It ends honours even. ⏱
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) November 28, 2021
A penalty from Jorginho spared his and Chelsea’s blushes as the Blues drew 1-1 with a reinvigorated and conservative Manchester United side.
All eyes were on caretaker manager Michael Carrick who took charge of United in their first league match since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure. The former Champions League winner came to Stamford Bridge under the lens of curiosity and in some circles defeatism, facing an in-form team trumpeted to be serious title contenders.
After withstanding the home attack for 50 minutes, United’s Jadon Sancho pick-pocketed Jorginho on the halfway line to open the scoring. However, the EURO 2020 winner redeemed himself and slotted a penalty on 69 minutes to split the points.
For United, four changes were made to the team which snatched victory at Villarreal midweek. Bruno Fernandes was picked over Cristiano Ronaldo up front, taking on a false nine role, whilst Marcus Rashford replaced Anthony Martial on the left flank.
The Red Devils kept their three-man central midfield but Nemanja Matic replaced Donny van de Beek, a road sign for the conservative route United would follow. Skipper Harry Maguire’s suspension saw Eric Bailly in his place, as the visitors shaped up in a relatively flat, narrow 4-3-3.
Much talk has and will be made of United’s pressing in the early stages of each half. The narrow attacking trident of Rashford-Fernandes-Sancho moved with earnest among the channels between Chelsea’s centre-halves, looking to disrupt their passing game.
But once the ball was beyond the front three, the press evaporated, prompting the middle three of Fred-Matic-McTominay to drop back and shield. This is a Chelsea side which likes to get wide – in response Carrick constricted his team, shrinking the defenders down to their own 18 yard box rather than spreading wide.
There was safety in numbers as the red wall held back wave after wave of blue attack, scraping the ball away only to reset for another assault. Perhaps this was for the best: Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles looked too languid on or near the ball, not savvy enough to the Chelsea press.
While Fred and McTominay’s offensive enthusiasm might help their cause when Mr Rangnick arrives, they offered slim creative pickings in midfield. Most of United’s free kicks were passed back rather than forward, and there no real width or tip to their attacking trident.
However, the Blues failed to capitalise as they engulfed possession. Antonio Rudiger’s barreling runs put United’s combined attacking efforts to shame, and his thunderous strike rattled the bar. Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi were freely swapping on the left flank, and David de Gea pulled off a good save to deny the latter early on, but the free-scoring Blues had no end product.
Once again, United’s front three eagerly pressed for the first few minutes until the hosts slipped beyond it to attack.
It was more of the same, until suddenly the bottom fell out of Chelsea’s assuredness. After summoning nine outfielders to the United box for a free kick, the Blues had only Jorginho back to collect Fernandes’ clearance. He failed to trap it and suddenly Sancho and Rashford were upon him. The Italian international watched helplessly as Sancho gobbled up the loose ball, charged forward and coolly slotted past Edouard Mendy. The hosts were stunned. United’s front press had worked and they had now scored the type of goal they would likely be conceding just weeks before. After spending the first half playing like they were defending a 1-0 lead, the visitors now had that 1-0 lead to cherish.
What a way to get your first #PL goal! 🤩
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) November 28, 2021
Their burden greater, Chelsea plugged away, but still their incision was lacking. Tuchel has inherited a team packed with physical players, something he uses to their advantage. The Blues are notoriously good from set pieces, even if it had been the Achilles’ heel for the opener, and they repeatedly bullied the ball into the box only for someone in a red shirt to shunt it away at the final yard.
Meanwhile, the tricky Hakim Ziyech moved to the inside, trying to support the misfiring Werner and Hudson-Odoi.
United were hanging on, and it looked as if the game plan was working. On the hour, the clearly tired Sancho was replaced by Ronaldo and, suddenly, the spell started to wear off.
Much speculation surrounds Ronaldo’s arrival, his perceived impact on Solskjaer’s tactical preparations and his commanding influence in the dressing room. In recent weeks, the GOAT has become the scapegoat, chastised by his fans for not pressing as intensely as his younger counterparts.
Those of that belief may have felt vindicated watching Ronaldo appear on Sunday. While Fernandes and Rashford, later Jesse Lingard and van de Beek, freely swapped and charged at defenders, Ronaldo seemed anchored to the left and offered little. His role under Rangnick remains to be seen, and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner may suffer more time on the sidelines if he doesn’t play ball.
Meanwhile, Chelsea kept up their efforts and their opportunity came on 66 minutes as Wan-Bissaka crassly kicked at Thiago Silva’s heels inside the box, the Chelsea man tumbling over right in front of referee Anthony Taylor. From 12 yards, Jorginho sent David De Gea the wrong way to equalise.
With less than 15 minutes to go, Tuchel was finally inspired to make some changes, but it was too little too late. Alonso and Hudson-Odoi left the pitch for Pulisic and Mount, the two taking wide positions behind the central striker. Ziyech’s splitting pass to Werner left the United defence at sixes and sevens, but the German’s wild strike found the legs of Mount rather than the net. He was replaced by an unfit Lukaku with eight minutes left.
Despite managing two-third of possession, and 24 shots to United’s three, the Blues had failed to find a winner.
If the explanation behind this result was sought with a weighing scale, with ‘a good United display’ and ‘a poor Chelsea display’ on either side, it would tip toward the Blues.
Tuchel’s frustrations were plain to see and despite missing some heavy hitters, the German will be disappointed by the lack of innovation his side showed to trample United’s lines.
As Carrick is only the interim’s interim, United fans should not take much from this result, but they most likely will. From the ecstasy of seeing a much-lauded Sancho find form and the new merits of the press, to the misery of watching Ronaldo amble around and Fred botch the winner, there is something perhaps to take from this result.