Chelsea vs Manchester United: Two clubs, eight months and a world of change – The Independent

0
30
Chelsea vs Manchester United: Two clubs, eight months and a world of change – The Independent

The biggest tell was the hair. The sides have been flush with grey for a while, and though similarly toned hairs are sprouting through the top, back then it was all chestnut brown accentuated by a smile and the composed demeanour of a man in control in front of the bright lights. “Then” was February of this year. 

It is a trait most pronounced in heads of state, where the scale of day-to-day duties ages the incumbent prolifically. It may be an exaggeration to say Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has aged two terms in such a short space of time. But the shifting narrative and loss of goodwill since the last time Manchester United played Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, as they will do once more on Wednesday in the Carabao Cup, has dulled the Norwegian’s prospects as much as his locks. 

That particular fixture was a Monday night FA Cup tie which fell United’s way. Solskjaer’s jovial disposition was the product of a 2-0 scoreline and a display supposedly indicative of the methods he and his team would continue to make their own. Tactically robust, physically sharp. The situation has moved on at an alarming rate even if time has not. Eight months has felt closer to eight years. 

We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.

From
15p
€0.18
$0.18
USD 0.27
a day, more exclusives, analysis and extras.

Chelsea can concur, albeit for wildly different reasons. Here they stand, a young and vibrant side, top of their Champions League group and with a set of fans buying into a revolution led by a former great in Frank Lampard. An enforced revolution, granted, but a revolution nonetheless. February was the catalyst for their change. 

The Blues were nursing two defeats in their previous four, including a 6-0 shellacking to Manchester City that was as much a statement of intent from the soon-to-be champions as it was one of disarray for the defeated. Coupled with a 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth 10 days earlier, the Stamford Bridge power brokers soon turned their attention to upcoming fixtures to identify a point of no-return for Maurizio Sarri. 

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

1/22 Kepa 4

Not sharp enough given he cost £71million. Sluggish and slow on both headed goals he conceded, and not exactly assured with his feet either. Although he could reasonably enough blame the defence in front of him.

Getty Images

2/22 Azpilicueta 6

Characteristic commitment, but defending in this team is far from easy. Looks frustrated by his inability to cover for his team-mates. Unable to break through going forward.

REUTERS

3/22 Rudiger 5

He is a good athlete but is he good enough to make up for the fact he plays in a back four with Marcos Alonso and David Luiz? Looked lost at times here as United players ran at him.

Action Images via Reuters

4/22 Luiz 3

How long can Chelsea survive with someone so defensively casual? Sarri’s football plays to his strengths but it also exposes his faults, his laxness in stopping the cross for the second a case in point.

AFP/Getty Images

5/22 Alonso 4

Could only stand and watch as Herrera ran past him to head in United’s opening goal, and miles away for the second. Not doing enough either defensively or going forward to make a positive contribution to this team right now.

PA

6/22 Kante 6

Worked hard at his aggressive role but surely he would have been better in a position where he could have stifled United’s counter attacks. Looks like the right answer to the wrong question in a wide area.

AP

7/22 Jorginho 5

Clearly a clever player but he cannot control these games up against physical, driven opposition. Plenty of passing but none of it incisive, with United able to raise the tempo away from him whenever they chose.

Getty Images

8/22 Kovacic 5

Tidy enough in possession but never looks like turning that into chances or goals, as Chelsea looked as blunt as ever. His substitution was booed by the fans because he not replaced by Callum Hudson Odoi.

PA

9/22 Pedro 5

He is not the reason why Chelsea lost but he also struggled to make an impact and was the first man to get hooked as Sarri chased improvement, off for Willian before the hour mark.

REUTERS

10/22 Hazard 6

Always on the move, buzzing around with the ball, trying to provoke something. But it was a largely frustrating evening because of Chelsea’s defensive struggles, and he never really looked like scoring.

REUTERS

11/22 Higuain 5

Some clever moves, and missed one headed chance, but he still looks too slow for English football. Being caught up by Luke Shaw when through on goal is a case in point. Might have been a good signing a few years ago.

AFP/Getty Images

12/22 Romero 6

Made a double save early on when the game was still in the balance. If Chelsea had taken the lead it would have been very different. After that had a very quiet evening. Will hope to play in the quarter-final.

AP

13/22 Young 6

United’s experienced captain, he directed his team-mates through the game. Too old to play as a winger now but is a sturdy right-back and put in some hefty tackles here when he had to.

AFP/Getty Images

14/22 Smalling 7

Imposed himself on the Chelsea front line, playing with the assurance that is typical of his improvement this season. United need his leadership and organisation at the back.

AP

15/22 Lindelof 6

Was never tested too much by Gonzalo Higuain but he did stand up to Eden Hazard when he had to, as well as using the ball cleverly and calmly.

AP

16/22 Shaw 6

Continued his steady progress with a strong performance at left-back. Did not get to attack too much but defended well.

Getty Images

17/22 Matic 6

Provided a solid base in midfield but after an early booking he was lucky to stay on the pitch after he tripped Ngolo Kante in the second half. Still looking much better than he did under Mourinho.

AFP/Getty Images

18/22 Herrera 7

Did his usual job scurrying around, shouting and tackling, but also scored that fantastic opener, anticipating and charging forward to head in Pogba’s cross, leaving the whole Chelsea defence out of place.

AFP/Getty Images

19/22 Pogba 9

After the disappointment of midweek, he responded here in the perfect way. First he delivered an assist of remarkable patience and precision for Herrera from the left and then he scored a brilliant Ronaldo-esque header just before the break, from a move he started. Another complete peformance.

Action Images via Reuters

20/22 Rashford 8

Had to be patient in the first half but worked so well for the second goal, chasing the ball down and firing in a sharp cross for Pogba to head in, catching the Chelsea defence unawares. Never let Chelsea relax with his running.

Getty Images

21/22 Lukaku 6

Probably not in the strongest United team but he was at least a handful here, asking questions with his movement, even if he is lacking confidence in the box.

AFP/Getty Images

22/22 Mata 8

Back in his favoured no10 role, he was always lively looking for space, and it was not too hard to find it around Jorginho. Helped United to keep the ball and see out the win.

REUTERS

1/22 Kepa 4

Not sharp enough given he cost £71million. Sluggish and slow on both headed goals he conceded, and not exactly assured with his feet either. Although he could reasonably enough blame the defence in front of him.

Getty Images

2/22 Azpilicueta 6

Characteristic commitment, but defending in this team is far from easy. Looks frustrated by his inability to cover for his team-mates. Unable to break through going forward.

REUTERS

3/22 Rudiger 5

He is a good athlete but is he good enough to make up for the fact he plays in a back four with Marcos Alonso and David Luiz? Looked lost at times here as United players ran at him.

Action Images via Reuters

4/22 Luiz 3

How long can Chelsea survive with someone so defensively casual? Sarri’s football plays to his strengths but it also exposes his faults, his laxness in stopping the cross for the second a case in point.

AFP/Getty Images

5/22 Alonso 4

Could only stand and watch as Herrera ran past him to head in United’s opening goal, and miles away for the second. Not doing enough either defensively or going forward to make a positive contribution to this team right now.

PA

6/22 Kante 6

Worked hard at his aggressive role but surely he would have been better in a position where he could have stifled United’s counter attacks. Looks like the right answer to the wrong question in a wide area.

AP

7/22 Jorginho 5

Clearly a clever player but he cannot control these games up against physical, driven opposition. Plenty of passing but none of it incisive, with United able to raise the tempo away from him whenever they chose.

Getty Images

8/22 Kovacic 5

Tidy enough in possession but never looks like turning that into chances or goals, as Chelsea looked as blunt as ever. His substitution was booed by the fans because he not replaced by Callum Hudson Odoi.

PA

9/22 Pedro 5

He is not the reason why Chelsea lost but he also struggled to make an impact and was the first man to get hooked as Sarri chased improvement, off for Willian before the hour mark.

REUTERS

10/22 Hazard 6

Always on the move, buzzing around with the ball, trying to provoke something. But it was a largely frustrating evening because of Chelsea’s defensive struggles, and he never really looked like scoring.

REUTERS

11/22 Higuain 5

Some clever moves, and missed one headed chance, but he still looks too slow for English football. Being caught up by Luke Shaw when through on goal is a case in point. Might have been a good signing a few years ago.

AFP/Getty Images

12/22 Romero 6

Made a double save early on when the game was still in the balance. If Chelsea had taken the lead it would have been very different. After that had a very quiet evening. Will hope to play in the quarter-final.

AP

13/22 Young 6

United’s experienced captain, he directed his team-mates through the game. Too old to play as a winger now but is a sturdy right-back and put in some hefty tackles here when he had to.

AFP/Getty Images

14/22 Smalling 7

Imposed himself on the Chelsea front line, playing with the assurance that is typical of his improvement this season. United need his leadership and organisation at the back.

AP

15/22 Lindelof 6

Was never tested too much by Gonzalo Higuain but he did stand up to Eden Hazard when he had to, as well as using the ball cleverly and calmly.

AP

16/22 Shaw 6

Continued his steady progress with a strong performance at left-back. Did not get to attack too much but defended well.

Getty Images

17/22 Matic 6

Provided a solid base in midfield but after an early booking he was lucky to stay on the pitch after he tripped Ngolo Kante in the second half. Still looking much better than he did under Mourinho.

AFP/Getty Images

18/22 Herrera 7

Did his usual job scurrying around, shouting and tackling, but also scored that fantastic opener, anticipating and charging forward to head in Pogba’s cross, leaving the whole Chelsea defence out of place.

AFP/Getty Images

19/22 Pogba 9

After the disappointment of midweek, he responded here in the perfect way. First he delivered an assist of remarkable patience and precision for Herrera from the left and then he scored a brilliant Ronaldo-esque header just before the break, from a move he started. Another complete peformance.

Action Images via Reuters

20/22 Rashford 8

Had to be patient in the first half but worked so well for the second goal, chasing the ball down and firing in a sharp cross for Pogba to head in, catching the Chelsea defence unawares. Never let Chelsea relax with his running.

Getty Images

21/22 Lukaku 6

Probably not in the strongest United team but he was at least a handful here, asking questions with his movement, even if he is lacking confidence in the box.

AFP/Getty Images

22/22 Mata 8

Back in his favoured no10 role, he was always lively looking for space, and it was not too hard to find it around Jorginho. Helped United to keep the ball and see out the win.

REUTERS

Their patience had already worn thin, but they were still at his mercy to secure Champions League football. It was about this time that Eden Hazard had started to firm up plans elsewhere. It did not take long for the “sacked in the morning chants” to rain down on the Italian – 31 minutes in, to be exact, as Ander Herrera gave United the lead. Four days later, Fifa would hand down a transfer ban for two consecutive windows and the merest hint that this could even mark the end of the Abramovich era. 

United arrived with a sense of tangible change post-Mourinho. Defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in the first-leg of what proved to be a contract-securing round-of-16 of the Champions League for Solskjaer was a jolt on an optimistic wave, but there was enough to keep the good feeling going. United had won 11 of their last 13, rising from 6th into the Premier League’s top four, making up an 11 point deficit between positions in the process. Ole had both hands on the wheel. 

Throughout the tie, the hosts had more of the ball, but the cushion of two first-half goals meant the visiting gameplan of packing the midfield and subsisting on counter-attacks never had to change. Herrera was lauded as a key instigator for his energy and tenacity. “That’s why he plays more or less every single game,” beamed Solskjaer. Alexis Sanchez, on after 73 minutes, was also singled out for mucking in: “A world-class player like Alexis, the way he fought… this is Manchester United.” Again – what different times these were. 

Pogba, though, was the standout. A free-er role meant a license to roam which brought about his goal – charging into the box to head in a Marcus Rashford cross – and Herrera’s when he drifted left and whipped in a cross to the far post. With the benefit of hindsight, though, the eulogies that followed both his and United’s performance was a touch overblown and no doubt indicative of the coverage of this remarkable run. 

Chelsea actually had the better of the first-half and should have taken the lead before United eventually did, with Gonzalo Higuain missing the best of their chances with a free header on 17 minutes. Earlier in the piece, Pedro might have done better with a volley struck straight at Sergio Romero. As compact as the visitors were with their midfield three of Pogba, Herrera and Nemanja Matic, gaps were not hard to find, especially when the ball was switched quickly. A more coherent side would have profited. A less dismayed Hazard would have run amok. 

Indeed, the rest of the season saw these aspects brought to the fore. Chelsea continued to create, Hazard regained his funk and a run including just two defeats in the 21 remaining games of the campaign not just brought a third-place finish but also secured the Europa League, that Champions League spot iron-clad on both fronts. Sarri departed and, despite a couple of appeals, the transfer ban still upheld, but a cupboard full of bright young things and opportunity to build from the bottom up with a similarly describable head coach was taken. 

February’s result was one of the best of Solskjaer’s time in charge (AFP/Getty Images)

United fell away, then apart and eight defeats and three draws in their final 16 not just dumped them  out of the top four but also included an underwhelming loss to Wolves in the FA Cup quarter-final. By then, the long-term gig was Solskjaer’s, as was the subsequent discontent that festered during the end of the season which lingers in the background still. 

Perhaps the biggest nod to how much has changed since February 18 will be if there is a flip in the result. Because while it is easy to go overboard analysing performances and post-match talk, a home win will be in keeping with Chelsea’s recent form after wins away to Ajax and Burnley, regardless of the 4-0 defeat that started this season against these opponents.

Defeat for United, even after a convincing performance against Norwich, will simply be a case of more of the same. An indicator of their malaise but no more profound than their last few months and their current league position seven points from fourth yet only five from 18th.

Both sides may have changed fortunes since the last time they met, but this fixture is not as fickle as it was eight months ago.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here