It started well enough. For about seventeen minutes Frank Lampard’s Chelsea didn’t just look composed, we were flying. United struggled to get the ball out of their own half, and every Chelsea player within fifteen yards of the penalty area was on their toes, eager to open the scoring. Mount had a shot saved, Pedro curled one over the bar, and Tammy Abraham rifled a shot by De Gea that smacked the post.
Then disaster. We don’t need to dwell on it: Rashford’s darted into the box, Kurt Zouma panic tackled, penalty awarded, penalty converted. Everything changed after that, and though Chelsea found bits of the form we started with, we were now too unnerved to regain it fully.
I’m of two minds about how to feel about the result.
Aside from some variation of “it’s early”, “not everyone’s fit”, or “these things take time”, if I had been told in June that Chelsea would go to Old Trafford with a manager who had one year of experience in the second division, without N’Golo Kanté, and with Ross Barkley, Mason Mount, and Tammy Abraham starting, I would’ve asked how much we lost by. I probably would’ve nodded wearily at any scoreline under 5-0.
“See,” he types through tears, “it could have been worse.”
With the aid of hindsight one could argue that Lampard should have been a bit more pragmatic, both in tactics and team selection. He could’ve throttled the squad back to prioritize more protection in front of the shaky pairing of Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen. He could have selected Olivier Giroud over Abraham, and relied on the veteran’s hold-up play to signal the team forward. He could have also started a true winger, like new signing Christian Pulisic, instead of Ross Barkley; or at least given Barkley his more familiar role by putting Pulisic to his left and saving Mount for a more welcoming environment for his debut.
But the truth is that none of these moves would have been potent enough to change all that went wrong. Apart from miraculously healing all of the N’Golo Kantés before kickoff, every other suggested fix is just pain disguised as analysis.
Part of what made it all hurt so much is that — despite the facts of the situation (inexperienced manager, team full of unprovens, a wobbly back line) — the team had shown enough improvement, and excitement, to convince us to not expect what was always likely. It’s a credit to Lampard and the glimpses of the football he’s already injected into the team that we thought it would be possible we’d be smiling at full-time.
However, my other feeling is that of frustration — the game was there to be had, and a number of performances deserve scrutiny for the scoreline being so lopsided and not in our favor.
Obviously, Kurt Zouma is the one who sticks out for everyone, but it’s worth mentioning just how bad of a game he had. Apart from the penalty he so clumsily gave away, he made many other mistakes — passing to an opponent inside our own penalty area, conceding corners while under no pressure, etc. — that seemed to unnerve the entire team. Everyone’s panic-o-meter began to tilt the moment the ball crossed into our territory. Antonio Rüdiger’s return will help, but until then Zouma is going to have to be much better than he was.
The other culprit was Ross Barkley and/or whoever told him it was no longer preseason. The man who’s made a career out of having potential had only 39 touches (for perspective, Pulisic, who came on around the hour mark, had 23), lost possession five times, made three unsuccessful dribbles out the four he attempted, and often misplaced simple passes. As a result there was very little linking between the midfield and the attack unless Pedro dropped into midfield. Mount tried, but he wasn’t much better at linking play either.
It’s a bit harsh to judge Mason Mount’s debut given how big of an ask it was of a 20-year-old despite his two years of professional experience, but Lampard named him, and there’s enough blame left to give him a thin layer. There was good, like his pressing and movement off the ball, but the bad played into directly into United’s hands. He hesitated in key situations in the box, particularly in that opening stretch when a goal would have set the tone, and he completed just one forward pass to a striker. His passing will undoubtedly do better — not hard to improve upon one (1!) pass — but a marked improvement will be required if he is to start, as shooting from long range won’t be an option as often as it was in the Championship.
All in all it leaves me with mixed feelings. We could, and should, have seen this coming. But the scoreline flatters United, and a couple appalling-for-no-reason performances turned the team into our own worst enemies. It’s 70 per cent frustrating, 30 per cent encouraging that the solution to the majority of the team’s struggles against United would be to simply play better. And while Barkley and Zouma are no one’s De Bruyne or Van Dijk, they also aren’t as awful as their performances suggested on Sunday. Relying on players with such large potential variances, with their performances ranging from decent to alarming, is our reality this season. And that’s a fact we shouldn’t tempt ourselves to forget.
Anyway, who’s ready for Liverpool on Wednesday?