Manchester United showed killer instinct and tactical excellence in a 2-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, blowing the race for Champions League football wide open.
Anthony Martial scored an unlikely worldie to open the deadlock minutes before the half-time whistle, after which Bruno Fernandes earned his first assist for the club and sealed the win with a superb corner flag delivery that Harry Maguire turned home emphatically.
While United remain outsiders in the Premier League’s Top 10, more performances in the nature of today’s would lead to more positive takeaways and more progress towards a side that can compete in Europe’s most coveted competition next season.
Bruno Fernandes is a spectacular signing
In his first match not played against Nuno’s defensively strangling Wolves, and his first match in front of two proper central midfielders in Nemanja Matic and Fred, Bruno Fernandes showed every ounce of the quality that brought him to Old Trafford, and in a big away game.
Falling the length of a goalpost short of his first goal for the club, Fernandes made up for his narrow miss with a sumptuous delivery that allowed Harry Maguire to score his first Premier League goal for United, effectively sealing the match.
Fernandes’ ability on the ball, decision-making in the final third, understanding of when to drop deep to receive the ball, and potency from set-pieces, solved problems that United have had time after time in Paul Pogba’s absence.
The Portuguese international’s arrival ends United’s overreliance on the either perennially injured or frustratingly disinterested Frenchman, as well as the dire Andreas Pereira and Jesse Lingard.
More than that, though, what makes Fernandes’ arrival so timely is that he achieves exactly what Solskjaer wants from his attacking fulcrum, by offering the pressing and work-rate of Andreas Pereira and the footballing ability that Juan Mata boasted in his prime.
The modern midfielder draws comparisons to some of the league’s best midfielders, fits Solskjaer’s system well, and creates plenty of potential direction for the manager. He could play alongside Pogba or another signed playmaker, and in front of a destroyer, or continue to forge a partnership with Fred as the two players mask each other’s weaknesses and constantly threaten the opposition.
The difference in United’s midfield play with just one elite passer is staggering — imagine what could be if another is added to the setup, regardless of whom that may be.
Martial can be United’s starting striker
The imperfection of Anthony Martial’s performance tonight was evident, as it invited the same skepticism that he has faced in recent weeks. Criticism of his work-rate is as lazy as he is claimed to be, but the notion that Martial too often fails to make movements into the box is very valid.
Today, Martial’s stunning headed goal gave glimpses of a classic striker, and he fitted it in with some of the delicate runs and quick strides that define him as a player. He has the whole toolbox of an elite striker in his locker but needs to fully assemble the kit. He also needs the consistent service that any club striving for Champions League football should be able to provide.
Despite some of these weaknesses in his game, and a two-month injury earlier in the campaign, Martial still has 13 goals this season, the same amount as Marcus Rashford if penalties aren’t counted. He needs to kick on and get to 20 to really make a statement to the fans that have known of his immense quality and chanted his name for years.
Defensive display reflects squad improvements overall
Proponents of Manchester United’s defensive woes this season would have taken a step back today and simply admired the defensive performance from Solskjaer’s side tonight. United played on the winning side of the VAR-sized margins and earned their victory through discipline that resonated through every defender on the pitch tonight.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka once again demonstrated his growing ability in attacking areas, benefitting from the presence of an actual body in the box to bury his timely delivery. Harry Maguire was imperious, sealing the game for United in attack and captaining the defence to another clean sheet with another solid display.
Signing Wan-Bissaka and Maguire, and clearing out players like Young and Chris Smalling, has improved United’s defence immensely, regardless of the form that the latter two may be showing in Serie A. Having two consistent, fit defenders allows Solskjaer to build the rest of his back line around them.
The result has been clear in terms of other squad players; Brandon Williams, his tenacious self, was a constant threat in attack and showed excellent awareness of the runs Luke Shaw was making, while Luke Shaw has been much better in a back three than he was earlier this season at left-back, whether due to personal strides or a position change.
Should Shaw be able to translate this form to left-back, Solskjaer will no longer need a replacement, or Shaw could continue to offer an option in the centre of defence and vindicate the sales of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo, both of whom seem to have no future at the club.
Eric Bailly’s commanding performance was a result of the organization around him, and will give Victor Lindelof much-needed competition and rest. Bailly will now have to keep it up in order to fend off competition from Lindelof and the rising Axel Tuanzebe.
Having multiple quality options in every position maintains healthy competition, allows players to rest and maintain their best form, and ensures that United do not drop off in major competitions when inevitable injuries hit.
The same level of depth and quality needs to be added in midfield and attack this summer.
Ighalo adds another dimension to United attack
Ighalo played five minutes of the match against Chelsea and missed a glorious chance to score a euphoric debut goal. However, his brief spells of hold-up play added a dimension to United’s attack that didn’t exist with Martial playing up front and hasn’t since Zlatan Ibrahimovic was at the club.
The Nigerian striker’s ability to hold up the ball gives credence to the inefficiencies of the attacking unit that started this season. The likes of Rashford, James, Martial and Mason Greenwood are all excellent prospects, but too similar to cause significant and consistent problems.
Every elite side in football has multiple different types of attacking threats, and the same should apply to United in the long-term. All should be built upon the tactical principles of the side, which requires pace, power and intelligent running, but have slight variations.
Were United trailing and struggling to score in the match, Ighalo’s introduction would change the dimensions of attack much more than Mason Greenwood would have. It is beneficial to have a high-quality replacement for existing players to inject fresh energy and cover for injuries, but also to have another option entirely, should the tactics fail to pan out on the pitch.
With Ighalo and Greenwood on United’s bench, United look much more threatening, regardless of quality. United need to follow-up and add a striker, as well as another wide player, to enhance these improvements this summer.
Solskjaer deserves more time
Perhaps Solskjaer’s tenure will not continue into next season, but he proved once again today that he deserves the chance to finish this one. This season has been difficult on the pitch for United, but has also moved the club’s playing staff in a clear direction for the future, and could be pivotal in the long-term.
That kind of progress is in no small part due to Solskjaer, and while his side has fallen short on the pitch at times, they remain in a fight for a Champions League place that they have no business being in.
Should Solskjaer achieve qualification, he must be given the opportunity to continue building the side; the club should outlay £200 million for him to remove and add four more players to his young squad, and he should move into next season with no excuses for not qualifying for the Champions League.
24 hours ago, this would have seemed out of proportion, but today’s unlikely win at Stamford Bridge blows the race into the open.