A lot has happened since the corresponding fixture on the opening weekend of last season. From coronavirus to cup finals, major signings to minor crises, winning runs to woeful defeats, this has been an extraordinary time in the world of football for Manchester United and Chelsea – and beyond.
But 14 months on from Frank Lampard’s harsh introduction to life as a Premier League manager with a 4-0 defeat against Manchester United, not much has really changed for the Chelsea boss or his Old Trafford counterpart. The same issues still need to be addressed.
Lampard’s side had more possession that afternoon and more shots. But their efforts were undermined by individual errors. United might have been outpassed in open play but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were ruthless on the counter-attack. They picked Chelsea off.
“First half we hung in there and were a bit lucky to go in ahead,” Solskjaer told Sky Sports. “The second half was outstanding. We defended well in a shape and counter-attacked.”
United’s win last time out against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday owed less to fortune and more to a plan now well honed. Indeed, the characteristics of Solskjaer’s victories in bigger games have become a feature of his reign. Even that win in Paris was a repeat of the one achieved in the same venue back in March 2019 – the one that earned him the job.
On both occasions against PSG, just as was the case against Chelsea, United had less of the ball than their opponents. They kept things relatively tight, denied their opponents clear-cut opportunities by restricting space in behind, and took their own chances on the break.
The importance of the counter-attack under Solskjaer is oft-stated but the transformation is still worthy of repeating. No team in the Premier League has scored more goals from fast breaks since he took over. Impressive enough even before considering Manchester United had not scored a single goal from such situations that season before he arrived.
This latest Champions League victory was well-timed for the Norwegian, even after such a convincing win at Newcastle. These results came just as he found himself facing increased scrutiny once more following such an uncertain start to the season – particularly at Old Trafford. Crystal Palace played United at their own game and won. Tottenham destroyed them 6-1.
Even after the acquisition of Bruno Fernandes, building the game from the back does not seem something with which United are completely comfortable. Those attacking patterns still need work when defences are more compact and space is denied them.
But the win in Paris reinforced what Solskjaer’s United are good at. In a sense, for all the daunting names on the team-sheet, Neymar and the rest were the ideal opponents. Expect plans to remain similar on Saturday for the visit of a Chelsea side with issues of their own.
Errors undermine Lampard’s Chelsea
Just as Solskjaer’s comments from that first meeting still resonate, so too do Lampard’s reflections on his own team’s flaws. Some of his words to Sky Sports could have been spoken about any number of Chelsea games since his first as a Premier League manager.
“Four mistakes for the goals, but we controlled major parts of the first half. We hit the woodwork, poor decisions in the final third, we should have been in the lead at half-time.
“There are loads of lessons for us. We are missing big players, but I don’t want to make excuses. The team we put out today was clearly competing in the game for long periods, but we made four mistakes and they were clinical in the way they put them away.”
Chelsea have already made five errors leading to goals this season – not only the most of any team in the Premier League but as many as the next two teams on the list combined.
It is not just they are making more mistakes but they are being punished for them. According to Opta, there have been 15 errors leading to goals this season from a total of 39 errors leading to a shot – take out Chelsea and this means 29 per cent of these mistakes are resulting in a goal. Lampard’s side have conceded from all five of the shots they have faced after an error.
The Chelsea boss is likely to feel aggrieved this is still hampering hopes of progress. Lampard remains a popular figure at Stamford Bridge and there is still time to solve the problem. A goalless draw with Sevilla was a step forward in this respect after wild games against West Brom and Southampton resulted in 3-3 draws in the Premier League.
How this next game between United and Chelsea unfolds will decide the next chapter in the story for two former favourites still waiting to make their big mark in management.
If Chelsea can assert their possession game with their new array of attacking talent, while cutting out the errors at the back, Lampard could yet convince that the evolution of his team is real. Solskjaer’s reliance on the counter-attack could look limited by comparison.
If it is United who are able to take the initiative in the same week as their win over Paris Saint-Germain, it will cap a remarkable turnaround since the Tottenham defeat and inspire renewed belief that time and transfers will be enough to maintain an upward trajectory.
Lampard would be left with two wins from six games and questions to answer about a Chelsea rebuild that is yet to take shape.
Everything is in the balance for two teams – and two coaches – only separated by goal difference over 38 games last season. Progress is gradual but there are always catalysts, moments that accelerate the process. Will it be United or Chelsea who take the next step?
Pitch to Post Preview podcast: Mata exclusive, Everton latest, Coady’s rise at Wolves
Juan Mata is the special guest on this week’s show, and he tells Peter Smith about Man Utd’s return to form, looks ahead to their clash with Chelsea, and shares his views on the work being done off the pitch by Marcus Rashford.
Plus, we have more fallout from the Merseyside derby with Alan Myers explains Everton’s perspective, Johnny Phillips discusses cult hero Conor Coady’s importance to Wolves and Sky Sports Data Editor Adam Smith delves into the numbers behind the Premier League’s goal rush, and makes a bold Pitch!