Manchester United 4-0 Chelsea: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 11th August 2019 8:13

Marcus Rashford Manchester United

1) Graeme Souness, Bryan Robson and the rest of those who extol the virtues of ‘winning the midfield battle’: look away now. When Manchester United can exert such little control in that area but so much power on the scoreline, one of the Premier League’s oldest adages has been thoroughly debunked.

Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic made more passes (119) than Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Andreas Pereira between them (98). They rivalled them for combined tackles and interceptions (5 to 7) and completed more dribbles (5 to 1).

Chelsea’s midfield gave them the platform to be the best side for the majority of the game going forward, but failed to offer protection to a weaker and more error-prone defence. United proved that being decent instead of erratic at both ends is often more preferable. They played to their strengths by suppressing their main weakness in bypassing the midfield.

 

2) Those of us not privy to team talks could have guessed the contents of the final messages both sets of players were given before emerging from the tunnel. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer surely echoed that last season simply was not good enough, that they could not afford to let the fans down once more and that this, indeed, is Manchester United.

Frank Lampard, presumably after following up a serious point with a joke, a laugh and a continuation of the previous serious point, would have told his young charges to take their chance, his more experienced heads to lead by example and for the entire side to play football the right way.

From the first misplaced pass to the last scuffed shot, this looked like a match where each participant was implored to give 110% effort without being reminded to replicate that in terms of quality. That perhaps says more about the circumstances of the jobs they are in rather than the managers themselves. Both have been promoted far beyond their natural level, but Lampard – albeit with injuries and a six-month handicap – already seems far behind his rival in terms of tactical identity.

 

3) Chelsea should not allow the result to completely destroy what was, at times, a promising performance. A team does not hit the post twice or have 18 shots at Old Trafford by accident.

Tammy Abraham led the line as well as could be expected before struggling; Andreas Christensen was solid and let down by more senior teammates; Jorginho proved that he can thrive when not saddled with suggestions of favouritism; Pedro was an eminently frustrating constant threat.

But Lampard’s first experience of Premier League management leaves more questions than answers. His relationship with the media and the history of Chelsea as a club suggests the players will likely take the brunt of the initial criticism, but this one was on him. It’s time to see how fast he can learn on the job.

 

4) To a similar extent, United should not suddenly expect a title challenge. This was an emphatic, necessary and surprising statement, but there is a danger of reading too much into it.

The lessons were few and far between; we did not learn a great deal that we did not already know about United. They were fair to middling in a defence that will improve considerably over time, were almost non-existent in midfield at certain points, and counter-attacked with unerring pace, precision and directness. But this was a vital step towards showing that the dire end to last season was the exception, with Solskjaer’s first few months in charge the rule.

 

5) Those in doubt as to the sheer level of transition both these sides are experiencing were soon enlightened. United made five changes to the starting line-up that hosted Chelsea in April, with the visitors retaining only four players.

With the change of leader in the Chelsea dug-out to pitch two inexperienced 40-somethings against one another, this was a genuinely refreshing match-up. That it was the youngest starting XI of the opening weekend against the fifth-youngest only added to the strange sense of two giants embarking on new chapters, and the muddled objectives that come with that.

 

6) Chelsea started more emphatically. Abraham struck the post within the first five minutes and should have converted after fine work from Pedro, Jorginho and Cesar Azpilicueta. United were sloppy and anxious and Chelsea’s midfield buzzed around to capitalise on every loose pass.

It seems unfair to scapegoat Abraham but he is under immense pressure to lead the line. As much as Christian Pulisic has been earmarked as Eden Hazard’s direct replacement, the Blues have made a relative novice their starting striker. Abraham is obviously immensely talented but impressing for Bristol City and Aston Villa is meaningless under the bright lights of the Premier League. He will need much more support to show what he is capable of.

 

7) United had a tame Anthony Martial effort and 37% possession to show for their contribution in the first 17 minutes. They were not quite a deer in the headlights – Chelsea could not keep their hands on the wheel long enough to stay on the road – but they did look a little apprehensive.

Then came the first burst. Rashford strolled into the penalty area after a series of mix-ups and fell under the challenge of Kurt Zouma, giving United a breakthrough against the run of play.

Yet this has always been part of Solskjaer’s plan. “Pace and power,” he said in February, his reign still temporary. “Man United, that’s what we are.” A vacuous statement to many, but it will always find meaning at Old Trafford. United did not have a foothold until they simplified the equation with two known attributes.

 

8) In these times of intense officiating mistrust and disillusion, the utmost credit has to go to Anthony Taylor. There would have been murmurs of discontent but few would have outwardly complained had he stopped play for a foul on Pereira, who had been pulled back just beyond the halfway line. But he trusted his instincts, played the advantage and watched on as the loose ball eventually settled at the feet of Rashford, who drove forward and stumbled over Zouma’s outstretched leg.

VAR soon confirmed that Taylor had not made a “clear and obvious error”. Far from it. The subsequently penalty was sumptuous; the refereeing that facilitated it was exemplary.

 

9) Zouma’s defending throughout was anything but exemplary, with the penalty concession his pièce de résistance. Only a few minutes earlier he had played the ball across his own area to an unmarked Martial, and would eventually collect a booking to cap a horrible performance.

There is sympathy. At just 24 and having arrived in England in 2014, the centre-half has already played under seven different permanent managers at club level. The styles and demands of Jose Mourinho, Mark Hughes, Paul Lambert and Marco Silva are considerably varied and not easy to switch between without teething problems.

Zouma went from a title-winning Chelsea side with the best defence in 2015 to injury in 2016, then relegation with the joint-worst defence at Stoke in 2017/18, to a first sustained run in a settled, systemically sound defence at Everton in 2019. In new surroundings under a new manager alongside a new defensive partner, there is at least some mitigation. That will only last so long, mind.

 

10) The opener clearly built United’s confidence, as much as a penalty possibly could. They started to pass a little more crisply, to think a little more sharply, to act and react with a little more intent.

Unlike most of his teammates, Aaron Wan-Bissaka led by example from kick-off. Little over 90 seconds had passed before he promptly stopped Emerson in his tracks, dispossessed the left-back and chipped the ball to safety. By the fifth minute, Pogba was unnecessarily pirouetting to evade Barkley and Kovacic before managing to poke the ball to his right-back. Wan-Bissaka looked straight up and alleviated the pressure within seconds by finding Pereira with a short, sharp pass to launch an instant counter-attack.

With six tackles, three interceptions and five clearances, the 21-year-old played with the cool authority of someone ten years older and wiser. He is probably the easiest of United’s three summer signings to forget, purely because it already feels like he has been there for years.

 

11) There is a reason Solskjaer sought to change half his defence. Harry Maguire was similarly imperious, looking assured alongside Victor Lindelof. Established partnerships are no more important in any position than at centre-half, where telepathic levels of understanding separate good defences from great ones.

It transmits to the goalkeeper, too. David de Gea had to wait until September for his first Premier League clean sheet last season – and November for his first at Old Trafford – but earned it with seven fine saves on Sunday. A true captain’s performance from a player who remains one of the Premier League’s best.

 

12) The collapse was not immediate. Chelsea had five unopposed shots in the final ten minutes of the first half and were still taking advantage of basic, unenforced mistakes across the pitch. But they found themselves in a series of vicious circles: the link-up play of both Abraham and Pedro was crucial to creating chances that neither could finish; Barkley and Mason Mount were pressing excellently but often too deep, meaning they were not in position to provide support upon turnovers.

But the collapse still came. As they did at times in similar circumstances with Maurizio Sarri and Antonio Conte, Chelsea collectively shat themselves. Even in pre-season, conceding twice in 26 minutes against Gladbach, thrice in 40 minutes against Salzburg and three times in 90 against Reading, Lampard’s Blues had already shown a proclivity for implosion.

 

13) Might the loss of David Luiz be a contributing factor? Zouma and Christensen has the makings of a wonderful combination blessed with ball-playing abilities, pace and strength to counter any forward. But both have more of an essence of Robin than Batman.

Luiz, for all his faults, is a leader. A Premier League-winning European champion who commands and demands respect from his peers and opponents. His departure, apparently fuelled by the belief that he was not planned to be a regular starter under Lampard, could surely have been avoided.

The absence of Antonio Rudiger – and N’Golo Kante until his second-half introduction – did not help. But Chelsea needed a bit more character, too.

 

14) When it rained, it poured. After just over an hour of a relatively even match, United turned 1-0 into 3-0 within 95 breathtaking seconds.

Both the second and third goals were scored within 15 seconds of United winning the ball. In the first instance, Maguire stood his ground against Abraham and predictably won the individual battle, with McTominay quickly releasing Rashford. Lingard and Pereira then combined for Martial to finish.

When Chelsea lost the ball from the restart, United smelled blood. Pogba’s ball over the top was sublime and Rashford’s finish exquisite. The visitors had landed the most jabs throughout, but left themselves open to two huge haymakers.

 

15) A word, too, for Lingard, whose role in the second and third goals will likely be underplayed. Without his pre-assists United would have still been nervously defending a one-goal lead after an hour instead of revelling in a three-goal cushion.

His resurrection of Rashford’s wayward pass and selfless lay-off to Pereira created the space for the Brazilian to cross to Martial. His eagerness to constantly keep the ball moving and not retain it himself for longer than a few seconds gave Pogba the time to look up and find Rashford’s run. The perennial youngster – United’s oldest outfielder – was again their unsung hero.

 

16) ‘We want to be a team that’s not enjoyable to play against,’ read a little bit like a David Moyes message, but Solskjaer’s programme notes bore relevance by the end. Chelsea started well and, like the best of us, realised the difference a couple of inches can make. But by full-time their misery had been compounded by Daniel James’ well-taken fourth.

The point about playing to your strengths and obscuring your weaknesses is worth reiterating. United have a defence that is still settling, but one of the best goalkeepers in the world as insurance. Their best player offers little in terms of protection but so much with regards to creativity, so needs to be given that platform. Their forwards are fast, skilful and a nightmare to play against, so focusing on counter-attacking ensures that the opposition are at their most susceptible.

Chelsea have a completely new central defence, but a keeper who remains relatively unproven. They have an ordinary midfield that is relied upon heavily but does not offer enough at either end, and an assortment of forwards learning a new system. For a club that finished third in the Premier League and won the Europa League just three months ago, you have to wonder why Lampard sought to change just so much.

Matt Stead

 

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