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11th Aug 2019

Manchester United blow Chelsea out of the water as both search for new identity

Kyle Picknell

Manchester United and Chelsea are two teams still coming to grips with new identities

What is clear, though, is that being able to break the world transfer records for a centre back and full back definitely speeds up the acclimatising process.

Chelsea started brightly in Frank Lampard’s first Premier League game as a manager away at Old Trafford. He was bold, if a little ill-advised in his team selection, choosing to trust Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, two players who starred in the Championship last season, from the start, a decision that almost paid immediate dividends as Abraham smacked the post with a whistling drive from the edge of the box early on.

Unfortunately, beyond that, both struggled to leave a lasting imprint on the game. As did Chelsea, truth be told. Ross Barkley was lively but only ever in his typically haphazard way and Pedro pressed as willingly as he always does. It didn’t amount to much though, with Chelsea’s best chance of the game coming from a hopeful cross into the box that found its way to Emerson at the far-post, who could only fire, again, into the woodwork.

Once Manchester United took the lead on 18 minutes after a clumsy challenge by Kurt Zouma on Marcus Rashford, who converted the resulting penalty just about as confidently as anyone can do anything in this all-consuming Brexit uncertainty age, the Blues never really looked like asserting their will on the game.

Whilst Chelsea passed neatly without any real threat or purpose, United kept their shape, remained solid and were utterly spectacular on the counter.

Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, two players who will now forever have world record transfer fees asterisked onto their names whenever they do anything, good or bad, were both superb on their debuts. Wan-Bissaka is a complete menace for opposing forwards. He both moves, and tackles, like an angry tarantula. Maguire, on the other hand, might just be the single sturdiest man on the planet. He’s like if a fine oak dining table could play football. He’s the one footballer you’d want carrying your child out of a burning building.

Interestingly, it appears that Victor Lindelof is the greatest beneficiary of both. It wasn’t surprising to see him put in a composed, meticulous performance at the back with competent defenders alongside him rather than Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Ashley Young.

With what now looks like the makings of a tidy base, aided, of course, by David De Gea in goal and Scott McTominay’s crisp, unfussy work in front of the back four, it could be that United’s new identity is one that, rather than attempting to dominate possession, even at Old Trafford, will consist of defending deep and then slick counterpunching.

In this new mould, it was certainly a promising start to the season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men, given the hot-knife ease with which they tore through Chelsea on the break in the second half. Frank Lampard, meanwhile, will be extremely concerned by how straightforward the goals were. David Luiz’s absence may or may not have been felt but Antonio Rüdiger’s certainly was. N’Golo Kante’s, too.

United’s second goal came after a long, patient passage of buildup play by Chelsea, orchestrated by Jorginho down the left before the ball was played into Abraham’s feet on the edge of the box. He controlled it neatly but was then thoroughly outmuscled by Maguire. As Abraham complained of a foul the referee Anthony Taylor waved play on and United broke at speed through Rashford and Lingard. Andreas Pereira, ably supporting the attack, then crossed to the far post for Martial to get in ahead of Azpilicueta and divert into the net.

Abraham was immediately withdrawn for Olivier Giroud but if Lampard was already exasperated at that point, it soon got worse, as Paul Pogba unlocked the Chelsea defence with a gorgeous through ball over the top for Rashford to race onto and finish. Daniel James, the least expensive of United’s three summer acquisitions, earned himself a debut goal at the Stretford End, applying a rather fortuitous finish to a rampaging move started by Pogba deep inside his own half.

In each instance, Chelsea’s players were caught out of position too high up the pitch, leaving an ocean of space for Solskjaer’s pacy forward line to rumble into. It’s hard to tell whether the defending was that bad or the movement and precision of the attacks that good, but it’s clear that of the two teams, United were the more organised, disciplined and better drilled. Counter-intuitively, that also made them the more entertaining to watch, too. The final scoreline, 4-0, is probably a touch flattering, but that’s just how it goes. Welcome to the Premier League, Frank.

With both clubs in transition phases and attempting to build something sustainable around a younger, British core, it wasn’t really a fair fight given the big money signings one side has made and the fact that the other couldn’t sign anyone, along with losing their best player to Real Madrid. Any contrast was made starker because of that.

Even so, and despite their two bitter rivals, Manchester City and Liverpool, seemingly operating on a different plane to every other team in the league, Manchester United will be encouraged by this start to the campaign. There’s a hungry, ambitious young team here. That identity must hold now if they are to return to former glories.