Balance is everything. Just ask Frank Lampard. After watching his Chelsea side concede 42 goals away from home since the start of last season - the most of any Premier League club in that time - there was a clear need before Saturday’s trip to Old Trafford to shore up defensively and build from the back.
It worked. Chelsea can now celebrate two consecutive clean sheets for the first time since March. The problem? The second goalless draw of Lampard’s reign has immediately followed the first and he was asked on Saturday night whether a focus on improving his defence had inadvertently blunted his expensively-assembled attack.
Lampard was reluctant to frame the debate in those terms. “I don't really see it in that way,” he said, confident that Chelsea are close to finding a happy medium. “When we have conceded more goals than we like this season, it is important to try and address those problems and you obviously address them at the back.
“The balance of the team is something that we constantly work on but we got in nice areas around the final third at times,” the Chelsea manager added. “We didn't have the usual little spark that you see, that's normal. I will take positives from the fact we defended very well today.”
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer faced similar questions. Appearing as a pundit in the Sky Sports studio, Patrice Evra had claimed that United lacked ambition against Chelsea. “They played with a safety jacket,” he said. “I'm not about that. I am about entertainment and playing without fear. I’m not surprised Chelsea's best player was Thiago Silva and United's was [Victor] Lindelof.”
Solskjaer conceded that United had somewhat eased themselves into the game but disputed Evra’s wider point. “I think we started a little bit slow the first 20-25 minutes but there was going to be a winner, it was going to be us. We created the biggest chances,” he told his former team-mate. “We've got to remember we're playing against a good team here, so I'm pleased for the players.”
But there were elements of Solskjaer’s selection that were strikingly conservative, most noticeably in midfield. Scott McTominay and Fred were rewarded for their excellent showing in the midweek Champions League win away to Paris Saint-Germain and retained their places. Solskjaer admitted that this was - at least partially - an attempt to prevent the collapse in form which followed United’s last win in Paris nineteen months ago.
“Scott and Fred have done really well this week, they’ve given us a foothold in the games. They are a great combination together,” he said. “We felt after PSG that we needed to have the energy in there with them. Last time after PSG we struggled big time. We lost to Arsenal, went 12 games and probably didn't deserve to win any of the games and we struggled. Today, we got a point on the board against a good team.”
But even though McTominay and Fred are United’s best defensive midfield pairing, were they both necessary against a Chelsea that were expected to set up conservatively? Should team selections be even partly based on a poor sequence of results that happened more than a year-and-a-half ago? Would one of either Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek not have offered a greater balance between ball winning and ball progression?
To be fair to Solskjaer, his decision to drop Pogba from the starting line-up over the last three games is the correct one given the midfielder’s performances prior to the most recent international break. Pogba was playing so poorly then that it appeared as though he had been brought back from his bout with coronavirus too soon. Solskjaer admitted as much on Saturday. “Maybe I was unfair starting him in the few games,” he said.
But the reluctance to use Van de Beek warrants greater explanation. United’s £35m signing from Ajax arrived without a clear space to fill in the starting line-up and two months later, we are no nearer to learning how he will fit in. The 23-year-old was an unused substitute for the first time on Saturday and is still waiting to start a Premier League or Champions League game.
“Nothing against the kid, but why have we bought him?,” Evra asked. “He’s watching the game from the stand every game. We don’t need him, that’s the truth.” Solskjaer simply insists that Van de Beek’s chance will come sooner or later in this most hectic of schedules and that any selection headache is a good one to have. “It's a nice challenge and a decision to make when you've got good players on the bench,” he said. “They can come on and impact the game.”
But Van de Beek did not come on and impact the game, with Pogba and two goalscorers rather than creators - Mason Greenwood and new signing Edinson Cavani - preferred. Fred and McTominay’s solid but unspectacular partnership was the base of United’s midfield until the 83rd minute. Two sides that finished in last season’s top four failed to muster up one full expected goal between them - United’s 0.7 xG to Chelsea’s 0.2 - and two overly-cautious managers failed to find the right balance.