In an exciting night of football, Manchester United beat Chelsea 0-2 at Stamford Bridge.
The win was United’s first at Stamford Bridge since 2012 and it sends them through to their fifth successive FA Cup quarter-final. What did we learn?
1. United’s Plan P
Manchester United’s whole gameplan under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer relied on the electrifying pace of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard in attack.
Yes, the diamond shape was key, but it was the pacy skill-sets of these talented young players that made the difference, which is why The Red Devils were so moist against PSG in the second half (when both were forced off with injuries at half-time).
So how would United rebound from that defeat without them? What was their Plan B going to be? Well, as it turns out, it was Plan P. P for Pogba.
Juan Mata played as the 10 and was happy to stay central and drop deeper to facilitate interplay; this allowed Pogba to move further forward with greater purpose when United had possession.
We saw this for the first goal, where Mata played Pogba in down the left channel and the Frenchman, playing essentially as a winger at this point, was comfortable busting out the tricks to create space and whip in a devastatingly accurate cross for Ander Herrera.
And on the second goal it was Pogba who initially fed Rashford through before storming forward into the box to thump home a heavyweight header.
2. Kepa issues overstated
There were a lot of jokes about Kepa Arrizabalaga after Manchester United’s goals at the end of the first-half. It wasn’t that he made a catastrophic error or anything, but both times you felt that a truly world-class goalkeeper may have contended for them better.
Of course, this led plenty of people to label him a “dodgy kepa” and other such puns on his name. Sure, maybe if you spend a world-record fee on a goalkeeper fans may be entitled to expect more; but recall that Kepa is young for a goalie and playing in a new country and new league for a tactically demanding coach.
Kepa is a fine stopper who didn’t have the best of days but will be fine with time. The Chelsea fans just need to show some patience with their new No.1 – after all, David de Gea started his life in England in disastrously bad form and he turned out alright, eh?
3. Herrera shows The Ole Effect
Herrera vs. Chelsea has tended to go one way of late: Herrera man-marks Eden Hazard by following him around the field and kicking him a bunch. Sometimes it’s very effective, sometimes it’s not, but it reduces a player of genuine artistic talent into a mean-spirited hatchet man.
Now, Herrera absolutely is a hatchet man, he’s just not mean-spirited. He’s very much a company man, he’ll do whatever his manager tells him. Which is why his all-round performance at Stamford Bridge tonight was so emblematic of the changes Solskjaer has brought to Manchester United. He did what he was told and what he was told was: attack.
Herrera defended diligently against Chelsea, repeatedly filling in for his full-back where required and preventing Hazard from getting too many 1v1’s.
He snapped and bit into tackles, made key interceptions and clearances, all ensuring Chelsea never had any peace in midfield. But he also allied this attitude with a genuine focus on attacking play. His head was always up, moving the ball forward.
And of course, Herrera ran forward himself, under instruction from Solskjaer, much as he did for United’s first goal where he streaked through the middle into the striker’s position, deftly heading United into the lead.
This would never have happened under Jose Mourinho, it felt like something uniquely Solskjaer. And Herrera’s comments post-match were so commanding and exactly what you’d want to hear from a club captain (not that he is captain, though he very much should be).
4. Predictable Sarrismo
Chelsea dominated the ball against Manchester United, and whilst one couldn’t say that they played poorly they also definitely did not play well.
There was an overall lack of ideas, despite an impressive performance from Hazard – and even Gonzalo Higuain – they didn’t really threaten United. The Sarrismo passing rhythms and routes weren’t as crisp or incisive as they needed to be. Everything was so obvious and predictable.
Worse still was exactly the ease and consistency with which Chelsea fans on social media were able to “call” the substitutions Sarri was going to make before he made them. Willian for Pedro, Ross Barkley for Mateo Kovacic. The only issue was which change would be made first.
Just about the only unpredictable move he made was to use his third substitution to take team captain, fan favourite and club cult hero César Azpilicueta off for Davide Zappacosta. The move was a strange one and it was greeted with boos from the Bridge, which just about sums up the way things are going for Sarri right now.
5. Rocket Rashford is Red Devil’s release valve
Rashford is pretty damn fast, this is something that has been known for a long time now. PSG knew it too, which is why they set up to stop the Englishman by playing deep and cutting off his supply.
Chelsea’s proactive approach and the high-line imposed by Sarrismo gave Rashford the spaces he needs and he delivered a huge performance.
No goal, sure, but plenty of excellent vertical play stretching the pitch and making sure that the Blues were constantly aware of the United counter-attack.
This in turn prevented the Blues from going fully gung-ho as they knew Rashford would burn them in behind. He did this repeatedly in the game, constantly using his pace to terrorise Chelsea on the break and relieve the pressure on his team-mates, but no better than for United’s second goal.
Sent in down the right by Pogba, Rashford got to the ball early but paused, waiting for his team-mates to run forward before bending a beautiful Beckham-esque cross into the perfect spot for Pogba to rise and head home.
Rashford is now in such spectacular form that he can heavily influence games without scoring goals or even acting as his side’s main goal threat.