Some dodgy VAR decisions ultimately overshadowed Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea on Monday night – and well it might, following an uninspiring game of shambolic, mid-table football.
Two clumsy goals gifted the visitors their first league double over Chelsea since 1987-88, a smattering of decent displays in central midfield enough to give United the edge in a match defined by bluntness; by disconnected lines and hesitant improvisational football.
It says a lot about this game that we waited 45 minutes – and 11 shots – for an effort on target in the 45th minute.
Chelsea managed one all game, in the 83rd minute.
Ultimately, headers from Anthony Martial and Harry Maguire proved the difference, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – despite not being happy with his side’s display – got the better of Frank Lampard for the third time this term.
Here’s how he did it…
United’s 3-5-2 stunts Chelsea’s creativity
Ultimately Solskjaer got his tactics right.
His 3-5-2 formation might have left Martial and Daniel James largely isolated up front (Bruno Fernandes’s natural inclination to go looking for the ball meant he rarely connected with the forwards in the No.10 space) but it severely limited Chelsea’s creativity.
For most of the game Chelsea found themselves unable to break through a solid United back five, their moves becoming unstuck as soon as Michy Batshuayi was involved or as soon as they entered the final third.
Willian and Pedro repeatedly managed to pick the ball up in the inside channels – a 5-3-2 leaves open spaces in front of the wing-backs – and yet they were wasteful in picking out the final ball.
Lampard can bemoan the club’s inability to sign new players in January – an issue exacerbated by injuries to Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic, and Tammy Abraham – but another meek performance from Mount, on as a substitute for the injured N’Golo Kante, shows the problems run much deeper than recruitment.
To improvise every attack, to search for angles without set training ground moves kicking in, is no way to run a super-club in 2020.
Batshuayi and Giroud define Chelsea’s attack
If only Frank Lampard had a more resourceful striker for the likes of Willian and Pedro to bounce the ball off, or for Matteo Kovacic – excellent in a scurrying all-action role on Monday night – to hit with assertive forward passes into feet.
The most frustrating thing about Olivier Giroud’s absence from the first team this season is that his hold-up play and his give-and-gos with Willian, Kovacic, and Mount are precisely what Chelsea need.
Under a manager who clearly doesn’t give detailed attacking coaching – hence Chelsea’s awkward attacking lines – Giroud can paper over the cracks.
His disallowed goal and a lovely layoff to send Kovacic clean through should signal the end of his banishment.
Certainly Batshuayi’s profligacy should see the Belgian drop down the pecking order and there was enough in Giroud’s cameo to suggest that, if Abraham is still injured this weekend, then the Frenchman should start vs Spurs.
Had he started against United, maybe things would have been different.
Fernandes and Fred expose Chelsea’s erratic defensive shape
United didn’t do an awful lot right themselves, managing just seven shots on goal and only scoring thanks to some glaring Chelsea errors.
Fred and Fernandes were superb, mind, showing great tenacity in midfield and passing with a speed and crispness that tells us they are the future of this football club.
It was Fred’s bursting run through midfield that released Aaron Wan-Bissaka to cross for Martial’s opener, and it was Fernandes’ freekick hitting the post that led to the period of pressure from which Harry Maguire scored the second.
And yet for every United attack, attention is drawn to a dreadful Chelsea mistake.
When Fred received the ball in the Chelsea half just before the opening goal there was a full 20 yards between the lines of defence and midfield – an astonishing chasm at this level.
Here, as usual, was Chelsea failing to understand how to compress their shape.
Mix a half-hearted midfield press with a back-pedalling defence and an alarming gap opens up.
It is another tell-tale sign of improvisation and individualism reigning over tactical diligence at Chelsea.
Martial’s left-foot shot in the first half – a decent chance – similarly saw United break the lines with astonishing ease, Fernandes catching out Jorginho and the Chelsea centre-backs with a simple one-two.
For the second goal, Shaw was allowed to walk down the left, earning a corner as Chelsea frantically tried to reform into shape.
VAR decisions swing the game
But the tactical battle is of secondary concern to most. Three calls from Stockley Park – one right, two wrong – defined a contest that, so low on quality and high on mistakes, would have been altered dramatically by better refereeing.
Maguire clearly should have been sent off for kicking out at Batshuayi only for VAR to see no reason to overturn referee Anthony Taylor’s decision.
Kurt Zouma’s disallowed goal was even more confusing. Cesar Azpilicueta appeared to be pushed in the back by Fred prior to pushing Brandon Williams, a chain reaction of offenses that – by the letter of the law – probably should have meant disallowing the goal (for the second foul) and awarding a penalty (for the first).
Giroud’s disallowed goal was more straightforward, and an example of VAR at its best, but following the earlier mistakes it understandably created further anger and confusion inside Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea and United are little more than mid-table sides
It is perhaps fitting that refereeing clangers should ultimately decide a shambolic 90 minutes of football.
Neither team attacked with fluency in a match riddled with misplaced passes and mistimed shots.
It is exactly what should have been expected from two clubs notably weaker than the sum of their parts, whose projected points tallies of 60 (for Chelsea) and 55 (for Man Utd) would only just sit them above mid-table in an ordinary Premier League season.
For United, there are positive signs, namely another solid defensive showing – Eric Bailly looked good on his return – and an exciting partnership emerging in central midfield.
For Chelsea, their tactical concerns in defence and attack are becoming all too familiar.
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