The biggest test for a leaky defence at Old Trafford was the inclement weather. Rain trickled down from the decaying south stand roof that still needs reinforcing but Manchester United’s defence finally recorded a clean sheet.
Ironically, it was against the most expensively assembled frontline that was reluctant to go on the attack. Chelsea had one attempt on target and this goalless game prompted flashbacks of the notorious 0-0 between the sides in 2013.
Chelsea now have two wins in 14 at United in the Premier League and are winless in their last seven. Frank Lampard, once Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s patsy, switched to the defensive trident tactic United beat Chelsea with twice at Stamford Bridge last season and Chelsea got the point they played for.
“Let’s win this,” Solskjaer hollered in the 85th minute. Marcus Rashford very nearly did with a curler but Edouard Mendy, flawed with his feet, was faultless with his hands. Lampard’s substitutions were downgrades or like-for-likes whereas Solskjaer altered the formation and sacrificed Scott McTominay for Mason Greenwood.
He had some making up to do, mind. United’s bench was more menacing than their line-up – the same as last week’s at Newcastle – and Chelsea’s porous defenders were barely bothered in a numbing first-half. All six of United’s outfield substitutes warmed up and the match was so soporific the Video Assistant Referee fell asleep, ignoring possible penalties for Cesar Azpilicueta and Rashford.
Paul Pogba and Edinson Cavani had barely taken their seat for the second-half before they were sent out for more rigorous preparations and both entered before the hour. Cavani brushed the side net’s stanchion with his first instinctive touch and his former Paris Saint-Germain captain Thiago Silva foiled him in the dying embers.
Two wins and a draw still marks a positive response for United after the trouncing by Tottenham 20 days ago. Chelsea’s coyness will make this feel like a missed opportunity – particularly as United could have leapfrogged Manchester City – and it is now five without victory in the Premier League at Old Trafford. United remain 15th – below Newcastle and with a minus goal difference.
Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire is not necessarily the long-term defensive axis for United but they finally plugged the gaps, with the unfortunate Axel Tuanzebe benched. Lindelof has a tendency to reserve his best performances for games against the elite and he has had his best week with United in 18 months.
Reverting to a back four was understandable against a Chelsea defence that sieved three at West Brom and to Southampton, with a pricey attack in its infancy. Some of the personnel choices were dubious. Luke Shaw is more comfortable in a back three than a back four and Daniel James was a poor excuse for a forward. James was predictably hooked for Cavani, perhaps due a full debut against Arsenal next week.
Donny van de Beek, completely unused, remains the only major midfielder yet to have started in the Premier League or Champions League for United and his omissions are not a jolt. The tenacious pairing of McTominay and Fred could not breach N’Golo Kante, holding the fort.
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The nearest United first came to a goal was when Mendy’s attempted pass rolled precariously past his own post for a corner. Soon everyone saw why Chelsea have replaced the calamitous Kepa Arrizablaga with Mendy, though his three saves were all well within his reach.
Chelsea actually enjoyed a period of domination where the United third had 0% activity for 10 minutes, though it was mostly sterile. The absence of supporters accentuated the lashing rain’s din and watching that was more mesmeric than any of the football.
Solskjaer was audibly dissatisfied with United’s left-hand side combination of James and Shaw, the former admonished for not pressing high enough and guilty of dawdling on a counter-attack. James scored past Chelsea on his United debut and procured a penalty at Stamford Bridge through his direct running but was rumbled by Reece James.
Shaw was accused of a lack of alacrity and his covering vexed Solskjaer’s assistant, Kieran McKenna, as well as David de Gea, the memory of Tottenham’s annihilation still burning in their minds. Mata sprung Rashford through but his strike was too central and Solskjaer lamented his failure to find the corner to the nearby Cavani, and Mata drew a more testing stop from the Senegalese.
Solskjaer was proactive with his in-game management in Paris and addressed some of his selection errors. The introductions of Pogba and Cavani – at the expense of James and the unfortunate Mata – signalled a formation tweak to 4-3-3 with Pogba more advanced than he has been accustomed to this year and Rashford shifted to accommodate Cavani at the tip of the arrow. Both forwards had openings to win it.
But the defences reigned in the rain.