A promising first-half performance against Chelsea from Solskjær’s team was undone by another self-inflicted mistake
This was not the result Ole Gunnar Solskjær was looking for. The Manchester United manager admitted beforehand that only a win would be good enough, though with Chelsea doing most of the attacking at the end he must have been pleased to avoid a third defeat in eight days.
United would not have deserved that, even if once again their game over 90 minutes failed to live up to the promise of the first half hour, but for Solskjær this was a particularly cruel demonstration of how many ways his dream job has of turning sour.
For all but the last two minutes of the first half United did everything right, they took the game to Chelsea, established an early lead, and looked in control until a mistake from the suddenly error-prone David de Gea gifted the visitors an equaliser.
There will be inquests into the number of points and games the goalkeeper has cost United of late, and debates about whether he should be given a rest to restore his concentration and confidence, though the bottom line is that Solskjær’s players’ own confidence is not that high and it was unable to survive such a self-inflicted setback. United withdrew into their shell once Chelsea were level, whereas before Marcos Alonso’s goal they had been playing with style and not a little swagger.
That was exactly what earned Solskjær his permanent appointment, and the way United played in the first half belied any suggestion of disunity or unhappiness in the camp.
There is clearly a lot of work still to do in making the side more robust, teams with Champions League ambitions should not become deflated by a single goal with 45 minutes still to play, though at the end of a stressful week Solskjær and his players produced easily their best performance since the manager’s position was confirmed. Romelu Lukaku has been in and out of the side recently but in the first half here he was so convincing it appeared United had turned up with a secret weapon.
Actually Lukaku is not all that secret. There’s 6ft 3in of him for a start, at an initial £75m he is the most expensive Belgian in history, and a long time ago he used to play for Chelsea. He has just been hiding his light under a bushel a little bit this season, to the extent that Solskjær has been leaving him out of his team and sending him on as a battering ram late in games when United have been losing.
He will not be used as sparingly if he can reproduce this form. Operating slightly deeper and wider than usual with Marcus Rashford playing furthest forward, Lukaku showed a hitherto unsuspected touch and vision in areas of the pitch other than the penalty area.
He could have been on the scoresheet after five minutes when he made the right run to get on the end of an inspired Luke Shaw pass, though momentary indecision allowed Kepa Arrizabalaga to scramble the ball away. Undeterred, it was Lukaku’s lofted pass to Shaw six minutes later that not only returned the favour but brought the first goal. Kepa stranded himself in dealing with Shaw, allowing Juan Mata to pick up the loose ball and find an unguarded net.
It was Lukaku who bundled César Azpilicueta off the pitch after half an hour, sending the Chelsea captain down the dangerous slope that surrounds the Old Trafford pitch and into a tangle with United’s club photographer, and it was also Lukaku who stood up and then beat Mateo Kovacic just before the interval to send in a cross from the left wing. There were even sightings of the rarely spotted Lukaku stepover before De Gea’s error changed the nature of the game.
Until that point Chelsea attacks had simply amounted to Eden Hazard attempting to dribble into dangerous positions from too far out, or Gonzalo Higuaín trying with complete lack of success to stay onside.
When Antonio Rüdiger lined up his ambitious shot just before the interval there were groans at the lack of imagination, but De Gea’s inability to hold it simultaneously put the United revival on hold. Solskjær will probably be haunted by the moment all summer.
He does seem to have the ability to regroup and rebuild after all, yet it is a thankless task when his own players are the ones offering opponents a lifeline.