Date published: Sunday 28th November 2021 11:30 – Ian King
Manchester United were under the cosh for much of the game, but Chelsea couldn’t find a winner and Ralf Rangnick now has a lot to consider.
1) Manchester United are like a 10,000-piece jigsaw. The pieces may or may not all be in the box and putting them together is a challenge that will take time. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew better than most what that picture was supposed to look like, but unfortunately he wasn’t quite the jigaw-assembling expert that United wanted him to be. So now he’s gone, to be replaced by Ralf Rangnick, a man considered by many to be the godfather of the modern way of putting one together instead.
Rangnick has got a system, one that has worked in the past, but he’s not here yet. Visa issues and the small matter of extricating him from his contract with Lokomotiv Moscow got in the way of that. So Manchester United found themselves away to the Premier League leaders with Rangnick a dislocated presence over the match and Michael Carrick at the wheel. And it went pretty well.
2) On the corresponding weekend last season, a goalless draw with Spurs kept Chelsea in third place in the Premier League (if you were wondering how long ago a year can be, this result put Spurs top of the table), but those leaving Stamford Bridge that evening likely had no idea what was coming. Chelsea were about to embark on a run of two wins in nine matches, which saw them drop from third to ninth as the end of The Frank Lampard Project drew near.
Thomas Tuchel was quickly installed as his replacement and although the German was unable to get Chelsea back to the very top of the Premier League table before the end of last season, he did deliver their second Champions League trophy. So a club legend was hustled out of the door at the end of an almost touchingly sentimental attempt to make a playing icon into a managerial juggernaut and replaced with a German technocrat. This all sounds… familiar. But if United did want to ape another Premier League club at the moment, they could do far worse than Chelsea.
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3) The thing about this 10,000 piece jigsaw is that there are times when a lovely picture can start to form, even if you’re nowhere near completing it. Manchester United’s current squad may be the result of a completely incoherent mess of a policy with regard to new signings, but those players are at least extremely talented. That’s been the frustration with them over many of the last few years or so: they are capable, but the strategy required to put them to the absolute best of their capabilities has been missing. For the trip to Stamford Bridge, interim-interim manager Michael Carrick found a solution. His bold choice to drop Cristiano Ronaldo to the bench and pick three defensive midfielders dominated the pre-match witterings on social media.
4) If there was one player in the Premier League who you’d suggest Manchester United could do with, it’s probably Antonio Rudiger. The Chelsea defender is just so much more than merely a central defender. He can step into midfield and play in something approaching a box-to-box role, and such is his footballing intelligence that he has the ability to turn defence into attack in just a few seconds. On one first-half occasion, he absolutely leathered the ball against the Manchester United crossbar with just over half an hour played, and only replays confirmed that David de Gea’s fingers had done just enough to flick the ball onto it in the first place.
5) The Manchester United setup seemed to almost telegraph what their tactical outlook on this game would be: stick as many players behind the ball as possible, absorb as much Chelsea pressure as possible, and try to hit them on the break, possibly with the introduction of Ronaldo as an impact substitute during the second half. As such, the key to Chelsea’s performance would be patience. They forced a succession of corners throughout, but seemed unable to make very much of any of them during the first half. But having got themselves back into the match and with 20 minutes left to play they were unable to land a killer blow. Carrick will consider the final score to have been a vindication of his tactical decision.
6) Manchester United did come out for the second half looking considerably refreshed, and played more good attacking football in the first five minutes than they’d managed in the entire 45 of the first. Their reward soon arrived, though they did depend on a huge slice of good luck for it. Jorginho miscontrolled the ball on the halfway line and was robbed by Jadon Sancho, who had the freedom of the Manchester United half of the pitch, dummied a pass to Marcus Rashford, and then ran through Edouard Mendy himself to pass United into the lead.
7) Following on from his performance at Villareal, this has been a very good week indeed for Sancho, as he starts to show the sort of promise Manchester United dropped £73m for in the first place. This is the player around whom they should be looking to build their team for the remainder of this season. Sancho’s been semi-absent from the Manchester United first team for so long that it has become easy to forget just how frighteningly brilliant a player he can be.
While all the attention has been focused elsewhere, Sancho hasn’t suddenly stopped being the extraordinary talent that he proved himself at Borussia Dortmund. That said, it was a horrendous moment for Jorginho, whose miscontrolling of the ball under such little pressure threatened to make him the following morning’s headline for the most unwelcome of reasons. Fortunately for him, he’d find his own redemption story a little later on.
8) Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Well, the 64th minute, anyway. Sancho lasted just a quarter of an hour after his goal before he was withdrawn to make way for Ronaldo, to very little effect. The logic was sound enough in the abstract. Bringing on Ronaldo with 25 minutes to play had two effects on the match. Firstly, it brought one of the greatest finishers in the world into a game in which United had created little and required a defensive mistake to take the lead.
And secondly, if United were to score again, it would likely come against the run of play and they would be unlikely to get many chances. As such, it might be argued that they needed a reliable finisher. And considering United largely spent the closing stages of the match on the front foot, it could be argued that the decision to play him as an impact sub was a good one, with the potential to significantly benefit United.
9) Three minutes after Ronaldo was introduced, Chelsea had their chance to draw level (note: correlation does not equal causation; no-one’s blaming Ronaldo for what happened in Manchester United’s penalty area, here). As aforementioned, they’d forced corner after corner to little effect, but when Marcos Alonso crossed over from the left and Eric Bailly failed to clear, Aaron Wan-Bissaka swung his foot at the ball with the apparent intention of sending it into Row Z. On this occasion he’d failed to take into account Thiago Silva appearing from over his right shoulder. The kick went into the back of the centre-back’s leg and there was little doubt that the penalty kick would be given. Jorginho, who had earlier been crouching with his head in his hands following his own defensive calamity, calmly sent De Gea the wrong way from the penalty spot and brought Chelsea level with a quarter of the match still to play.
10) In the closing ten minutes, Manchester United did start to push forward more, and suddenly it was Chelsea’s turn to look as though they might have a case of the defensive yips. Mendy has been an outstanding addition to Chelsea in goal, but with two minutes to play he completely miscued a clearance, sending the ball straight to Fred. The Manchester United midfielder had Ronaldo and Jesse Lingard in support and a quick pass to either of them might have kickstarted the move which won the game for United. But on this occasion, Fred Fredded the ball tamely into Mendy’s arms with a lob-cum-backpass from 25 yards, and the moment had passed. It was a remarkably lackadaisical piece of football at such an important point in such an important match.
11) Even so, as the game reached its closing stages, United were on top for the first time all evening. Ronaldo was booked for arguing over how the match should restart after Scott McTominay got smacked in the face by a flying ball (he wanted a free-kick; the referee was insistent that play should restart with a drop ball), and as tempers started to rise in the closing stages the pressure continued to be exerted upon the Chelsea goal.
In stoppage-time, Lingard released Ronaldo on the the left-hand side when he was quite clearly a yard offside, but the whistle didn’t blow and Ronaldo eventually won his team a corner. Such was the scale of Tuchel’s meltdown at this – and I should be clear that his anger may have been a little theatrical but was entirely warranted – that he picked up a yellow card for his troubles. The resulting corner, for the record, was just nicked off Ronaldo’s head, six yards from goal.
12) And with seven minutes played of the five allocated for stoppage-time, there was one more golden chance. Chelsea had been pinned back in their own half for much of the previous ten minutes, but Rudiger stole the ball from Lingard and started a break that he finished, too. Christian Pulisic broke on the right and sent over a deep cross, which Rudiger volleyed over the crossbar when he probably had the space to get it under control and compose himself first. This turned out to be the last action of the match.
13) Chelsea will have been the less happy of the two teams upon hearing the final whistle. They had far more shots and corners, many more opportunities. But somehow, they couldn’t quite get fully coordinated once they were in the final third. For all those shots they attempted, only four were on target and the introduction of Romelu Lukaku in the closing stages didn’t seem to make any appreciable difference to their likelihood of winning. It still feels a little as though, if Chelsea are to slip up in the Premier League this season, the necessary obstacles are more likely to come in front of goal than anywhere else. It is notable that, for all the possession they had and all the chances they created, De Gea himself wasn’t that troubled in the second half. Even if he says differently.
14) Considering the amount of time they’ve spent together with the England national team, it should come as little surprise that Sancho and Rashford can link up effortlessly when they play together. Their performance against Chelsea hints at the promise that both of these players can deliver, and it was notable that when Rashford was withdrawn for Ronaldo 20 minutes into the second half, the look of United’s attacking movement changed, but didn’t particularly deteriorate.
15) It remains to be seen how Ronaldo would be able to fit into any high-pressing system that Rangnick might be looking to implement. Could he live with being an impact substitute? Because this might be the way in which Rangnick will consider he can get the best out of this particular player over the rest of the season. From the way he stomped off down the tunnel at full-time it would appear not, so will Rangnick try and contort an all-pressing tactical set-up to accommodate him, or will Manchester United end up being ten players high pressing plus one? Does Ronaldo have a right to play in every game if he won’t fit into the coach’s tactical plans?
16) Carrick, presumably, will not be in place for Manchester United’s next match against Arsenal. If this is the case, he can leave his very temporary position with his head held high, having made a decent enough impression to give himself a chance of avoiding the expected cull of coaching staff that will come with Rangnick’s arrival. The win at Villareal has guaranteed their appearance in the knockout stages of the Champions League, while a draw away to the European champions and current league leaders is a result of which any Premier League manager would be proud.
To a point, this was a reductive approach from Carrick, and the massed ranks of defence was hardly what fans would call ‘The United Way’. But it got them perhaps their best result of the season in the Premier League so far. The jigsaw is far from complete, but it isn’t quite the jumbled mess that it looked just a week earlier; Rangnick at least knows now that there’s something there to work with.