towards the end of last season suggests Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could crumble, while Chelsea conceded eight goals in their final three pre-season fixtures.
2) Can the Kante/Jorginho axis highlight United’s lack of creativity in a Herrera-less midfield?
Man Utd’s pre-season – while excellent in terms of results – proved once again that the club are alarmingly poor at creating goalscoring opportunities if Pogba is absent or off-form. He will surely be one or the other on Sunday, after suffering a back spasm at the start of a month in which the Frenchman is still hoping for a move to Real Madrid.
Last season United collected 34 points from 26 matches either side of Solskjaer’s manager-bounce run through December, January, and February, so – with no new signings in attacking positions and Romelu Lukaku gone – we need to look at that winning streak to find out how they can create chances. Pogba scored or assisted 16 goals in that time and Lukaku scored six, but the engine driving it all was Ander Herrera. His quick passing and constant repositioning into space created the illusion of tactical complexity under Solskjaer, adding a speed and dynamism that ensured United could stay camped in the opposition half, swarming the final third.
United’s midfield looks very weak going into Sunday’s game, but by contrast Chelsea’s is arguably sturdier than last season. Lampard has mostly reverted to a 4-2-3-1 shape in pre-season (although he has shown some flexibility), with Jorginho and N’Golo Kante starting side-by-side in midfield. Both look stronger; both are covering for the other’s defects. Even if Pogba is at his most rampant it is unlikely, acting more or less alone, that he will overcome Chelsea’s double axis.
3) Will pre-season star Emerson negate Solskjaer’s new emphasis on speed?
Solskjaer’s solution to his central-midfield problem is to avoid the area as much as possible. United’s tactics in pre-season have centred on Daniel James’ pace on the right flank and Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford regularly switching left-wing and centre-forward roles. Jesse Lingard has also stood out; the new emphasis is on raw speed and direct dribbling.
This is only likely to work should Chelsea dominate possession, as Lampard’s Derby side sought to do, since that would leave space for quick United counters led by their new-look front three. Martial in particular has kicked up a gear over the summer, revelling in a more important role, while Rashford may benefit from Lukaku’s exit. Throughout his career so far the young England forward has reacted superbly to pressure.
However, Chelsea’s own emerging star from pre-season, Emerson, is just the man to stifle United at Old Trafford. Lampard has strongly favoured Emerson at left-back over Marcus Alonso, primarily because the Brazilian offers better recovery speed. Emerson’s pace – both one-on-one against James and when sprinting back to cover his centre-backs – should be a major asset this weekend.
4) Will Mount or Barkley, from the Lampard role, excel against Matic?
Unsurprisingly, Lampard likes to field a number ten who is willing to run ahead of the striker. That role has been shared in pre-season by Mount, on loan at Derby last season, and Barkley, handed a new lease of life at Chelsea in a position that requires less defensive discipline. Whoever starts on Sunday, they will expect to outmanoeuvre the slowing, ageing Nemanja Matic.
Matic just isn’t up to playing at an elite level anymore. Easily turned, he could only function well as part of a midfield trio with enough energy to cover for his weaknesses, but without Herrera in support and with Pogba rarely tracking back Matic is in danger of being overrun by Barkley or Mount. Whichever player starts the match is likely to be replaced on the hour mark by the other, and it’s at this point that Matic’s waning physical attributes will be exposed.
5) Is Pulisic v Wan-Bissaka the game’s most interesting key battle?
Replacing Eden Hazard’s goal contributions is obviously the biggest challenge for Chelsea this season, and clearly Lampard thinks Christian Pulisic is the answer. The 19-year-old has regularly started on the left-wing in pre-season, encouraged to turn in possession and run directly at players like his predecessor.
It’s one thing skinning three players in a friendly, and another thing altogether to do so in a division as quick and as physical as the Premier League. Aaron Wan-Bissaka is a very gifted right-back capable of keeping the American in his pocket, while at the other end one fancies the new Man Utd man to overlap unchallenged. Pulisic wasn’t known for his defensive abilities at Dortmund.
Alex Keble is on Twitter