Frank Lampard’s Chelsea came to Old Trafford for this curtain-raising fixture for the 2019/20 Premier League season. With both clubs in a state of flux, it was difficult to predict who would gain the upper hand. Even the most optimistic home fan would not have dreamed of a 4-0 thumping; it ended up an emphatic win that has provided a tremendous platform to build upon. From a very entertaining encounter and largely misleading score line, here are five things we learned:
1. Key moments favoured United
After a bruising defeat for Chelsea, it would be easy to follow a narrative that Manchester United’s youthful and energetic side are on the cusp of a prosperous season, and Chelsea will have a long season in store led by their beloved but equally inexperienced manager. The truth is that this game could easily have had a very different outcome.
Lampard was careful not to come across as aggrieved in his post-mortem, but his comments were quite correct: “It was nowhere near a 4-0. 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. We made four mistakes and they were clinical in the way they put them away”. Solskjaer magnanimously agreed in his post-match reflections: “First half we hung in there and we were a bit lucky to go in at half-time 1-0 ahead”.
Chelsea hit the woodwork with rasping drives from Tammy Abraham and Emerson, forced De Gea into several smart saves, and chose poor options or showed a lack of ruthlessness having created some excellent situations.
Until Rashford’s penalty, United had created little aside from a tame Martial effort following an error from Kurt Zouma, who on today’s evidence will make Chelsea fans pine for the ‘reliable’ David Luiz. It took for the second goal to come before the reds settled into any real rhythm and were able to retain possession for any significant period of time.
The match statistics show that Chelsea had more shots (18 to 11), more possession (53%), and more corners. Good fortune for United certainly had a hand in this fantastic opening day success.
2. Solskjaer is Making His Mark
Following on from the limp and depressing end to the previous campaign, Solskjaer is showing signs of developing the brand of football his team plays, and there appears to be a plan and a developing identity that wasn’t evident in the capitulation of the closing fixtures. Certainly, it took time for United to settle into the game, and the first half completely lacked any level of control, which is a concern for some of the tough tests to come. However, his selection showed a desire to play with pace, energy, enthusiasm and athleticism. The selection of Scott McTominay ahead of Nemanja Matic was particularly pleasing, as Matic has been a source of immense frustration for most fans for at least a year. He slows play down, is immobile, offers very little in defensive contributions, and is often caught dithering on the ball. McTominay has developed into a fine athlete, who contests for possession in midfield and is maturing rapidly. The selection of Andreas Pereira for his technical qualities shows a transition from Mourinho’s love affair with Marouane Fellaini. A fluid front three appears to be the template for the season, with an abundance of options available to rotate between. The defining factor in all those options are things that the departed Romelu Lukaku lacked – acceleration, work rate, adaptability, flair and trickery.
Fitness has been a message he has been keen to impart and having had a full pre-season to work with the squad, there was certainly more urgency and ability to press evident from this first competitive outing. Solskjaer said “The second half was outstanding. We defended well in a shape and counter-attacked and were more composed on the ball. The fitter you are the more you can do”.
Midfield still appears to be the weakest area of the side, and it will be interesting to see what combination Solskjaer settles upon. There will be different approaches necessary against different standards of opposition. United will likely be at their best against sides prepared to attack, like Chelsea in this fixture. This allows the midfield to be largely by-passed but utilises Pogba’s ability to thread accurate long passes or drive forward with the ball. With the pace available this is the obvious blueprint to success, and Pogba ended the game with two assists. His carelessness was also evident in the first half, often over-playing unnecessarily in vulnerable areas of the pitch. How the side will adapt to breaking down defensive teams when invited to control possession will be a different challenge.
3. Maguire and Wan Bissaka impressed on their debuts
Harry Maguire was named as man of the match on the Sky Sports coverage. He made 7 clearances, 4 interceptions, had an 86% passing accuracy, and no one dribbled past him. Studio guest Jose Mourinho was effusive in his praise for him, no doubt largely because he was denied his request to sign him a year earlier. “You can be very dangerous in attack but if you feel that a mistake is around the corner, it takes your confidence away and you don’t play as well. When you feel there is something that allows you to play, you are much more confident. As I always said, Lindelöf can be a very good player. With Maguire it can be a good partnership”.
Maguire looked dominant and slotted into the defence immediately, already displaying impressive leadership qualities. He won all of his individual duels and provided an assured presence that has not been seen in the heart of a Manchester United defence for a long time. There is no doubt that the fee required to obtain his services was extortionate, but he will evidently improve a defence that last season, conceded an all-time record number of Premier League goals. Speaking after the game, he explained the message he was giving his teammates after Rashford’s second goal: “I reiterated on the pitch that we had to concentrate. I know it was only two clean sheets here last season, so we have to work hard to make sure it’s a fortress here this season”. He is certainly saying the right things, displaying a flawless attitude, and well on his way to becoming a firm fan’s favourite.
Aaron Wan Bissaka also demonstrated that he is a huge upgrade at full back from Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. Again, the price tag included a hefty amount of Manchester United tax, but he showed that he is excellent in the tackle, able to offer an attacking outlet, and generally tidy in possession. He is still raw, which is not surprising given his age. He was out of position and exploited on a few occasions by Chelsea, most notably nowhere near Emerson when Chelsea struck the woodwork. This was largely due to the amount of ground he is being asked to cover, and it is clearly vital to Solskjaer that he plays with expansive full backs. The form of Luke Shaw and Wan Bissaka will be absolutely key this season, and the right back position certainly appears to be in good hands. It remains to be seen if his delivery when going forward can be improved, and his understanding with his teammates and the structure of the defence will be vital, but early signs are very positive.
4. Confidence is Key
For the final half hour of this match, once comfortably in front, United were barely recognisable from their first half performance. Chelsea’s dip in performance may well account for some of it, but all of a sudden Solskjaer’s team started to pass the ball accurately but with purpose, retaining possession and offering a constant threat to Chelsea’s bedraggles back line.
The mentality of this squad has proven to be fragile for some time now. There is doubtless talent in this young squad, and when things are going their way, it flourishes. In Solskjaer’s opening run of fixtures, the feel-good factor was flowing, and wins were coming easily. That early confidence, though, was soon dismantled and never recovered. It would be interesting to see how this performance would have played out had Tammy Abraham’s early shot found the corner of the net, testing the mental fortitude of this group.
The pleasing thing, though, is that there appears to be a togetherness in the squad again, and the celebrations of each of the goals, especially that heart-warming moment following Daniel James’ debut goal, showed passion and a collective desire. Winning breeds confidence, and when confident this is a very capable and entertaining side.
5. Rashford is Relishing his Chance
A lot of Manchester United’s hopes this season rest on the 21-year-old shoulders of Marcus Rashford. In the past, his form has proven patchy, and he looked to be suffering the effects of burn out in the closing stages of last season. Throughout this game, he looked lively and full of running. This system, allowing him to rotate playing wide and centrally, and move in search of the ball, should suit him. Starting the season with two goals, and being trusted as the new penalty taker, will help him to feel established and trusted to drive this team on.
His talent has never been in question; there have been doubts around his consistency. The key things for him are to continue to work hard. The efforts of the front players in this system, pressing the opposition and providing constant and incisive movement, are a pre-requisite in any progression to be made this season.
Rashford enjoyed himself, and he also had the confidence to try things. Not all of his link up play came off, and he ran down some blind alleys, but he kept trying. The squad need to shift their mentality away from the pragmatic approach of Mourinho, back into a more positive approach, where attacking players have a freedom to express themselves, and above all back themselves in the knowledge that it won’t always come off.
There are many weaknesses to this latest Manchester United incarnation, and the season will not be plain sailing. Fans are generally realistic enough to know what the reasonable expectations are for this group of players. What is demanded is effort, passion, and an intent to play attacking football. Those things were all provided on Sunday, particularly in the second half. If this youthful blend of players continue to display these qualities, the Old Trafford faithful will gladly back them and see how far it takes them.