When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over at Manchester United in December a feeling of sentimental rebirth captivated the club. Supporters, who were experiencing a period of cathartic release following the departure of Jose Mourinho, swooned over a style of play that was perceived to be closely aligned with the club’s core values. The United way – whatever that means – was, is back.
In mid-January, the feel-good factor culminated when the Norwegian defeated his chief-rival in a head-to-head audition for the full time position of United’s manager with a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
The credentials of his defeated opponent, Mauricio Pochettino, suddenly wilted in tandem with Solskjaer’s perpetual rise.
But this was to be a false dawn, an illusion of progress that eventually saw a sleepwalking board of decision-makers convert the temporary fix into a permanent solution. Solskjaer was handed arguably the most challenging job in English football on a permanent basis.
And when, just weeks later, Cardiff City walked away from Manchester with a 2-0 victory on the final day of the 2018/19 season, the magnitude of the mistake United had made was seemingly laid bare in front of the Old Trafford faithful.
If that day was harrowing for supporters then the opening day of the 2019/20 campaign was equally enthralling as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing-shaped nightmares made way for authoritative and lethal realities.
Frank Lampard’s new-look Chelsea travelled north and he was served up the kind of bitter treat that hasn’t been presented to him since Marcelo Bielsa delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the British media back in March.
United scored four goals – Marcus Rashford, stepping into Romelu Lukaku’s place at the spearhead of the attack, scored a brace – Aaron Wan-Bissaka was industrious at full-back and endeavoured to make an impact in the final-third, Daniel James scored a debut goal from the bench, Paul Pogba, mercurial as ever, both dazzled and dallied, Scott McTominay operated, at times, like a technician who genuinely belongs at the heart of an elite midfield. Manchester Pirlo, anyone?
The only thing missing was a thumping nut from a certain airborne slab-head.
But amidst the euphoria of such a scintillating opening day result there is a lesson from the Red Devils’ recent history worth remembering: Solskjaer found himself at a similar junction in the early phase of his stint, and one statement victory against a top six rival does not necessarily illustrate the beginning of a positive run of performances and results to match.
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This was a day defined by the frailties of the opponent just as much as it was by the prowess and profligacy of the victor, and the scoreline undoubtedly flattered the hosts even if they did showcase a ruthless edge that is typical of elite level clubs.
Tammy Abraham was unlucky not to open the scoring with a finely hit strike, which rattled the post, in the early stages. Further spaces opened, yet Chelsea failed to capitalise in a frantic first half. Emerson was just inches away from seeing the ball swish into the back of the net as his strike also rattled the woodwork. Pedro probed and penetrated but, crucially, to no avail.
Chelsea were a club operating in a different universe to United during the summer window and that ultimately manifested itself on the scoreboard come full time. Solskjaer’s starting XI was buoyed by new signings Harry Maguire and Wan-Bissaka; Lampard, by contrast introduced a handful of players who starred away from the club on loan last season. It was an experimental strategy that ultimately backfired.
The very naivety and inexperience of Lampard and some of the lesser-seen players – including Kurt Zouma and Mason Mount – cost the visitors at times.
“The team we put out today was clearly competing in the game for long periods, but we made four mistakes and they were clinical in the way they put them away”, said the humbled manager, per Sky Sports.
The claim that Chelsea were competing for long periods is much more than just a blinkered stance of denial: this was a well-rounded conclusion, one accurately depicting the pattern of a result that must be viewed critically by everybody associated with United.
As the curtain was opened on the first weekend of the new season it would be easy for the 20-time Premier League winners to rejoice in the turning of a significant corner, but this was a game of fine margins disguised as a comprehensive victory.
Beating a club of Chelsea’s stature and prestige by such a yawning margin is bound to breed confidence, even arrogance, but the lesson of Solskjaer’s trial period and subsequent slump at the end of last season underlines the acute need for level-headed realism.