It must have been galling, as well as concerning, for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to see Eric Bailly carried off on a stretcher before half-time had arrived in Manchester United’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea.
Nobody could argue that United were playing well to that point, far from it, but they were keeping the blue swarm at bay. It was 0-0 and Chelsea, while dominating the game, had not created a chance of note. They were coping.
And Solskjaer could argue with a little justification that his three-man central defence was working; he just needed more incision and composure from his forwards on the counter-attack and victory would still have been within United’s grasp. After all, United had ceded possession and territory for long periods in their three previous wins over Frank Lampard’s men this season. You could see Solskjaer’s logic in ditching the 4-2-3-1 and allowing Chelsea onto his side.
Yet as Solskjaer and Lampard both said after the game, the pendulum swung even more in Chelsea’s favour after Bailly’s injury and the introduction of Anthony Martial, precipitating a return to that more attacking formation. United did not react well to the change.
“It had a big impact on the game,” Solskjaer admitted. “Eric played well. Eric was a big part of us not having any chances against us, really.
“Obviously the long lay-off was a big test and we didn’t pass it, because we lost our concentration and conceded a goal before half-time, which is disappointing.”
Lampard added: “In the early parts of the game I thought we were on top but when they changed the system I think we played even better.”
Maybe the delay rocked United’s defence and David de Gea in particular, of whom hangs yet another debate entirely right now.
If they somehow had maintained a goalless scoreline at the break, the tactical change could then have been discussed in more depth. Changing a gameplan mid-match is never ideal, even if United should really know how to play 4-2-3-1, as they’ve been doing it for most of the campaign.
Yet it remains a huge issue that this side struggle to dominate games against fellow ‘big’ sides. They may have ground out a number of key results against the likes of Chelsea, Man City and Tottenham this season, but they mostly came when playing five across the back line and springing pacey counter-attacks. Hardly ever have they passed a top side off the park like they’ve done in recent weeks against Sheffield United, Bournemouth and Aston Villa.
The biggest reason for the shortcoming seems obvious: that United don’t have the extra quality in a number of key areas. Brandon Williams didn’t look up to the task at left-back against Chelsea, Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof are now United’s only fit senior centre-backs and look like they need extra help, while neither Fred nor Nemanja Matic thrived at the base of midfield. Daniel James looked lost in attack.
Whether United can strengthen in all these positions in the upcoming summer transfer window seems doubtful. But one or two signings should be a priority. They have already rightly prioritised right wing and Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho at the other end of the pitch to provide better quality than James.
And while it’s not right to completely denounce United’s defence and claim it’s not fit for purpose, it lacks depth of quality. As Solskjaer shuffled his pack, with Luke Shaw ruled out with an ankle injury, that was evident. Maguire, Lindelof and Wan-Bissaka all looked fatigued but there were no credible alternatives in the United squad.
Tactically, Solskjaer might want to consider a system other than the five-man backline as an alternative to 4-2-3-1. A diamond formation or a 4-3-3, something that allows him to pack his midfield against better sides may give United greater control. Because even when Martial, Paul Pogba and the cavalry arrived during the Chelsea game, the feel of the contest did not change.
United were outfought and Solskjaer was out-thought by his opposite number Lampard, over whom he appeared to have a hex before this game.
United’s 19-game unbeaten run has masked their need for improvements, which can be made via transfers and more tactical solutions.
Nobody thought this United side were the finished article quite yet. But this is a stark reminder they have a little way to come yet.