Two teams turned up and it rained a lot. Other than that, there was precious little to write home about from this goalless draw between a Manchester United side who struggled to create clear-cut goal-scoring chances and a Chelsea team that are successfully shoring up a suspect defence.
This was one of those rare occasions when two managers expose each other’s limitations and, in doing so, cancel each other out. After the excellent win in Paris in midweek, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was brought back down to earth by United’s familiar failing: if they cannot counter-attack into space, they will fail to fashion much of note. This was the fifth successive Premier League match at Old Trafford that United have failed to win, a new club record.
Lampard, meanwhile, arrived with the intention of denying United that space. The Chelsea manager wanted to avoid the type of humbling defeat that his side suffered here on the opening weekend of last season. He was successful in that respect but adopting a more conservative style neutered his expensively-assembled attack. Chelsea’s search for a balanced, winning approach goes on.
A hard rain fell down on Old Trafford, much like at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium 12 years ago when these two clubs contested the Champions League final. That, however, is where any to that night resemblance ended. For an idea of just how poor the first half was, instead think back to the 2007 FA Cup final, only somehow less exciting. The highlight of the first quarter-of-an-hour was Daniel James being flagged offside.
Make no mistake though, the tedium was a result of how the two managers’ set-ups. Lampard was deploying a back three for the first time this season, having successfully used a similar formation to beat United in the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley three months ago. Solskjaer kept faith in the same players who won 4-1 at Newcastle last weekend but United had only come to life late on at St James’ Park and would start slowly here.
It said everything that their best opportunity of the opening half hour came from the boot of Edouard Mendy, who passed the ball across his own goal and almost over the goal-line. Mercifully, it trickled away for a corner. Mendy did considerably better a few minutes later when saving one-on-one from Rashford, who had exploited Jorginho and Thiago Silva’s poor positioning to streak in behind Chelsea’s defence.
That was the one moment of incision. Chelsea’s best chance of breaking the deadlock was a penalty shout against Harry Maguire, who manhandled Cesar Azpilcueta on a corner not long before the break. Azpilicueta went to ground but referee Martin Atkinson saw nothing wrong and Stuart Atwell, the VAR, did not feel it was worthy of a closer look. Attwell did take a considered review of a Silva clip on Rashford inside the penalty area shortly after, though decided against awarding a penalty.
Just after Rashford missed his one-on-one, television cameras caught Solskjaer turning to new signing Edinson Cavani and explaining how he wants his strikers to move and exploit space. It was no surprise, then, when Cavani was introduced for his United debut shortly before the hour mark. The Uruguayan had obviously been listening to his new manager. Cavani almost made an immediate impact, meeting a low Bruno Fernandes cross at the near post and flicking into Mendy’s side netting.
But an injury-prone 33-year-old striker making his first appearance at any level since March was unlikely to solve United’s biggest problem: creating meaningful chances without having to rely on counter-attacks. The lack of invention in United’s ranks is startling when neither Fernandes or Pogba – introduced from the substitutes’ bench for the third game running – are not at their best.
From Solskjaer’s perspective, at least Lampard’s plan wasn’t working either. At Wembley, they had successfully ceded possession to United, allowed them to make their own mistakes and then capitalised on those errors. Here, they saw the majority of the ball but struggled for the attacking verve that signings like Timo Werner and Kai Havertz were supposed to provide. Both were hooked by Lampard as the contest entered its closing stages, with Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount brought on in their place.
They, much like United’s substitutes, failed to turn the game around. By the final whistle, the only player to emerge with much credit was Mendy, who recovered well after his early misstep. Chelsea’s new No 1 was particularly impressive when called into action at the start of stoppage time, turning Rashford’s goal-bound strike from the edge of the area around his post. Both the attempt and the save were rare moments of quality in a sea of mediocrity and came far too late.
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