Manchester United started the Premier League season with a 4-0 victory over Chelsea on Sunday at Old Trafford.
Marcus Rashford (2), Anthony Martial and Daniel James got the goals for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side in a win that wasn’t as convincing as the scoreline suggests.
Chelsea had more possession, more efforts on goal and more shots on target. Individual errors, lightning-fast breaks and United’s ruthlessness in front of goal meant the home side took all three points and made a perfect start to the season.
Frank Lampard, in his first game as Chelsea boss, will wonder how his team left Old Trafford with not even a goal for their efforts. However, at the same time, his comments about Man United following the final whistle missed the point. Solskjaer’s blueprint for success may be simple, but it proved very effective on Sunday.
Chelsea dominated the opening spell and pinned United back in their own half. Tammy Abraham struck the post with a powerful shot as the away team found a lot of space behind United’s full-backs, particularly Luke Shaw as Rashford failed to track Cesar Azpilicueta.
Solskjaer’s side were prepared to play on the counter-attack and pounce when the opposition lost possession or made a mistake. With Kurt Zouma at the back, they didn’t have to wait long. The French defender was a notable weak link in Lampard’s side, putting in a haphazard performance in the first half. Early in the game, Zouma passed the ball straight to Anthony Martial on the edge of the Chelsea penalty area but got away with it thanks to Martial’s weak effort.
However, he came to United’s aid again a few minutes later, tripping Rashford in the penalty area with a clumsy, baffling attempt at a tackle. As Jose Mourinho alluded to on Sky Sports at half-time, Rashford will almost always try to cut back inside and curl an effort with his right foot. Why would a defender dive in? Rashford dispatched the penalty to put United ahead. Chelsea shaded the remainder of the half, with Emerson Palmieri coming the closest to equalising with a shot that hit the frame of David de Gea’s goal.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka was defensively solid on his United debut, as no opponent successfully dribbled past him. Scott McTominay ran himself into the ground, Harry Maguire was extremely effective in both boxes and Jesse Lingard showed some nice touches. However, in the first half, United were frequently dragged out of position and Paul Pogba found it is a lot easier to lose the ball than find the Old Trafford exit. The French midfielder surrendered possession eight-times in the opening 35-minutes alone.
Yet, a stunning second-half changed the narrative completely. Rather than focusing on a positive Premier League debut for Lampard, or how United are a work in progress, the talk will be dominated by how Solskjaer’s side blitzed their opponents. Chelsea were controlling possession but got hit with a sucker-punch after 65-minutes. Maguire stole the ball from Abraham on the edge of United’s penalty area. He sprang a quick pass to Rashford, and the ball eventually landed with Andreas Pereira, who whipped in a dangerous cross to the six-yard box. Martial got on goal-side of Azpilicueta and knocked it through Kepa’s legs.
Two-minutes later, Pogba played a beautiful faded pass over the top of the Chelsea defence to Rashford. The England forward put the ball away and made sure United would take all three points. Nine minutes from the end, substitute Daniel James, on his debut for the club, made it 4-0 after his shot was deflected into the net.
“There are loads of lessons for us – we can’t make unforced errors at this level. But, at the same time, it was nowhere near a 4-0,” Lampard said following the game. The new Chelsea boss, who appeared dumbfounded by the result, also noted United’s counter-attacking prowess.
“They’re a counter-attacking team, it’s a big strength of theirs, put it that way, and if you give them opportunities to run past you they will. They were absolutely clinical.”
The “put it that way” remark by Lampard suggests he may not believe that United have much beyond playing on the counter-attack. However, at the moment that might not be a bad thing.
(Incidentally, Lampard also said his side were “clearly the better team” – a remark that is bound to cause derision over the coming days).
Lampard, told of Jose Mourinho criticism of Mason Mount: "Didn’t like performance of MM? I can’t drag people out of the medical room to play. We were clearly better team but we made individual errors. Not concerned about what anyone else says. I believe in this squad."
— Simon Stone (@sistoney67) August 11, 2019
Since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, and under Ed Woodward’s control, the club have been a mess regarding football strategy. David Moyes did not even last a year. Louis van Gaal took a sledgehammer to the squad, selling off several Ferguson favourites. He was sacked and replaced by Mourinho – despite the fact that you would struggle to find two managers with such contrasting views on the game.
Mourinho’s best teams were sensational at the transition – playing on the counter-attack – but his dour reactionary football proved suffocating at Old Trafford. However, Solskjaer’s version of the counter-attack perfectly suits the qualities of his players – especially Marital and Rashford, the speedy front-two, and Pogba, who can spray incredible passes at will when he’s in the mood.
It won’t always be as fruitful as it was against Chelsea, but at least the manager has a plan and the players to execute it. For United, as Sunday showed, having a semblance of a plan on the pitch – no matter how basic it is or what Lampard thinks of it – represents progress.