1) It was not the result Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hoped for but, come the final whistle, the Manchester United manager would have been forgiven for allowing himself a sly sigh of relief at avoiding an eighth defeat in ten matches.
This was Solskjaer’s reign in microcosm. An immediate reaction, plenty of huff and puff and a quick-fire goal before the inevitable deterioration in performance and the dropping of points due to individual error.
So too was Chelsea’s performance entirely typical. The possession battle was won but Maurizio Sarri’s men toiled to make anything of it. Eden Hazard probed but, ultimately, the Chelsea talisman was again lacking a centre-forward to profit from his creative efforts.
2) Solskjaer and Sarri will argue that time has made it tough to mould their teams in their image, but during the first half, United and Chelsea mirrored their managers’ approach perfectly.
Solskjaer labelled the meeting a ‘massive opportunity’ while Sarri acknowledged – emphasised, even – that Chelsea could think beyond today and towards upcoming assignments while talking about the need to win two of their last three games.
United started with a tempo and an urgency we haven’t seen from them recently, which was perhaps aided by Chelsea’s passive approach. But for home supporters looking as much at effort as attainment, the first half offered plenty of encouragement to suggest that these players shared Solskjaer’s will to stop the rot and capitalise on the opportunity to make ground on the top four that they barely deserved, even if their eventual failure to do so surprised few at Old Trafford.
3) These days at United, it seems the judgement of the players upon their manager is more important than the reverse dynamic, but one tactical tweak and a pre-match bluff by Solskjaer reflected well on the inexperienced, under-fire boss.
Solskjaer explained the thinking behind his team selection in the context of a 4-3-3, suggesting that Ander Herrera’s return allowed his side to return to the system than served them so well while the new manager bounce was in full effect. But it quickly become evident that Solskjaer had pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes by employing a diamond midfield, with Paul Pogba to the left and Juan Mata at the tip behind a central striking partnership.
Before conceding, the plan worked splendidly. But after Chelsea belatedly sussed it out and returned to the dressing room at the break with scarcely-deserved parity, there was nothing else from United. They probed and offered the requisite intensity when out of possession, but their search for the winner their top four hopes badly needed did not extend beyond one glimpse at Chelsea’s goal late on from a set-piece.
Solskjaer will presumably shield his players from the blame for that. Whether he can expect the same protection in return seems unlikely.
4) Chelsea started like a side knowing they could afford a slip-up and finished like one with little ambition of achieving anything beyond the point they came for. As is their right.
While Arsenal and United appear so reluctant to make inroads on the top four, why should Sarri have risked losing the high ground by allowing United to break on them? After recovering from initially being caught on the hop by Solskjaer, Sarri declined the opportunity to engage his opposite number, all the while Chelsea kept United at arm’s length during the entire second half.
United tried to tease Chelsea out but Sarri nor his players were willing to fall for it. It laid the stage for a somewhat bizarre conclusion, where the Blues refused the invitation to take a swing at United, despite sometimes having numerical superiority in attack, for fear of leaving themselves exposed at the back.
5) Late on, United and Chelsea trying to hand each other the initiative quite succinctly summed up the ‘race’ for the top four.
Since the start of last weekend, the four contenders to take third and fourth have dropped 27 of 33 points available to them.
Christ, just since Wednesday, United, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal have turned their noses up at 16 points. Manchester City and Liverpool have dropped 14 points all sodding season.
6) Speaking of dropping things… oh, Dave.
Only David de Gea knows what is going on with his head and his hands at the moment. The doubts over his future as he approaches the final year of his contract are offered by many on the outside as reasonable explanation for his recent form, but the truth is likelier to be much simpler: the United keeper is just having one of those once-in-a-career nightmare spells every goalkeeper dreads.
What does Solskjaer do about it? Nothing. Dropping De Gea achieves little other than eroding the few shreds of confidence United’s four-time Player of the Year has left. Watching the final two games of the season from the bench would only leave the 27-year-old to stew, which serves no positive purpose immediately or long term.
As rotten as his recent form has been, after several seasons of brilliance behind varying levels of dross in his defence, De Gea still has plenty of credit with United before they repossess his place in the Old Trafford goal. All he and Solskjaer can do is play through this period and hope the summer brings time to reset. And sign a new contract…
7) It is a wonder the jitters haven’t got to De Gea before now playing behind this defence.
Solskjaer switched from the derby three to a central pair featuring Eric Bailly for the first time since he was hooked after a wretched first half-hour (at right-back) at PSG on March 6. With Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic also returning from spells on the sidelines, it was a selection that was susceptible to rust.
Bailly enjoyed an uncharacteristically serene first hour before he could no longer keep a lid on it. A two-footed lunge on Marcos Alonso could have ended both players’ afternoons. As it turned out, a red card might have done him a favour because he would not have sustained his knee injury had he been on his way back to the dressing room just a few moments later.
Solskjaer debated long and hard over who to replace Bailly with, despite Marcos Rojo being the only recognised centre-back on his bench. The manager’s reluctance to trust the Argentina defender was evidenced surprisingly quickly, even for Rojo, when he followed one well-timed challenge on Higuain with a potential season-ender on Willian. Fortunately for the Brazilian, it brought a premature end only to his afternoon when the damage could have been much greater.
But Rojo and Bailly’s rashness demonstrated exactly why Solskjaer won’t use them. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones are supposed to be the problems at the heart of United’s defence but, while they might not be the solutions, both are considerably more worthy of the manager’s trust. Rojo will be gone this summer if United can find someone to cover the cost of paying him off. Bailly may now be harder to shift if his knee injury is as serious as it appeared.
8) With Higuain in this form, perhaps Solskjaer could have afforded for one of his centre-backs to see red.
The on-loan striker wasn’t happy to be substituted against Burnley on Monday night but he could have had no complaints had he been hooked at Old Trafford. Had Sarri not had to consider injuries in addition to his compulsive habit of substituting Matteo Kovacic, then Higuain would surely have been swapped.
Sarri insists the 31-year-old needs and deserves time to adapt to the Premier League but, if anything, Higuain is regressing. The manager also admits he lacks the necessary physical sharpness, which is a damning indictment three months into his Chelsea career.
Perhaps that lack of an edge might offer some explanation of Higuain’s inability to stay onside at Old Trafford. The centre-forward was flagged five times – once more than in ten previous appearances.
9) Anyone can appreciate Higuain for the striker he once was but there are some players who need rather more explaining.
The attacking midfielder on loan from Real Madrid has contributed just two assists since moving to Stamford Bridge last summer. In the last two seasons for Chelsea and Real the sum total of his work has been five assists and not a single goal in 81 appearances.
According to reports, Sarri is very keen to keep Kovacic around next season, but for the life of me, I have no idea why.
10) In the final stages, it seemed Higuain and Lukaku were engaged in a bet over which striker could attract the most offside calls. It was a disappointing conclusion to an afternoon which started so promisingly for Lukaku, who appeared determined to catch more than just the linesman’s eye.
Unlike some of his team-mates, you can rarely doubt Lukaku’s desire to prove the critics wrong even if concerns over his ability to do so might be more valid. The opening ten minutes won’t have helped the Belgian, with one wasted opportunity and a tumble by the touchline adding to his tension.
But all that was released upon Mata’s opener. Lukaku played his part with the kind of deft pass many doubted he was capable of and the centre-forward greeted the goal he neither scored nor assisted more enthusiastically, perhaps, than any he has notched in a United shirt.
It was clear from the start that Lukaku’s primary source of fuel was adrenaline. As half of a front two sent out to take David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger on a walk around Old Trafford, the £75million centre-forward led Chelsea’s defenders away from their posts and when they didn’t want to go – or they were too slow to in David Luiz’s case early on – Lukaku enjoyed playing his part in United’s much quicker build-up while also performing his defensive duties diligently, mucking in to give Ashley Young the cover he needed while Herrera focused his snide on Hazard.
Lukaku needed that adrenaline when the energy was sapping, as it was as early as the 27th minute. After breaking from right-back position and playing in Marcus Rashford, Lukaku declined the opportunity to join his strike partner in the penalty area, and when the resulting corner ricocheted off a Chelsea defender in the six-yard box, he was still catching his breath.
The first half was much more like it from Lukaku. His touch was tighter and his bulk was more of an asset rather than the curse it has seemed lately. In the second period, his output dropped dramatically, perhaps due to fatigue, but his case was not helped by operating as United’s pivot, which means playing for the most part with his back to goal. When Rudiger, Luiz and latterly Andreas Christensen could keep a closer eye on Lukaku, it was a much simpler time for Chelsea’s defence.
11) Lukaku’s touch was arguably too tight in the opening minutes. United’s direct approach against City attracted criticism in the wake of the derby but it almost paid dividends against a Chelsea rearguard caught sleeping under Shaw’s driven pass.
The first touch from Lukaku killed the ball almost dead but one behind Rudiger, his second touch allowed the defender to return goal side and the opportunity to get off a clear shot at goal disappeared.
Rashford had a similar first half in the Chelsea box. The England striker looks to be overthinking and overplaying at the moment, trying to work a better opportunity when a more confident forward takes his chances on the first one to present itself.
The 21-year-old is clearly operating below his peak physically. Rashford has looked like he has been playing with an injury since the 0-0 draw with Liverpool when he played the full 90 minutes despite picking up an ankle problem early on. He has played 13 of the 14 games since, scoring three goals after netting six in nine when fit and flying in Solskjaer’s early days.
12) Solskjaer has spoken of his disappointment over United’s ruthlessness in front of goal, insisting that his strikers should be finishing more of their chances. But United are hardly creating a bounty of opportunities for their forwards.
Between Solskjaer’s first defeat at Arsenal on March 10 and prior to kick-off, only three teams had created fewer chances, while Huddersfield Town could claim to have had as many shots as United in that timeframe. Against Chelsea, despite their first-half improvement, the creativity was again lacking.
Only against Manchester City and Liverpool have United had fewer shots than Sunday, while Chelsea were able to restrict United only to four chances – the same number as the season-lows they mustered in shameful surrenders in their first and most recent away trips to Brighton and Everton respectively. We all know Solskjaer can put on a decent shooting session, but the problem seems to go a little deeper.
13) To the naked eye, it seems like United need to be doing more than just finishing practice in training. So many of their players do not appear to be fit enough.
Solskjaer has noticed because he admitted that was the case. The issue pre-dates his arrival but the manager claims that little could have been done during the season.
That may be true but the fact that prior to this week, the United players were running more for Mourinho (66.7 miles per game) than they have for the Solskjaer (66.2 miles per game) must be a source of great concern. It seemed at first as though United would run through walls for Ole as caretaker boss. His permanent appointment appears to have coincided with the players all hitting theirs.
14) Paul Pogba’s movement stats made for interesting reading this week. It was shown that the France star has spent 64 per cent of his time on the pitch this season walking – more than any other midfielder. There are no figures available to quantify pretending to track back, but Gary Neville’s suspicion would be that Pogba tops those too.
United’s record signing, who looks likely to become their record departure this summer, might argue that his profile makes him the easiest target for criticism lately, but that is not to say he doesn’t warrant it. So how did he respond?
Meh. On the left of a diamond – where many claim to be his best position – Pogba managed no shots on goal nor did he create a chance for anyone else. It is now a day over two months since the 26-year-old offered anything by way of a goal or assist that wasn’t a penalty. These are the matches Pogba should be turning. He seems content simply to turn up.
15) On the other side of Ole’s midfield, Herrera made his return from injury and demonstrated to Pogba how to graft, even if your mind and future lies elsewhere.
Ryan Baldi has detailed how Herrera’s absence during United’s recent slump has been no coincidence. In and out of possession, the Basque star set the tone more than any other midfielder in red.
As it stands, this summer, Solskjaer is quite likely to lose three-quarters of today’s midfield. Should that be the case, it could be Herrera’s absence that will be most keenly felt.
Many sympathise with United’s stance in refusing to match PSG’s offer of around £200,000 a week, but the club probably would not have had to match those numbers had they been more decisive in their dealings. And though there are plenty who argue the 29-year-old does not deserve such remuneration, the importance he is demonstrating to this team suggests he is more worthy than plenty of his team-mates.
16) No one needs further evidence of the gulf between the Manchester clubs but today’s conclusion of the top six ‘mini league’ brings it anyway.
It is a reasonable argument that no longer should we refer to them as a six, rather a top two, Spurs, and then a middling three. The goal difference figures reflect poorly on anyone other than City or Liverpool, but it is a stain on United.
Their single win against their main rivals came at Tottenham, or rather at Wembley against Spurs, when De Gea performed the kind of miracles we are more used to seeing from him to not only earn United the points but avoid a pummelling.
United fans ought to remember that in the wake of his latest lapse.