In a perplexing contest, Manchester United blitzed Chelsea with an impressive, albeit somewhat misleading scoreline of 4-0.
In a game in which Chelsea enjoyed more possession and shots, it was United who possessed the necessary clinical finishing in front of goal to come away the victors.
The reason for Chelsea’s domination of possession had to do with both Lampard and Solskjaer’s tactical approaches. Lampard’s 4-2-3-1 allowed his fullbacks to get forward and his wide attackers to tuck inside. This allowed them to create 2 v 1 situations against Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, creating defensive issues for United.
With Chelsea’s wide players tucking inside, the fullbacks were forced inward as well, creating space out wide for the fullbacks to exploit. If the United fullback marked the opposition fullback and one of United’s center backs or midfielders moved across to cover the winger, this left vacant space in the middle. This allowed Chelsea to consistently create chances, and nearly led to them scoring when a scorching strike from Tammy Abraham was denied by the woodwork.
One could easily characterize this as a tactical mistake from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but there’s evidence to suggest that this was deliberate. Against Spurs in the league and Chelsea and Arsenal in the FA Cup, Solskjaer employed the same tactic of leaving his fullbacks with greater defensive responsibility in order to allow his attacking players to stay further up the pitch.
The reason for Solskjaer doing this was that by leaving his wide men forward, United’s forward players could counter-attack effectively even if his side conceded more chances. With the passing of Pogba and the pace of the attacking players, it makes sense that Solskjaer would look to play to United’s strengths. It worked superbly in the second half, but one is left to wonder how that would have changed if Palmieri and Abraham weren’t denied by the woodwork.
It’s difficult to read too much into a game this early into the season, particularly one with two sides as unsettled as Manchester United and Chelsea. Yet there are elements to each of their performances that could indicate how they might change aspects of their play throughout the course of the season.
Chelsea can be hopeful about their attacking line. Christian Pulisic may be the so-called replacement for Eden Hazard, but only a few individuals in world football can reproduce the level of attacking excellence Hazard produced for Chelsea. Pulisic isn’t one of them, but he is a young, promising player like so many other Blues players.
The way to replace the attacking productivity of a player like Hazard is not to swap him with another individual, but to reinvent the attack so it can systematically produce chances. Lampard has a wide array of attacking options, and while he will have to find the right balance and ensure his players are more clinical, there’s enough talent in the squad to suggest the rookie coach can construct an exciting attacking line.
Lampard’s midfield let him down against United, with Jorginho and Kovacic seemingly unable to protect the backline despite giving Chelsea a solid foundation to build attacks from. N’golo Kante should help alleviate their defensive woes, so Lampard need not concern himself too much over his midfield as of now. His defense, on the other hand, is a different matter.
Lampard will need to tinker with his defense given that his options aren’t all that stellar. Emerson impressed at left back, but hasn’t shown he can consistently perform at this level. Marcos Alonso is excellent going forward but is defensively suspect. Cesar Azpiluceta certainly didn’t cover himself in glory with his performance at Old Trafford, and calls for Reece James to start are justified given the 19-year old’s impressive displays in the Championship last campaign. Kurt Zouma looked unassured in a team that dominated possession, so whether he is a viable option remains uncertain. Ultimately, Lampard will have to experiment to find a combination of players that can form a serviceable defense.
This is certainly not doomsday for Chelsea. They have a young squad and a young coach, and throughout the course of the season they will need to develop their philosophy and relationships on the pitch. It may be uncharacteristic for Chelsea, but they need to be patient.
On the flip side, Manchester United fans cannot be overzealous. Their strategy could have easily backfired on them, and there is no way they can maintain anything like a ratio of four goals per five shots on target.
United’s midfield was the primary concern throughout the game. Scott McTominay was mostly solid as the anchor of the midfield. Although his passing was wayward at times, his physicality and mobility make him a suitable option in the defensive midfield role and a more preferable option to Nemanja Matic, who generally unimpressed last campaign.
Paul Pogba’s performance was curious. He had two assists, and was generally the main instigator of United’s counter attacks. Yet he also showed something that United fans already know: he is not at his best in a double pivot. Pogba was caught in possession multiple times, and doesn’t necessarily have the work rate and concentration to deal with the added defensive responsibility a deeper midfield role entails. It allowed Chelsea to penetrate the United midfield with general ease and also made it difficult for the Red Devils to maintain possession throughout multiple phases of the game.
United could give more game time to Fred to alleviate this issue. He had a difficult first season to say the least, but showed glimpses towards the end of last season that he has what it takes to succeed in the Premier League. Fred is familiar with playing in a deeper midfield role due to his time at Shaktar.
He showed that he was capable of resisting opposition pressure and progressing possession forwards through penetrative passing while also possessing the necessary work rate and energy to assist his team defensively. These are all attributes that United desperately need to bring to their midfield, and should Solskjaer opt for a midfield three with McTominay, Fred, and Pogba, it could allow the Frenchman to impact games further forward, provide United with more defensive cover, and enable the team to maintain and progress possession easier. Pogba in a deeper role works well when United are counter attacking, but against smaller teams they will have to be comfortable with more possession, and Solskjaer has to take steps towards that.
Anthony Martial scored an uncharacteristic goal, relying on his movement in the box to get ahead of a defender to score, a positive sign for his goal-scoring prospects this season. Jesse Lingard, as he often is, was subtle yet so influential with his intricate layoffs and intelligent movement.
Andreas Pereira failed to consistently impact the game, but produced a moment of true quality with his assist and showed that his set-piece delivery, passing, and energy can make him a useful asset for United. Wan-Bissaka and Maguire adapted to the backline extremely well, which translated to positive performances from Victor Lindelof, Luke Shaw, and David de Gea.
Solskjaer is building the foundations for a successful side, but whether they can translate this level of performance to teams that will cede possession and be more difficult to break down is still unknown. Furthermore, while his strategy of leaving his attacking players up the pitch worked today, Solskjaer will have to be wary of always using this ploy, for it could easily work against him in big games.
Both of these teams are in a building process which will take time to complete. Yesterday affirmed most people’s convictions that neither are strong enough to compete for the title and will be scrapping for a Champions League spot.
See Also: Premier League Team of the Week