Manchester United might have had a turning point in Premier League title race – Samuel Luckhurst


It is a quirk of this season’s Premier League title challenge that you could count the amount of Chelsea players Manchester United would have in their starting XI on one hand.

Yes, these combined XIs are hackneyed exercises, but for argument’s sake, Reece James and N’Golo Kante would be upgrades at right-back and defensive midfield for United. Elsewhere? David de Gea is back among the world’s best goalkeepers again, United have the best left-back around, and the centre halves are more Ferdinand and Vidic than Smalling and Jones.

Paul Pogba wears 6 but is one of the world’s best 8s and few playmakers are as effective as Bruno Fernandes. Cristiano Ronaldo outscored Romelu Lukaku last season. Perhaps there would be an allowance for Mason Mount or Kai Havertz, although they operate in the same zone as Fernandes.

Chelsea supporters are doubtless delighted with their attacking trident of Mount, Havertz, and Lukaku, the improvement of Antonio Rudgier and Jorginho, still an incongruous Ballon d’Or winner-in waiting, and the defensive unit that protects Edouard Mendy, a competent ‘keeper. They sit at the summit.

What many United fans would take over Kante is the coach. United’s refusal to change managers last December could yet be remembered as a decisive sliding doors moment in the post-Ferguson era and those Chelsea fans who mourned Frank Lampard’s dismissal should cringe at their behaviour.

Thomas Tuchel could not help but impress in his media appearances surrounding United’s Champions League ties with Paris Saint-Germain and on the touchline he has been nigh-on faultless this season. The only goal Chelsea have conceded in five league games was a penalty when they were reduced to 10 men at Liverpool, where Tuchel’s tactical tweak ensured they left Anfield with something rather than nothing.


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Pep Guardiola is unlikely to underestimate Tuchel again after the Champions League final, a managerial performance worthy of the man of the match award. There was a month and a day between Tuchel’s dismissal by Paris Saint-Germain and appointment at Chelsea. PSG have Mauricio Pochettino to manage Neymar, Messi, and Mbappe, but Chelsea have the superior – and more settled – squad and coach.

Chelsea’s set-up this season is reminiscent of when they regained the championship in 2016-17 under Antonio Conte. Tuchel also favours a back three, wing-backs, and fluid playmakers to support a figurehead. Chelsea are miserly but only United have outscored them in the league.

If Tuchel, Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp had United’s squad, they would be top of the bookies’ chalkboards as favourites. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is competing with three coaches with four Champions League winners’ medals and 14 titles in the big five leagues between them and it often shows. If Tuchel was in Solskjaer’s shoes in Bern, it is hard to envisage United losing.

“I was probably down and out and lost my job yesterday!” Solskjaer half-joked after the West Ham win. Solskjaer ended a testing week triumphantly, with one of his substitutes providing the other with the ball to rifle in the winner. It was bold to hook Pogba over Scott McTomminay and the sloppy Fred, but Jesse Lingard – Pogba’s direct replacement – cut in from the left to fire an Exocet.

Ronaldo was always going to succeed back in the Premier League and has joined a squad that already had De Gea, Varane, Maguire, Shaw, Pogba, and Fernandes. United were expected to challenge for the title and, with Ronaldo, they have to win it.

The squad depth is United’s best since they defended the Premier League and Champions League in 2008-09. Wisely, Solskjaer did not turn to Anthony Martial in London. Donny van de Beek and Juan Mata were also unused.

“As I’ve said, I’m very happy with the squad,” Solskjaer emphasised “We have to be good at rotating, finding the moment to rest players. It’s going to be a long and hard season.”



Solskjaer impacted the game at West Ham
Solskjaer impacted the game at West Ham

The clocks do not go back until October 30 and it is already apparent United’s success this season hinges on Solskjaer’s in-game decisions. A domestic cup is unlikely to constitute a successful season for Solskjaer. The FA Cup did not with Louis van Gaal in 2016.

United boast starrier players than Chelsea but Tuchel has the more rounded squad, particularly in midfield. Kante did not start at Tottenham and his introduction transformed it from a slog into a stroll. Substitutes Thiago Silva and Mateo Kovacic preserved a point at Anfield.

Even at the age of 48 (the same as Tuchel) and nearly three years into his tenure, Solskjaer is still learning on the job and that is borne out by his erratic substitution strategy. At West Ham, there was a 13-minute gap between his consultation with first-team coach Kieran McKenna and introducing Lingard and Sancho.

But it had been a while since Solskjaer effected a match with a change. Specifically, in April when Mason Greenwood replaced Marcus Rashford in the comeback win at Tottenham. Greenwood assisted the winner and scored the clincher.

The zenith of Solskjaer’s management was, of course, against Tuchel’s PSG. No, not the freakish knockout triumph, but last year’s group game. United started with a 3-4-1-2 and switched to 4-2-3-1 with Pogba’s arrival midway through the second-half. His imperious presence signalled a momentum shift and Pogba assisted Rashford’s winner.

The acid test for Solskjaer is to best Tuchel when they are not facing each other.





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