Manchester United vs Chelsea: Masters of chaos and egregious game management

Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino's teams have embraced the chaos this season (Credit: IMAGO/PA Images/Prime Media Images)

Manchester United vs Chelsea: Masters of chaos and egregious game management

Seye Omidiora 12:18 - 05.12.2023

Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino's teams keep contriving to make life difficult for themselves. Is it by design?

In a pre-VAR era, Chelsea may have gone into Wednesday’s Premier League fixture at Manchester United having suffered a similar fate that befell the Red Devils in Istanbul days earlier. 

After video evidence showed Simon Adingra’s cross came off Levi Colwill’s face and not an outstretched arm, referee Craig Pawson reversed his original decision to award Brighton & Hove Albion a late penalty.

It was the difference between Mauricio Pochettino’s men dropping points from a leading position and securing a much-needed result to banish the 4-1 beatdown from the previous gameweek against Newcastle United. It was the difference between the Blues twice blowing two-goal leads to draw 3-3 like the Red Devils had done against Galatasaray in the Champions League

Chelsea held on against Brighton despite a late scare at Stamford Bridge (Credit: IMAGO/Prime Media Images)

Without a doubt, there is a guarantee of even more chaos when both sides face off at Old Trafford on Wednesday.

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Manchester United vs Chelsea

This is a fixture the London side have not won since 2013 if restricted to games at Old Trafford. Extending to encounters at Stamford Bridge, it is striking that the two-time Champions League winners have not claimed maximum points against the Red Devils since Alvaro Morata rose higher than the United defence to connect to Cesar Azpilicueta’s perfect cross in 2017. 

Chelsea did pick up a 1-0 success over the Manchester giants in that season’s FA Cup final in Antonio Conte’s last match as the club’s head coach, and Frank Lampard’s iteration eliminated Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men in the competition’s semi-final in 2020. 

The majority of their games in the last three years have been tied, but Erik ten Hag’s men handed Chelsea a can of whoop-ass on their recent visit in May, inflicting a 4-1 loss on Lampard, who lost 4-0 in his first competitive fixture as the Blues’ head coach in 2019.

Manchester United vs Chelsea
Bruno Fernandes was among the goals in Man Utd's 4-1 defeat of Chelsea in May 2023 (Credit: IMAGO/Colorsport)

Much has changed in the 2023-24 season, with Man Utd’s structural issues affecting performances and results, while Chelsea, despite being more competitive under Pochettino, are only two places better off than they ended the previous campaign.

Ten Hag’s United cannot stave off opponents

Nothing screams incongruous than only four Premier League sides outdoing the Red Devils’ eight Premier League victories after 14 games. The Manchester outfit’s performances have been unconvincing for long periods, but they have embraced winning ugly to retain a competitive position heading into Wednesday night.

Be that as it may, the numbers do not make for good reading. According to Fbref, only four teams — Sheffield United (264), Luton Town (240), Bournemouth (221) and West Ham United (216) — have allowed more shots than Ten Hag’s men (212), underscoring an unwanted penchant for conceding chances to opponents. 

Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag
Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag has been unable to find the right balance for his side (Credit: IMAGO/Colorsport)

Despite three consecutive clean sheets against Fulham, Luton and Everton, the Red Devils conceded 52 shots in the victories. Their most convincing result — 3-0 at Goodison Park — was possibly the least assured performance, with the Toffees attempting 24 shots at the Manchester side’s goal on Merseyside. 

Alejandro Garnacho’s incredible overhead kick was the game’s highlight, even if the away side needed Andre Onana to pull off pivotal saves, Kobbie Mainoo clearing a goal-bound attempt off the goalmouth, and Abdoulaye Doucoure narrowly firing wide from inside the penalty area to preserve their 1-0 advantage. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial netted to make it 3-0. 

While the three consecutive Premier League shutouts masked glaring weaknesses, Ten Hag’s men were not as fortunate in Europe, letting in four in Copenhagen and three in last week’s damaging Galatasaray draw. 

Manchester United
Galatasaray held Man United in a rip-roaring Champions League encounter in Istanbul (Credit: BBC)

Both games demonstrated United’s egregious game management in letting healthy leads slip on multiple occasions. The English giants led 2-0 in Denmark but collapsed after Rashford’s 42nd-minute sending-off to let in two goals before the interlude. They went in front through Bruno Fernandes in minute 69 but conceded twice in the game’s final 10 minutes to lose 4-3. 

Last week’s 3-3 tie in Istanbul was even more head-scratching, as the Red Devils contrived to draw despite leading 2-0 and 3-1. United could not have prepared for Onana’s gaffe and might have won the game in the closing stages, but so could have the defending Turkish champions. For a side that has netted a Champions League-high nine away goals, their inability to manage leads means 11 goals conceded on their travels outdoes everyone else’s.

The challenge facing Ten Hag is a broader upshot of a long-standing inability to control games, a bugbear highlighted by Pulse Sports after a 2-2 Europa League draw with Sevilla in April. The Red Devils head coach’s pre-season remarks to build the best side in transition pointed to even more end-to-end fixtures. 

So far, that approach has left United excessively vulnerable and should give Wednesday’s opponents confidence. However, Pochettino’s Chelsea have recently embraced the chaos.

Pochettino’s Chelsea want chaos. Is it sustainable?

While Chelsea could not dominate games for 90 minutes in the opening months of a mixed start to the season, there was an element of control they exercised in spells. The Blues have eschewed that approach recently, choosing to be disruptors with their intensity without possession.

When it works, Pochettino’s team find themselves playing out draws with Arsenal (2-2) and Manchester City (4-4) or defeating Tottenham Hotspur (4-1). When it is unsuccessful, Chelsea are open and at the risk of letting in four at Newcastle — another side that leans on physicality and intensity. 

You are inclined to excuse the manner of Sunday’s 3-2 win over Brighton for the sole reason that the Seagulls have scored and conceded in 18 consecutive Premier League games. There had been a league-high 51 goals in matches involving Roberto De Zerbi’s men before visiting Stamford Bridge, and five additional goals increased that number to 56. This is what they do.

As for Chelsea, the concession of 14 goals in six league fixtures make up 68% of the team’s 22 goals against this term. Despite showing battling qualities to respond to setbacks against Spurs, City and Newcastle, the worrying lack of control almost saw Ange Postecoglou’s troops make it 2-2 before Chelsea ran away with a flattering 4-1 win, meant they stood little chance of holding on to a 2-1 lead against City and never looked assured in the eventual defeat at St James' Park. 

The inability to hold on to a two-goal advantage against Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal further frustrated a fanbase close to celebrating the club’s first home win over their cross-town rivals since 2018.

Chelsea's flaws point to this young team’s incapacity to produce solid 90-minute performances, a weakness that gives a beleaguered United optimism on Wednesday. However, Pochettino’s men probably think the same about Ten Hag’s troops.

Neither manager wants to play this way. If either or both claim they do, watch closely for visible signs of their noses growing longer.