Football sometimes doesn’t make much sense. For most of the first hour at Old Trafford, Chelsea outplayed Manchester United. It passed the ball slickly and played with great pace and invention. United creaked. Its midfield struggled to cope and its defense was exposed as a result. And yet United won 4-0. And so Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first full season as United coach got off to a morale-boostingly emphatic start and Frank Lampard, in his first game as Chelsea coach, was taught a lesson in just how brutal management can be.
United deserves credit for its ruthlessness on the break, for the way Andreas Pereira and Paul Pogba picked out brilliant passes to set up the two second half goals, for the incisiveness of Marcus Rashford in particular, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, but this was an extremely fortuitous victory.
For Chelsea the story was of the pattern of preseason continuing. Going forward, it was bright and slick. Tammy Abraham hit the post with a neat turn and shot after four minutes, but there were perhaps times when he seemed a little lightweight, and there was plenty of promise from Mason Mount. But at the back it looked dreadfully vulnerable, Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic are both players better on the ball than winning it back and the result was that although Chelsea kept pounding on the United door, the home side looked dangerous with every break.
It was one such counter that brought United’s opener as Kurt Zouma was left exposed against the pace pf Marcus Rashford and clumsily brought him down just inside the box. Rashford’s subsequent penalty was near enough unsavable.
United also struggled at the back of midfield. The pairing of Pogba and Scott McTominay is a curious one, a combination of United’s second most expensive signing and the play Jose Mourinho promoted to try to make a point about his lack of discipline. But Pogba remains an issue, a wonderfully gifted player who is neither an attacking midfielder nor a holding midfielder but somehow both and, increasingly, neither. His desire to leave is clear and it still wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if United opted to cash in on him before the European transfer widow closes at the end of the month.
In practical terms here, the pair was frequently exposed by the pace of Chelsea’s passing. United, in general, struggled to keep up, its defense dragged this way and that. Five minutes before half time, a typically rapid move led to Emerson Palmeri gathering Jorginho’s cross unmarked at the back post, having time to measure his shot, and then smacking it against the angle of post and bar. David De Gea also made an excellent save from Ross Barkley.
To ask whether Harry Maguire fitted in or began to look worth the $96m United paid for him feels almost beside the point. United was such a shambles generally at the back that it’s almost impossible to assess one unit within it. All that can be said is that Maguire has not yet had the galvanizing effect on United that Virgil van Dijk, his predecessor as the world’s most expensive defender, had on Liverpool. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was the new defender who stood out, giving a display that was simultaneously energetic and composed.
But just as United seemed to be rocking, Maguire had dispossessed Abraham to initiate a counter. Rashford’s long pass was a touch overhit but Lingard gathered and liad the ball back for Pereira whose cross was turned in by Martial. 90 seconds later it was three, Pogba’s ball over the top releasing Rashford for a calm finish. With that the game was done, United sat deep and picked off one more goal on the break, Pogba surging through before teeing up the substitute Dan James to score in his debut.
It feels ludicrous to say it after a 4-0 win, but there was a lot here to trouble United. Although its counter attacking was brilliantly clinical, it will face far cannier sides than this Chelsea. Lampard’s Chelsea, meanwhile, played well enough to have been a couple of goals up at half time but was left looking naively open by United’s counters. The return of N’Golo Kante to the starting line up may help but it won’t take many more performances of such defensive incoherence before very serious questions are asked of Lampard's tactics.