It was supposed to be a gauge of which direction Manchester United and Chelsea were headed in their brave new eras, but a 4-0 scoreline didn’t tell the whole story. Sure, United deserved the victory, and it was their biggest home win against Chelsea since 1965. But it could have played out very differently.
It was Chelsea who started the brighter of the two teams, with Lampard handing senior debuts to Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, so impressive on loan last season. And they had more energy from the start, dominating possession for most of the first half. There was a positive approach and an attacking intent. The first half an hour didn’t feel like the Chelsea we know. It felt fresh, youthful and looking to the future.
So how did it go so spectacularly wrong for them? And how did a Manchester United team with only 2 clean sheets at home all last season manage to shut Chelsea out, and win 4-0 against the run of play?
Lampard’s risky blueprint
Both Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer start the 2019/20 season with a lot to prove as managers. Club legends and romantic appointments with massive rebuilds ahead of them, neither can afford a bad start. But both fielded relatively young teams. If they were feeling the pressure here, their selections said otherwise.
Lampard’s starting XI was especially risky. His squad was a clear nod to his intention to invest in youth – something also forced upon him by the club’s two-window transfer ban. Alongside Mount and Abraham, also included in the squad were youngsters Reece James and Fikayo Tomori. Andreas Christensen and Kurt Zouma started the match.
This was about as far away as you can get from the short-term, win-at-all-costs pressure-cooker of the Roman Abramovich era we’re used to.
N’Golo Kanté (admittedly not fully fit), Olivier Giroud and Marcos Alonso only made the bench. Lampard even overlooked new signing Christian Pulisic. For such a difficult away game against a top-four rival, the approach was bold to say the least.
A bright Chelsea start
After 15 minutes, United were chasing shadows for a while and giving possession away so cheaply. Not signing a midfielder was looking a huge mistake. Chelsea pressed hard, and were unlucky not to go ahead when Abraham could only strike the post after just 3 minutes. That could have changed the whole complexion of the game, with United on the back foot. Later, an Azpilicueta cross zipped across the United goal but nobody was on the end of it. Another lucky escape.
For all United’s sloppiness on the ball, it was a Chelsea mistakes that led to the first goal. A sloppy Zouma challenge on Marcus Rashford earned the home side a penalty which Rashford smashed home – 1-0 completely against the run of play.Embed from Getty Images
Although both teams made plenty of mistakes in the first half, United’s had been mostly in midfield. Chelsea were making theirs at the back, with Zouma all over the place. For all Lampard’s confidence in his centre backs, the decision to let David Luiz go looked suddenly a lot worse.
Maguire and Wan-Bissaka a huge upgrade
With the chaos going on in the Chelsea defense, at the other end it couldn’t have been more different. United’s calamity duo of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling didn’t even make the bench. Instead, Solskjaer opted to throw new signing Harry Maguire straight into the back four, and what an impact the £80m man had. He was simply a mountain, calmly swatting away Chelsea’s advances and shoring up those around him. It’s early days, but what an upgrade from last season. And what a serene partnership he could form with Victor Lindelof.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s equally impressive debut at right-back capped a solid defensive display from Manchester United – that’s something we haven’t been able to say in a long time. Ashley Young must’ve been sitting on the bench planning his retirement already. There’s no way he’s getting his place back now.
A clinical second half
United grew into the game and after the break, started to increase the intensity. And then in the 65th minute when Anthony Martial bundled home and Andreas Pereira cross for 2-0, you could feel their confidence growing – and Chelsea’s shrinking.
Not even two minutes later, Paul Pogba found himself a yard of space and spotted Rashford sprinting ahead. The Frenchman – pretty average up to this point – dinked a world class ball over the Chelsea defense, which Rashford controlled superbly and rifled into the goal for his second, and United’s third. And that was the sucker punch. Game over.
But United weren’t finished. When Pogba broke free and held off the Chelsea defense in the 81st minute, playing in Daniel James for a debut goal, the gloss had been applied. 4-0 was a flattering scoreline and harsh on Chelsea, but no more than Manchester United deserved for their pressure and perseverance.Embed from Getty Images
I said in my season preview that both Lampard and Solskjaer will be judged on their tactical flexibility in games like this. After this performance it will be Lampard feeling the first signs of any pressure. However his Chelsea team showed some promise, and must cut out the kind of fatal errors that let United off the hook here.
Solskjaer on the other hand will be delighted. His new signings played superbly, and there are plenty of signs for him and United to be optimistic this season.