All good things must come to an end. Manchester United’s unbeaten run in away league games. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s winning streak at Stamford Bridge. The former goes on, the latter concluded with a drab draw in which neither side deserved a win.
In the fourteenth minute Rashford had United’s first chance – he famously struck a great free-kick here in the League Cup last season, and took one from similar range this time around.
The goalkeeper Mendy did well to save, but from the rebound, Callum Hudson-Odoi handled to deflect the ball away from Greenwood. His hand was up – but even after checking the replay, the referee decided it wasn’t a penalty. The irony was that Chelsea’s players had appealed for a free-kick for handball by Greenwood.
For the next twenty minutes the game followed a pattern seen too often in matches these days – one team takes a goal kick, plays it short and plays it around the back while the opponent presses them around their own area. United persist with it despite having players definitely not suited to it. It makes for unnecessarily anxious moments.
Chelsea’s brightest moment came from a Hudson-Odoi (using his feet this time) cross which Giroud almost connected with, having been allowed a free run at it by United’s central defenders. The visitors finished the second half stronger, but were unable to fashion a genuine chance of their own, with the Blues defenders alert to every opportunity to intercept.
Chelsea started the second half well, with Ziyech forcing a great save from De Gea. Then United had their own strong period, with Greenwood and McTominay going quite close before a decent long range effort from Fred.
But the game again slipped into a passive state, and with Martial brought on to inject urgency, you knew the sort of game we were likely to see pan out. The biggest drama came in the last minutes, when Chelsea had a free-kick, and the visitors countered, only for McTominay to cross poorly with at least two team-mates in a good position.
If only for that element of quality – but that summary describes United’s season and run of performances in big games as a whole this campaign. One wonders how these results will be seen – enough to stop rivals taking points in head to heads but not strong enough to assert their own claim on second.
Solskjaer is likely to grumble about the poor decision in the first half – and he will be entitled to – but the truth is that nobody will be surprised by what they saw. In a certain sense that’s reassuring because at least it’s consistency. It could well be enough to secure Champions League football for next season. You can’t blame United supporters for hoping for a little bit more.
The rotation – necessary though it has been – has presented the inevitable questions about players who should be considered, particularly when it comes to players who are not in the greatest of form.
Solskjaer made the call to keep De Gea in, and to also keep faith with Lindelof. These were not dramatic calls – these are the sensible choices he’s made throughout his time as manager, in spite of what people may think or even in spite of form suggesting otherwise. He’s allowed players to play themselves back in to form when they have been out of it. This is a positive trait but of course always looks like a negative one if players do not play well.
McTominay was a surprise selection considering the doubts over him before the game. And Dan James, too, was a bit of a shock, despite his good form – he has played himself into the team although his selection, much like the choice of Lindelof in defence, sometimes speaks more about what United don’t have.
It was those ‘have nots’ that were definitive again for United, with Fred and McTominay useful at breaking the play but not quite so much when on the ball. Midfield was a crucial area for this game and United have the quality to compete but not dictate. We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
De Gea 7