Reporting from Stamford Bridge
As far as Premier League classics go, not many come close to Chelsea versus Manchester United.
A battle steeped in ferocity, silverware and bragging rights between two of the most successful English clubs this century. The magnitude of Sunday’s clash was not lost amid the current circumstances, where both sides were vying for a win at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea could extend their unbeaten run in the Thomas Tuchel era to nine games, returning to the top four after a short-lived hiatus. Meanwhile, Manchester United were looking to make it 20 away games unbeaten in the Premier League, equalling their opponents’ record set 13 years ago. Whether it was making ground in the top four race or maintaining a title charge, all eyes were on west London.
If we have come to expect anything from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s United, it is their quiet record against the big six sides. A low block approach has resulted in many goalless draws this season, and unsurprisingly, the first half followed that trend.
It was a cagey affair in the opening 45 minutes, summed up by misplaced passes and cheap losses of possession on either side. The Blues took control of the game but had nothing to show for it, leaving talisman Olivier Giroud screaming out in frustration with every missed chance. The Frenchman was in fine form after his marvellous midweek acrobatics, but he was not having the same luck at the Shed End.
While Chelsea were seeing most of the ball, they could not create any meaningful chances to test David de Gea. For a team who have been so efficient and smooth on the ball, they could barely string together a few passes before a pointless ball across the pitch would roll out of play.
Tuchel was visibly frustrated – how could he not be – screaming out in fury, complaining to assistant manager Zsolt Löw and bellowing out to his players. Chelsea’s complacency allowed Manchester United a foot back into the game, but even the visitors could not find a breakthrough in a mundane first half.
Going into the break, United would undoubtedly have been the happier side, yet there was major improvements to be made in both blue red.
Reece James’ introduction represented a fresh breath of air into the game, but it was the visitors who stepped up in the second half. Chelsea found themselves on the back foot time after time, often spared their blushes by the experienced César Azpilicueta. A multitude of chances went begging on either side, with some solid goalkeeping from Édouard Mendy and De Gea keeping it goalless to the end.
Truthfully, the result reflects the battle, underwhelming and neither team willing to show their arms. A fifth goalless draw for United against the big six represents Solskjaer’s conservative big-game tactics, sitting back and rarely going all out for the win. But for Tuchel, whose side had 18 attempts on goal to no avail, it is two points dropped in the race for Champions League football.
There will have to be an inquest into what was missing for Chelsea, but as has so often been the case, the cutting edge was not there. Giroud was not clinical enough when a golden chance arrived at his feet, Ziyech had another poor display with little creativity and there was little on offer from the wing-backs, who found themselves tracking back at speed more often than bombing into the final third.
Chelsea should be disappointed with the result, feeling the Sunday blues in what should have proved to be another victory at the Bridge.
However, they can take some positives from the bigger picture. Nine games and zero defeats under Tuchel, conceding just twice in that splendid run. Not many managers can achieve that run at such short notice, but the German has revolutionised the Blues, injecting the drive, motivation and intensity that had long been missing in west London.
Keeping star man Bruno Fernandes is no easy feat, and despite his poor record against the big six, it serves as a testament to Chelsea’s back three. Even without Thiago Silva, they still looked comfortable and composed in defence, neutralising any threat the Red Devils had to offer.
From five defeats in eight league games to not losing a single outing since, there is clear progress on display. Chelsea look like a new and improved version of themselves, and with plenty of time ahead to grow into Tuchel’s preferred mould, the future remains positive at Stamford Bridge.
The tough run continues on Thursday against an out-of-form Liverpool, before the Blues entertain Everton and Atlético Madrid at the Bridge either side of a trip to Leeds United. A win and a draw is an acceptable start to that mammoth stretch of fixtures, not to mention consecutive clean sheets without their best centre-back.
It will not be a classic that lives long in the memory, a second goalless draw between Chelsea and Manchester United. But improvements are being made, the cracks are being paved over and the Blues are starting to look like that vintage Chelsea of yesteryear again.
The Thomas Tuchel reign continues.
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