Why Manchester United against Chelsea was a crucial match in the 2019/2020 season

After the first round of Premier League fixtures in the 2019/2020 season, I felt that the Manchester United vs Chelsea was actually a much more important game than some people may think. There will be people that will argue that it is still early days and it is Round 1 of 38 and that it is a marathon not a sprint, but I have made some observations and explained below why this game tells us an awful lot more about the season to come than may at first be initially clear to the eye.

Chelsea, who are of course under a transfer embargo, made some interesting but perhaps understandable decisions for their starting line-up, including the likes of Emerson Palmieri at left-back, Kurt Zouma at centre-back, Mason Mount in the no. 10 position, and Tammy Abraham as the lone striker, and left players such as Marcos Alonso and N’golo Kante on the bench. This, and decisions such as giving Abraham the no. 9 shirt now vacated by Alvaro Morata following his permanent move to Atletico Madrid, showed just how Frank Lampard wants to play this season. He will have to depend on youth talent at Stamford Bridge in order to fill his squad, but we know from last season that he trusts youth. Both Mason Mount and defender Fikayo Tomori, who was on the bench for this game, spent last season at Derby under him and thrived whilst on loan from Chelsea, whilst he also brought in others such as Harry Wilson, the forward who was instrumental in Derby’s attack last season and is now spending this season at Bournemouth on loan from Liverpool. Abraham also proved whilst on loan at Bristol City and Aston Villa in recent seasons that he can also be a goal machine.

As far as Chelsea tactically played, it was clear that, with a 4-2-3-1 formation, Frank wanted them to get the ball wide and then cross it in, and with Pedro and Ross Barkley playing either side of Mount, they managed to make that work to some effect in the first half. Barkley in particular I thought had a solid game until he was taken off and replaced by USA winger and debutant Christian Pulisic in the 58th minute. However, the reason Chelsea wanted to play like this is it stretched United’s back line, which allowed the likes of Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and Mount to get shots in from distance, and to put pressure on the United defence. This is an interesting tactic, and one that might have worked had United not had the coolness and leadership that is Harry Maguire, their new signing from Leicester City. He was outstanding and wasn’t afraid to boss his teammates around, and this is something that they were missing at times last season. The United defence were brilliant, getting in the way of everything and putting their bodies in the way in order to stop Chelsea getting the goal that, perhaps last season, they would have scored. They did still look a little stretched at times, but this was more down to Chelsea’s strategy than their own fault.

As far as United were concerned going forwards, I was incredibly impressed by them, and I will confess I was surprised by how good they looked, given they have not really added to this side of their team except young Wales winger Daniel James, who impressed in the Championship last season for Swansea City. But they looked sharp, quick, concentrated, and everyone knew their roles,and at times they looked like they were cutting through butter. The second goal in particular was very nicely worked, with Maguire playing out from the back, and United countering with almost no effort at all, and eventually the ball found Marcus Rashford, who was outstanding all match and is someone who I would expect to start every game in the striker’s position now that Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku has departed for Inter Milan. I do think that this is his best position, rather than the winger position he was often given under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s predecessor Jose Mourinho, as it allows him to use his pace much more.

One player who I think will be very important is midfielder Andreas Pereira, who just seems to be wherever he needs to be – in a wider position or nearer the middle of the pitch, and he gets in good positions to receive the ball and pass it on and make things happen in the United midfield. United this season look like they could be an offensive weapon, with the raw pace they have. We know from last season how good right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka can be on the right wing, Jesse Lingard is very good when he is on form, I have spoken about Pereira and Rashford, Anthony Martial is another versatile attacker, and they also have the likes of Daniel James who I spoke about earlier, and another young academy product in striker Mason Greenwood, who I am really excited to see this season. I think they could be top 4 material if they can add another striker with  a little more experience and another central or box-to-box midfielder, which would allow Paul Pogba (if he stays) to get further forward and join the attacks.

For Chelsea, their main issue was the defence. Zouma in particular had a bad day, almost giving away a goal early on and then conceding a penalty. The decision-making across the team also needs to be improved, but this is not to say that Sunday was a complete disaster for them. It was their biggest opening-day defeat ever, and they are in the 104th season now, but the fact that Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount were starting means that Chelsea are ushering in a new era with the new youth products, and they will take time to mould into the Chelsea style, having been out on loan for a long time in their career. Mount in particular is likely to take on more of a playmaker role just as we saw him do with Derby last season under Lampard, although he didn’t have his best game against United, and Abraham was trying to make things happen, so there are signs that things will get better. It should also be remembered that they were playing Manchester United at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season. This weekend, they face Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul, before hosting Leicester, who drew with Wolves on Sunday as well. It should also be remembered that their transfer embargo will mean that they will have to trust and rely on their youth players more, as I said before.

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