Manchester United arrived at Stamford Bridge in great form and hopeful of continuing their winning run. Chelsea have been far from convincing in recent weeks but, typical of themselves and their manager, they executed a game-plan and found a way to win.
The Reds enjoyed unprecedented levels of possession but ultimately failed to create enough chances; here are five things we learned from the narrow defeat to Jose Mourinho’s men.
1) Assured Shaw
One huge positive from the game at Stamford Bridge was the performance of Luke Shaw. The full-back has suffered an injury-plagued debut season at Old Trafford and has yet to really settle, but Saturday’s performance demonstrated that the youngster is likely to become a permanent fixture in the side for years to come.
Despite only a handful of appearances since the turn of the year, the former Southampton man was composed, aggressive and offered arguably United’s greatest threat moving forwards down the left hand side. Daley Blind has made a very strong claim for the left-back spot in the side in recent weeks but Shaw provided a timely reminder of his talent. If he can stay injury free, an impressive second season is likely to follow.
2) Squad Depth
Louis van Gaal’s Friday press conference brought with it the unwelcome news of a number of untimely injuries to key members of the squad. Michael Carrick, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind & Phil Jones were all ruled out of the clash with Chelsea and rather exposed a few areas of the Reds’ current makeup.
Despite what was a very good performance, thoughts will inevitably linger on the ‘what might have been’ had the likes of Carrick been fit to play. Ander Herrera did well in the holding midfield role, but his switch of position negated the effect of his relationship with Juan Mata. The enforced change also saw an in form Wayne Rooney sacrificed into midfield and it highlighted the fact that the squad is still a little short.
Paddy McNair was outstanding at centre-half and perhaps enforced the notion that United will only be in the market for one elite central defender in the summer. Nevertheless, with the Reds hopeful of challenging for the title next season Stamford Bridge proved that, at the very top, the squad is still in need of a few additions.
3) Progression & Possession
Most would agree that recent weeks have seen United make huge strides forwards both in terms of results and performances. The players are seemingly beginning to gel and starting to really embrace the philosophy and vision of their manager.
Saturday’s game was interesting in the sense that for large periods both teams will feel that they were in complete control; United, who had a large share of possession, and Chelsea, who limited the chances that the Reds were able to create.
There is no doubt that the tempo of United’s play is much improved and, despite the result, it’s arguable that the Old Trafford outfit put in one of their best displays at Stamford Bridge in quite a few years, albeit without any reward. It is clear that United are going to implement a possession based style of play moving forwards, but for it to be effective they will need to develop more cutting edge against the very best defensive units.
4) Cutting Edge
A real feature of the Reds’ play in recent weeks has been the balance and the variety with which they have played, epitomised by the options that Marouane Fellaini provides to go short and go long. The big Belgian’s impact cannot be under-estimated; his presence has allowed Van Gaal to implement his philosophy of building from defence by offering a viable out-ball if the defence are under pressure in possession.
If opposing teams decide to press from the front, United’s defence have Fellaini as a target to go long and by-pass the midfield. If sides decide to sit-back and soak up pressure, Van Gaal’s men are happy to rotate possession and build patiently from the back.
Somewhat predictably, Mourinho deployed Kurt Zouma on Fellaini and mitigated his impact. The quality of Eden Hazard then shone through as he pounced on the break. United then struggled to create many clear-cut chances to drag themselves back into the game.
The match was a pertinent example that the Reds, for all of their impressive play in recent weeks, still lack a cutting edge in the final third against well-drilled defensive units.
5) Moving Forwards
It was a disappointing result come the final whistle, but everyone associated with the club can take great heart from the last few weeks, including the game at Stamford Bridge. The old cliché that ‘the penny has dropped’ really does seem appropriate and many will be looking forward to next season with great optimism.
That is not to say that the club should be looking ahead too far, there is still a lot of work to do to cement United’s place back amongst Europe’s elite. But with current form, the Reds are expected to do enough in the coming weeks to secure a return to the Champions League.
Thoughts then turn to the summer and the game at Stamford Bridge will have provided a few indications as to where movement might occur. United will certainly be in the market for a centre-half, Saturday showed the need for another midfielder, and with Falcao and Robin van Persie facing uncertain futures Van Gaal is also likely to be looking for another striker.
Adnan Januzaj’s cameo was an unfortunate microcosm of his regression, and a loan-spell would prove beneficial for the Belgian who certainly has the talent, put perhaps took on too-much-too-soon last season. James Wilson is another highly thought of, and a loan spell for the striker would also help his progression with the club likely to bolster their attacking line.
McNair continues to impress and Blackett continues to accumulate minutes on the pitch and it’s great that, as ever, United’s academy is being given a platform to progress.
It was a great performance against Chelsea, only lacking in end product and, ultimately, the result; but an exciting summer surely awaits.