Manchester United are reaping the benefits of three well-earned points against Big Six side Chelsea in the Premier League’s opening weekend. Coming off a dismal end to the fixtures last campaign, Sunday’s thrashing against a longtime rival only encourages Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men from entertaining talks of a top-four finish, or dare I say even their first domestic title since Sir Alex’s retirement.
While there’s still a considerable amount of work to be done to achieve the latter, the former is certainly feasible thanks to a number of tactics Solskjaer has correctly implemented in just the first contest of the year. At the conclusion of last season, the Norwegian promised significant changes to the playbook, several of which included returning to the fast-paced attack that made United the most feared club in English football back in his playing days.
Solskjaer’s affinity with counter-attacking is no mystery. After all, Romelu Lukaku’s exit from Old Trafford could be primarily attributed to his inability to adapt to that structure. OGS did quip after the Belgian’s departure became official that his ideal “target man” was someone who adhered more to his stylistic blueprint, hence the arrival of Daniel James.
OGS recruited James from Swansea City for a reported £17 million, and Squwaka says the Englishman notched the third-highest fast breaks per 90 minutes (0.25) in the Championship of any athlete in 2018/19 campaign. It didn’t take James long to settle in his new home, as the 21-year-old needed just one shot on goal to find the back of the next in his debut match. Money well spent.
While United fans will be fixated on the second half of Sunday’s game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that Chelsea were far superior than the hosts in the first 45, making the final score somewhat deceiving given how strong the Blues started. It took just the opening five minutes for Frank Lampard’s men to have two shots on goal and 74% of ball possession. By the break, Chelsea had boasted more shots on and off target and completed more passes than United.
Solskjaer quickly regrouped and found a way to weaken his opponent’s formation, and that was by employing the lightning counter-attack fans were promised when he took over in December. Furthermore, the offensive unit made up of James, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial all were encouraged to charge directly toward an inferior defense, recording three more goals as a result, and with Martial firmly staking his claim in control of the number nine shirt.
“That’s where the number nines get the goals,” Solskjaer said in his post-match presser of Martial’s brilliance.
The long-range pass from Pogba will be lauded as one of the most memorable plays of that match. United caught Chelsea in a vulnerable position, as the Blues left way too much space between Pogba’s possession and Rashford’s positioning.
The Englishman turned on the gears to sprint behind the defense, keeping himself in an onside position and controlling a beautifully placed ball from his colleague to sink the afternoon’s third goal. To set up that lovely play, United had to abandon the high pressure technique used in the first 45 minutes and instead stay low on their half of the pitch and tempt Chelsea to position themselves forward. It was a risky gamble, but clearly paid off. Samuel Luckhurst of Manchester Evening News mentioned the Red Devils converted all three of their second half goals within 16 seconds or less after regaining possession from the Blues.
At the risk of sounding like @DAHughes_, the quickness of #mufc's goals were striking:— Samuel Luckhurst (@samuelluckhurst) August 12, 2019
16 seconds between Maguire's challenge and Martial's goal.
Four seconds between Pogba's pass and Rashford's goal.
Nine seconds between Pogba receiving Martial's lay-off and James's goal.
For a squad criticized to be lacking the maturity, depth, and managerial experience in comparison to their top rivals, this system could work to United’s benefit as the season progresses. Even more promising, this is the kind of quality we know Pogba can produce, which makes talks of a move to Spain or Italy all the more anxious.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted Manchester United’s 4-0 result was a stroke of luck, but one thing remains painfully clear: this team worked hard, pressed harder, and were skillfully unstoppable in their pursuit of three points and their first clean sheet since February. Onward and upward to Wolves.