Monday’s meeting between Chelsea and Manchester United will be the perfect encapsulation of this muddy, disordered 2019/20 Premier League season.
The defining themes - aside from the alien outlier of Liverpool’s 22-point lead at the top - have been clumsy attacking football, low technical quality, and an emerging trend of hiring former players or fans as manager.
In the cases of Frank Lampard and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, those first two themes are a direct result of the third.
It is an odd quirk of Lampard and Solskjaer that they are both young and out-dated, both fresh and stale, deploying attacking tactics that lack the sophistication of the elite managers in world football while relying on the sort of improvisation and vague team shape that just doesn’t cut it in 2020.
That’s what you get, perhaps, for rushing to appoint club legends without checking they have the necessary qualifications. It’s a trend being followed around Europe, a consequence of the successes of Pep Guardiola and Zinedine Zidane but also of the very modern thirst for good optics; for populist PR wins in an age of sport as consumer content that can punctuate – or rather distract – from the emerging hegemony as the 1% pull away.
What you also get is tactical consistency, the kind that means everything remains the same – the strengths and the flaws - between the first day of the season and the last. And so it turns out when United beat Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford in August we were handed a cheat book for how both clubs would approach the 2019/20 season. Monday’s game will no doubt follow a very similar pattern. Lampard and Solskjaer never really change.
It was an even contest, the 4-0 scoreline a bizarre anomaly that in retrospect revealed how erratic both clubs would be this season, but United’s win was deserved thanks to rapid counter-attacks that pierced through a soft Chelsea midfield – arguably the defining characteristics of the two clubs ever since. The worrying news for the hosts is that Lampard and Solskjaer have become more deeply entrenched in these respective patterns as the campaign goes on.
And so it’s hard to look beyond this as the defining tactical battle in Monday’s game. United will sit back and happily concede possession, enjoying as they do the opportunity to keep a sturdy defensive shape and await the chance to pounce on the break. Chelsea will merrily dance into the trap, enjoying as they do the opportunity to dominate and look for clever through-balls into the penalty area.
Here’s the problem for the hosts: Chelsea’s attacking rhythms have ground to a halt of late (one goal from open play in their last three leagues matches) while they remain startlingly vulnerable in the transitions from attack to defence.
Lampard does not set up his team to screen their own possession football, meaning Chelsea repeatedly fan out in search of space with the naivety of school children on the playground; N’Golo Kante continues to venture forward, leaving Jorginho all alone to cope once Chelsea’s disorganised, individualistic gegenpress is outmanoeuvred. It’s Klopp or Guardiola but without the excruciating positional detail.
United have the tools to make the most of this flaw, especially now Bruno Fernandes is there to sew the lines together. His ghosting movement between the opposition defence and midfield makes him a menacing attacking presence in the number ten space – and leaves Jorginho all the more exposed. More importantly, Fernandes is superb at spraying long passes out wide to switch the play, and so when United are presented with a counter-attacking opportunity he can feed Anthony Martial, Daniel James, and Mason Greenwood into the gaps behind Chelsea’s marauding full-backs.
Lampard’s lack of Klopp-level detail is just as much a problem going forward. His attackers are seemingly instructed to improvise, as opposed to the automations – set moves etched into muscle memory – that underpin the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City.
That’s fine for short bursts of form, but complex moves are needed to stretch and expose a deep-lying defensive blockade like United's, plus inevitably improvisations become less successful when confidence wanes. When self-esteem is low, fatigue and hesitancy affect imagination just as much as the body.
United, then, should hold firm for the most part, although a developing partnership between Callum Hudson-Odoi and Reece James on the right does give Chelsea fans some cause for optimism. As creativity dwindles at Stamford Bridge, unsurprisingly their relationship is built on simplicity of dribbles and angles; run at the defender, wait for the overlap. It is working, mind, and Luke Shaw seems particularly susceptible to being caught ball-watching or being dragged infield by a tricky winger.
James, on the overlap, is producing superb crosses – only for Tammy Abraham (two goals in nine games) to miss the target. This is the perfect time, then, for Lampard to bring Olivier Giroud back into the team, not only to get on the end of those crosses but for his superb lay-offs that should help Mason Mount re-emerge.
But he probably won’t play. Lampard – like Solskjaer - isn’t really one for surprises, or for tactical changes of any kind. Monday’s game should be pretty similar to the 4-0 at Old Trafford, in tone if not in scoreline. Then again, given Chelsea’s transition problems are as bad as ever while their attacking threat has diminished… well, another 4-0 isn’t impossible.
In this messy and anarchic season – one in which Chelsea and Manchester United have contributed more than their fair share – truly, anything could happen.