Football Features

It’s not Man Utd’s front three Chelsea should be jealous of right now

By Ben Green

Published: 11:21, 19 July 2020

Manchester United take on Chelsea in a much-anticipated FA Cup semi-final at Wembley on Sunday, and all eyes will be on how Frank Lampard’s beleaguered backline will cope with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s in-form frontline.

There are echoes of Fergie-ball in the Norwegian’s current set-up, with Bruno Fernandes bringing a new dimension to the Man Utd attack since his arrival in January. His creative exploits have enhanced the performances of those around him.

Anthony Martial looks world class in a consistent No. 9 role, Marcus Rashford has shone as an inside forward, Mason Greenwood has Ballon d’Or potential, and Paul Pogba thinks he is once again playing in Turin. Claudio Marchisio? No, believe it or not Pogba, that’s Nemanja Matic.

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Those halcyon days under Fergie no longer seem quite so long ago. According to Chelsea manager, and Sunday’s opponent, United have “probably the most potent front three in the country.”

Frank Lampard added: “In terms of pure numbers anyway, in terms of goals. And obviously Fernandes has made a huge difference coming in in January.”

But, for all the praise heaped on the irresistible attack of this current Man Utd side, they have also improved exponentially at the back, which can often be overlooked when Greenwood is treating Villa Park like a playground match.

The turning point

A 2-0 home win for Liverpool back in January put a magnifying glass on just how big the gulf had become between Jurgen Klopp‘s European champions and Solskjaer’s transitional Red Devils. The Anfield club secured three points courtesy of Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah, and left Solskjaer scratching his head.

Since then, however, Solskjaer’s side have been defensively formidable and kept an incredible 14 clean sheets in 20 game across all competitions. They have kept Manchester City at bay twice, Chelsea fired a blank at Stamford Bridge in February and even Wolves came up short on Fernandes’ debut.

Much of that success can be attributed to the improved form of Matic, who looks rejuvenated in the centre of the pitch, while a more consistent defence, with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof marshalling the backline, has given Solskjaer’s side a greater semblance of understanding and balance.

Of course, Solskjaer is an advocate of progressive, possession-based football, but while he doesn’t quite follow the ‘attack is the best form of defence’ doctrine, like Pep Guardiola, Man Utd have improved their average share of possession since Fernandes came in, as well as their average passes per match.

It would seem the introduction of the Portuguese has given everyone at the club a lift, and not just the attacking players. Before his arrival in the Premier League, Man Utd kept just four clean sheets in 24. Since then, they have kept eight in 12, and this only adds to the conundrum facing Lampard on Sunday.

Chelsea in comparison

In almost complete contrast Chelsea have been guilty of numerous defensive collapses since the turn of the year and they look anything but a cohesive unit at the back. To highlight just how worrying that quandary is for Lampard, Kepa Arrizabalaga (the world’s most expensive goalkeeper) has kept fewer clean sheets this season than Man Utd‘s back-up freebie, Sergio Romero.

Romero and Kepa compared

The Argentinian has kept 11 clean sheets across all competitions in 2019/20, while Kepa has mustered only 10, despite playing 40 games compared to Romero’s 15.

Lampard can splurge all he wants on Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner and possibly even Kai Havertz, but until he addresses the gaping issue in his side, the Blues will continue to come up short in important games. That ‘3’ shirt sponsor is looking less and less like a harmless meme and more of a worrying omen for Lampard.

This then brings us to Sunday’s showpiece event. Chelsea will of course be preparing themselves tactically for how they can contain and stifle Man Utd‘s insatiable attack. Lampard has already cautioned his players to “not dive in” against Solskjaer’s turbo-charged attack, hinting that VAR favours their opponents this weekend.

A trick out of Mourinho’s playbook? You wouldn’t put it past Lampard to use one of his former teacher’s favourite pre-match tactics. In truth, he has to try something different, as Chelsea have come up short on three occasions this season against Man Utd. He will be desperate to avoid a whitewash. 


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