Rewind six months. Manchester United recorded their biggest win over Chelsea at Old Trafford since 1965. Frank Lampard suffered the heaviest defeat of any Blues manager in his opening game since Danny Blanchflower’s 7-2 thrashing by Middlesbrough in 1978. From two historic lows, Lampard has laid some foundations. The most auspicious start to a season for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has resembled a false dawn.
Six months on from that 4-0 victory, the rematch takes place in a different landscape. Solskjaer has won the battles, also eliminating Chelsea from the League Cup, but Lampard is winning the war. Chelsea’s hold on fourth place may be precarious but at least they have spent much of the season there, even before fifth place brings the potential of Champions League football. United, six points and five places behind them, are playing catch-up, presumably using counter-attacking tactics.
Go back to August and it was not only the scoreline that was deceptive in a game that Solskjaer admitted United were lucky to be leading at half-time. Paul Pogba unlocked the Chelsea defence for two goals, but they remain his only assists this season, and he has only featured twice since September.
Daniel James scored on a glorious debut, but he has no goal since August. Marcus Rashford’s opening-day brace was at least a sign of things to come but a 19-goal striker is now injured after being overused. United’s panic-driven search for a replacement led them to loan Odion Ighalo, but he was banned from their Carrington training ground because of fears about the Coronavirus, even if he could debut tonight. Only at Old Trafford.
Meanwhile, Chelsea turned a transfer ban to their advantage by giving opportunities to the kind of youngsters they often ignored, with Lampard setting the tone and getting criticised by Jose Mourinho for selecting Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham at Old Trafford. They then campaigned to get their ban overturned, only not to sign anyone in January and instead clinch the arrival of Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech last week, delaying his debut until next season. Only at Stamford Bridge, perhaps.
Who is Hakim Ziyech?
Solskjaer and Lampard amount to experiments, trials in a style of manager and in a faith in youth. Each is entitled to cite successes from their willingness to trust the emerging, often at the expense of the more experienced. Yet in a contest of managers with little experience at this level, Lampard has looked the quicker learner.
He left Old Trafford in August saying lessons needed to be heeded; some have, but he stated this week he needed “10-15 percent” more from his charges, challenging the young players to produce it. He has shown an impatience with them of late, frustrated at a level of profligacy that has meant they have only taken two points from the last three games and a capacity to concede that meant Kepa Arrizabalaga was dropped for the 2-2 draw against Leicester. He may be recalled tonight; either way, it could prove a season-defining decision.
Further forward, Chelsea have lacked the ruthlessness Lampard himself displayed in his career. Compared to United, however, they have had more shots and conceded fewer. They have had more possession and passed the ball with greater accuracy.
By most markers, they have been a better team. Not, admittedly, in such fixtures. While Chelsea’s 54 per cent share of possession at the Etihad Stadium was then a record against a Pep Guardiola team, they lost while United won there twice with rather less of the ball. Solskjaer has victories against the bigger clubs, but too few against the smaller. Lampard has the opposite experience; beating the rest can produce more points than defeating the best.
While he has overcome Ajax, Tottenham and Arsenal on the road, Lampard is still awaiting his first major triumph at Stamford Bridge. His merit can be measured more over a season, by individual progress married with a position few expected and when he has not spent; Solskjaer’s outlay is approaching £200 million (Dh958m) after the arrival of Bruno Fernandes. It is a reason why securing Champions League football would be over achievement for one, underachievement for another. And if it is Chelsea who manage it, it would mark a considerable turnaround from August.