At the start of the 2019/20 Premier League season, Manchester United and Chelsea were in similar positions. The two clubs, who for so often have demanded success at all costs, now appeared to have been set much lower expectations of the coming season. Both were going into the new campaign with an ex-player at the helm. Both had tasked their coaches to instil a new atmosphere and breathe a new lease of life into their respective clubs. Both had been widely tipped to promote exciting young talent into the first team. Why then, is there a feeling that Chelsea are in a much better position than United are?
On the opening day of the season, the two teams met. It was a close encounter for the first half an hour or so, but United ended up romping home to an emphatic 4-0 victory. Rashford, Martial and new signing James on the score sheet.
Fast forward 79 days, and the two sides have been on contrasting trajectories. Chelsea have grown into themselves as a side, while Manchester United have looked flat and devoid of ideas. After United’s 2-0 defeat away at West Ham, former captain Roy Keane had his say:
“…lacklustre, no quality, lack of desire, lack of leaders, lack of character.”
A damning indictment of how the season has gone for Solsjkaer’s team.
Some predicted it may shape up this way due to how heavily they were out-performing their expected goals (xG) when Ole first came.
Joyless, maybe, but this hypothesis has been proved right. So much so that Manchester United are now dramatically under-performing against their xG. While they have looked relatively solid at the back this season, they are struggling to create at the other end.
Chelsea on the other hand seem to have the opposite problem. Their defence has been exposed on several occasions throughout the season, but they are flourishing at the other end of the pitch. Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have been in fine form in front of goal.
Abraham and Mount’s role in the Chelsea team this season points to another key difference between the sides and their fortunes so far this season.
Both managers had expressed their desire to play youth, but Lampard’s hand was forced more due to Chelsea’s transfer ban. Academy graduates Abraham, Mount, Tomori, Hudson-Odoi, Christensen and James have all starred this season, with Loftus-Cheek returning to join the party later this year. These young Chelsea talents clearly all enjoy playing with one another, and their ability is there for all to see.
Manchester United also boast a wide range of young talent – Rashford, Greenwood, McTominay and Tuanzebe to name a few. The key difference appears to be that due to United’s total lack of structure, identity and unity, their young players are being looked at to shoulder all the team’s collective responsibility. Scott McTominay and Marcus Rashford are often singled out for criticism largely because United don’t seem to have the senior players with any capability of doing so.
Chelsea can look to vastly experienced and competent Premier League players in Azpilicueta, Giroud and Willian while relying on high-end talents in Kante, Jorginho and Pedro to help integrate their youngsters and provide a solid base from which they are able to express themselves fully.
United – simply put – cannot. Their youth players instead look around and see their club’s experienced heads, most of which whose best days were in a Chelsea shirt.
And what of the managerial match-up itself: Super Frank vs The Baby-Faced Assassin. Both managers hardly boasted impressive career stats to date. Lampard had previously taken Derby County from 6th to…6th, while Ole had managed to relegate Cardiff and achieve mediocre success in his native Norway. It’s Lampard however who is enjoying his first full season as a manager in the Premier League much more than Solskjaer.
Take Frank Lampard at Chelsea – club legend, record goal scorer – Mr Chelsea. He played under some great managers: Mourinho, Scolari, Ancelotti and Pellegrini. Tactically, he’s been directly exposed to a wide variety of playing styles.
Ole at United did not quite have those credentials but did score one of the biggest goals in the club’s history. He played under one manager: Sir Alex Ferguson.
One of Ferguson’s biggest strengths was his man-management. He believed in taking the game to the opposition, playing without fear and getting the crowd off their seats. Unfortunately for Manchester United, this management style is not easily replicable. 6 years on from his departure and the fans and board are still waiting for the team to play “the United way”.
Lampard hasn’t been tasked with this seemingly elusive task. Instead, he has taken learnings from all the elite managers he has played under. He has trialled a few systems so far, opting for a high pressing style of play. Perhaps the breadth of managerial talent Lampard was exposed to in his career will stand him in better stead than his United counterpart, who was too scared to leave his car in his old boss’ parking spot.
The two teams meet each other this week in the Carabao cup. The game will have a totally different outlook to the season opener, due largely to the atmosphere at each club. Chelsea top their Champions League group, sit 7 points above United in the league and have their young talents on firing form. United looked a little better against Norwich, but the form of their players has left a lot to be desired.
It is important to remember how quickly atmospheres at clubs can change. Football is so largely centred around momentum and fans can be incredibly fickle. Just a few weeks ago there was quiet confidence amongst Arsenal fans that they could stroll to 3rd place in the league. A defeat to Sheffield United and a draw at home to Palace, coupled with their captain getting booed off the field has turned them into this week’s laughing stock. The week before, it was Spurs. Before that? United. Eyebrows were raised at Lampard’s Chelsea at the start of the season.
One thing is for certain – Liverpool and City look leagues ahead of the rest. At this moment in time, Lampard and his bright young team look in pole position to finish as the best of the rest. Let’s wait and see how that ages come the end of the season!