Manchester United and Chelsea played out one of the worst games in modern memory with a goalless draw at Old Trafford.
Frank Lampard made no apologies for an unambitious approach. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have an argument that he was more proactive in his attempt to win the game but he paid the price for a line-up that screamed pragmatism.
Low on quality, low on entertainment, this was a dire affair which did the reputation of scoreless games a huge disservice. It couldn’t have even been worse if the managers had given each other a secret handshake before the game – instead, this was a genuine gameplan from both, resulting in an insipid evening’s viewing.
Solskjaer went with the team which defeated Newcastle but the Magpies were convenient opponents for such a line-up and Chelsea weren’t.
United could not control the pace of the game and so the Mata and Fernandes combination which illuminated so brightly last week found it hard to influence the game when the ball retention of McTominay and Fred is not as good as their ball recovery can be. As a result, Chelsea – who were cagey themselves – dominated in midfield and possession.
The lack of supporters has a tangible influence sometimes – teams regrouping as if it is a training session is much easier to do when there are no fans imploring their own team to take advantage.
It took United half an hour to do anything of note – Fernandes testing the nerves of new Chelsea goalkeeper Mendy, after he’d had a shaky moment with a back pass. The playmaker then gave a ball to Mata who put Rashford through and the striker might have felt he should have done better with a shot was much too comfortable for Mendy to deal with. His rush typified United’s lack of settlement.
Mata – a man for calm – had an effort saved in a passage of play which also saw a VAR check for a penalty after Thiago Silva clipped Rashford. No pen, though it was beginning to feel as if United were going to need a break from the usual pattern if they were to turn the game in their favour. Indeed, Maguire was much luckier than Silva with a headlock that should have given a penalty away.
It was looking like a game for changes. United had Telles, Pogba, van de Beek, Cavani, Matic and Greenwood on the bench – all of whom could probably be entitled to believe they should have been starting.
One of the prime candidates for removal, Dan James, showed his crisis of confidence when he dribbled with no conviction in a promising position early in the second half. James and Mata came off 12 minutes into the second half – Pogba and Cavani were on in their place. With his first touch, Cavani cleverly flicked the ball just wide of the near post from a Fernandes pass. From then on, he was a passenger in a team that wasn’t set up to get the best out of him.
Chelsea responded by bringing on Abraham for Werner and Mount for Havertz, like-for-like switches. Then one that was enforced, Ziyech for Pulisic. Solskjaer rolled his last dice – Greenwood for McTominay.
There was a late period of sustained pressure where Rashford saw an effort tipped wide but it was too little too late and not deserving of snatching the points. Solskjaer’s gambles hadn’t worked – Pogba for Mata in particular seemed an investment in the unpredictable, when maybe the reliable was better placed even in this scenario.
United were hoping for a reaction to their poor home form but instead came up against a team who were happy to sit back and make them work for it. You couldn’t blame Lampard’s game plan – it was fairly clever to wait for United to take a risk, as they couldn’t make seven changes, and it meant they would always be vulnerable if they did.
In a battle between a manager who could not afford to lose and another who could afford to play without needing to exert to win, it was an anti-spectacle, a true turn-off for English football.
If a game is played behind closed doors and nobody does a thing, does it really count or do they have to play again?
Not that anybody will be asking to watch a repeat of this one. You wouldn’t blame Match of the Day for accidentally deleting the footage of this one before it gets to air.
Ole courted criticism once more by naming an unchanged side from the team that played at Newcastle. That selection in the first place had raised eyebrows but because it was Newcastle it was seen as passable. Against Chelsea?
It was perhaps worth wondering that Solskjaer might have been better off changing the tactical shape in the way he did against Paris if he wanted to use either of the week’s different approaches.
It was a chess formation, possibly more capable of working against a Chelsea team who were more adventurous. But they weren’t. In that event, Solskjaer needed to change it up, but there weren’t enough changes available to make a difference against a team who were well drilled.
The manager ultimately got it wrong, but you wouldn’t blame him if he came away thinking he’d done the right thing.
De Gea 6