ATTEMPTING to predict an outcome from this Saturday’s clash at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Chelsea is a futile endeavour. Honestly, we may as well back one fly over the other as they ascend a windowpane.
That’s because both clubs share three distinct traits, each as damaging as the next and each so well-established that it’s hard to imagine them going away soon. Indeed it’s fair to suggest the United and Chelsea we see today – full of promise and flaws in equal measure with an unfortunate habit of being their own worst enemy – will be the United and Chelsea we see at the season’s conclusion.
The first and most substantial commonality is that both are managed by club legends who very possibly wouldn’t have got anywhere near the role were it not for their achievements on the pitch. Granted, this does not directly affect this weekend’s result but the fact that two of English football’s behemoths with 18 Premier League titles between them are both heading down a surprisingly sentimental route reveals who United and Chelsea presently are and what they’re trying to become.
It explains a good deal. In fact, it pretty much explains everything. It certainly throws light on their sustained inconsistency that is the second trait shared though it’s worth noting that the types of inconsistency undermining them are markedly different.
Chelsea’s erraticism is very much snakes and ladders in nature, with progress undone at regular intervals by an inevitable clunking setback. Since Frank Lampard took the reins at Stamford Bridge his side have managed to string together only five games – on two occasions – without tasting defeat. This must be a source of immense frustration to the club and fans alike but such staccato form does offer some hope for the future. It intimates there is a problem to resolve and we all know what that problem is (see below). Should it be fixed, and with the right wind behind them, and with their wealth of attacking options then perhaps the Blues can be a force to be reckoned with in campaigns to come. Perhaps.
United’s unpredictably meanwhile is more drawn out and far-reaching and consequently this will prove much more difficult to nullify. When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018 he took his side on a tremendous unbeaten run that stretched into the spring only to then suffer a dramatic downturn in fortunes that saw them prevail just twice in the final nine games.
Last season there was a similar split in personality with eight losses and a hefty number of draws leaving the Reds apparently out of top four contention. Post-lockdown however United looked a very different proposition, remaining unbeaten and appearing coherent and threatening throughout. Bluntly speaking, ‘streaky’ runs such as this hint strongly at a mentality issue within any given squad. Blunter still, streaky managers rarely change.
Which is why last week’s late blitzing of Newcastle was so fundamentally important to Manchester United because by all accounts they were on another downward trajectory. Sure enough, they grabbed the points at Brighton but were extremely lucky to do so. Against Crystal Palace they were timid and devoid of ideas. Against Spurs they were humiliated.
With Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton all bunched together in a challenging few weeks a disappointing outcome at St James’ Park would surely have put serious pressure on Solskjaer. As it is, his team will be revitalised for this Saturday.
Blows my mind how Everton have ended up with James Rodriguez & Carlo Ancelotti whilst Manchester United have ended up with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & Daniel James.
Imagine saying that a couple of years ago.
— Michael (@TFWriter) October 17, 2020
For us punters that means a hard fixture to call just got even harder but at least there are some things we can confidently ascertain, knowledge that is derived from the third trait shared between these infuriating sides. There will be goals and probably quite a few of them too and that’s because both Lampard and Solskjaer have defences they simply cannot trust.
The Norwegian’s win percentage at Old Trafford is just down on his predecessor Mourinho (55.21% to 58.3% as it goes) but the sheer amount of goals conceded is concerning. In the 81 Premier League games Solskjaer has presided over, United have been breached on 115 occasions. In Mourinho’s first 81 games they let in just 65. Chelsea are 11/10 to score over 1.5 goals, and 15/4 to score over 2.5.
Those fifty goals simply cannot be put down to individual errors or the loss of form of a goalkeeper. The same logic applies at the Bridge and Chelsea’s frailties that have seen them ship in 65 during Lampard’s 43 games at the helm. Lampard however refuses to accept this, saying this week: ‘The issues are that we don’t concede too many shots on goal but when we do, we concede goals. It’s something we are aware of when you look at our recruitment.’ Man Utd are 21/20 to score over 1.5 goals, and 18/5 to score over 2.5.
That is clearly a dig at the under-performing Kepa and clearly a big vote of confidence for the incoming Edouard Mendy who should be fit to make his league debut in the North West yet it should genuinely concern the Blues faithful that such an easy scapegoat is being held up as the only explanation. That structural imperfections are being overlooked.
So here we have two teams, both with split personalities and both laden with attacking talent but hindered by defensive deficiencies. Try picking a result out of that. Both teams to score and over 2.5 goals is 4/5.
Thankfully we don’t have to. Thankfully we only need look at Chelsea’s slow starts this term – that contrast so sharply to their impressive custom of scoring inside the opening 25 minutes last season – and presume too that United will begin full of vim and renewed vigour. We need only concentrate on the promise of goals in abundance.
For the bigger picture and the bigger problems: they are on Lampard and Solskjaer to solve. They are issues that will likely be wrestled with for quite some time yet.