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Manchester United came to West London looking to keep the pressure on those above them for a top 4 place. As has become lamentably prevalent at Stamford Bridge, the Reds delivered an encouraging and composed display but failed to return to the North West with all 3 points.
The Old Trafford outfit started brightly and but for a magnificent save from Thibaut Courtois Anthony Martial would have put them ahead. After half-time the Reds continued to control the game and got their reward when Jesse Lingard swivelled brilliantly in the box to smash home into the top corner. Chelsea then grew into the game and United dropped deeper and deeper before an injury time equaliser from Diego Costa broke Reds’ hearts.
An accomplished display but in the end United left the capital with only 1 point to show for it; here are 5 things we learned from a frustrating draw with Guus Hiddink’s side.
1) Youthful Promise
Louis van Gaal has put faith in some of United’s youngsters in recent weeks. Academy graduates Jesse Lingard and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson have both found themselves thrust into the starting lineup (albeit the latter largely through injuries) and both are repaying their manager’s faith.
With a sublime finish at Stamford Bridge, Lingard added to goals against Stoke City and Newcastle in recent weeks and has added real balance to the side with his more pacey play providing a greater counter-attacking threat and allowing Juan Mata to move inside into what is undoubtedly the Spaniard’s favoured position.
Borthwick-Jackson has also been impressing. Perhaps the youngster was at fault for Chelsea’s goal by not stepping up but it would be harsh to criticise a player who has shown great composure and maturity after being thrown in on the biggest stage. The left-back has contributed moving forwards too, with crosses leading to goals for Jesse Lingard against Stoke City and again on Sunday (albeit via a touch from Wayne Rooney). United have a strong tradition of brining through academy players and it is hoped these two will continue to improve.
2) Attacking Intent
It was perhaps the best opening 30 minutes away from Old Trafford that the Reds have produced in some time. There was tempo to the play coupled with composure on the ball and Louis van Gaal’s men really dominated Chelsea for large spells. After a disastrous couple of months and a clamour from the fans and the media (not to mention the players) it certainly appears that the side have been given more freedom.
Juan Mata, back in his preferred role, was able to drift around the pitch finding space and dictating play. Mata’s usual role out wide was perhaps a consequence of his manager’s distrust in him defensively in the middle of the park. In that regard, then, the move inside for the Spaniard is perhaps a signal of intent that Louis van Gaal is looking for his side to be more fluent and create more chances, with less emphasis on defensive rigidity.
3) Settled Side?
Louis van Gaal named an unchanged line-up from the victory over Stoke City and perhaps the Dutchman has stumbled upon has best side moving forwards. Many may remember that around this time last campaign the Reds went on a strong run with very much a settled side and it is hoped that a similar outcome can materialise this term.
There’s no doubt that the side appears balanced and the performance against Chelsea should be enough to offer encouragement that this team can mount a late push for a top 4 place. Many may prefer to see Morgan Schneiderlin replace Marouane Fellaini but to his credit the big Belgian performed well at Stamford Bridge. Ander Herrera always feels to be the unfortunate sacrifice but the team must always come first.
4) Clear-Cut Chances
Despite a dominant display and certainly a better tempo with more attacking intent, the Reds still struggled to create many clear-cut chances. It’s one thing to dominate possession but it’s quite another to then threaten and penetrate the opposition. For all of United’s dominance it was arguably David De Gea who was called upon more often as Chelsea created the better quality chances.
Once more Martial created a number of opportunities for himself and hopefully it won’t be long before more gambles are taken when Borthwick-Jackson has the ball at his feet as once again the left-back delivered a number of wonderful deliveries crying out for a poacher’s instinct. The intent is there, but possession now needs to be converted into penetration.
5) Winning Ways
Chelsea’s injury time equaliser was galling in so many ways for the United Faithful. The Reds always seem to play well at Stamford Bridge but never quite get the rewards come the final whistle. Unfortunately, however, the late goal from Diego Costa was not in isolation. Late goals at Old Trafford against Southampton and against Newcastle at St James’s park have also cost Louis van Gaal’s men vital points in recent weeks.
It’s understandable that the side is low on confidence, but if the Old Trafford outfit are to have any realistic ambitions of a top 4 finish they will need to rediscover the winning mentality that was instilled throughout the club not so long ago. Chelsea were there for the taking and but for a bit of careless play from Memphis things may have been different. Seeing out games is clearly a problem and it is clear from his post-match interviews that it is one that Louis van Gaal is keen to address.