In the middle of two big games at the start of the season, columnist Pat Nevin discusses fine margins, defensive cohesion, and other questions he is excited to find out the answer to...
Last week I did suggest that there would be ups and downs this season for Chelsea with all the changes that have happened over the summer. There were plenty of ups and downs in the first game on Sunday alone, with the initial, heartening first-half performance overshadowed by the eventual result. Frank Lampard has summed up his feelings on the game and nobody was arguing with his assessment - sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good! Within that he didn’t sweep the problems under the carpet.
If Ole Gunnar Solksjaer can say his United is still a work in progress, then I think we can accept that Frank Lampard can say the same thing with bells on. He has had far less time with his new group than the Norwegian has had up north.
One of the things that Frank will be acutely aware of is that when you have a total change in the central defensive area it can take a while to bed in. Last season it was David Luiz and Antonio Rudiger sitting back there most of the time, particularly for the big games. Both of them, for different reasons obviously, were not at Old Trafford. Getting the right partnership back there and building their understanding is not simple, especially in the white heat of the Premier League, but it is vital. That isn’t a direct pop at Kurt Zouma and Andreas Christensen, because the others around them have to get in tune with their strengths and weaknesses as a growing partnership too.
Most partnerships in the back line take a while. Even some of the great ones were on and off before they clicked and began to read each other almost telepathically, the way you must do at the top level. If only it was as simple as ‘you mark and I’ll cover’ like it is at the lower levels in the game, then you could throw any duo together with a couple of weeks’ work, but there is so much more to learn about every different opposition team, their styles and even individual opponents.
If you look back in history, when many of the great centre-backs first got in the team, they had the help of a far more experienced partner beside them to guide them through that initial ‘getting to know you’ period. Remember the majority of great centre-backs generally reach their peak at about the age of 28 or older. There is a reason for that: it takes years to learn the position and almost every mistake gets punished as you do so. Us attackers can make dozens of mistakes in a game, losing the ball and misplacing passes, and you scarcely remember any of them if we make or score a goal at some point. Try doing that at centre-back and see how long you last!
So Jose on the TV had a point that more experience might have been helpful - he has always been the arch pragmatist after all - but with options limited and a longer-term view in mind, Frank’s thinking was clear. It would have been nice to get a bit of luck to reward his bravery on the day though.
The other massive decision for Frank going forward in the short term will be the defensive midfield area. With a fully fit N’Golo Kante I am sure he will want to stick him back in his original position, just to give a little more protection for those centre-backs. We probably all know that Frank would have done that at United in the first place had he been fully fit. A 4-2-3-1 with our unassuming French superstar would certainly look more solid, but then any midfield in the world would look more solid with him in there. I grew to love N’Golo further forward last season, but in a different system with two deeper in midfield, it is a bit of a no-brainer and I am sure he will be back there soon enough.
So it was a harsh lesson at Old Trafford, but it certainly isn’t time to press any panic buttons quite yet, as the chances created and the levels of possession all looked promising. The hope and maybe even the expectation is that both these sides will not be too far apart in the table by the end of the season. Frank and his staff know that for this to be the case United cannot be given a huge start. On the training ground on Monday there will have been a lot of work done building on that defensive cohesion, but of course time will be limited as the preparation for tomorrow’s Super Cup has to take precedence.
Odd though it may seem, the game in Istanbul against Liverpool may in time be seen as more important for the building of the defensive understanding than the chance to win another trophy. One thing is for sure, whichever central defenders are chosen, they will have to be completely focused against the Merseysiders, especially if the front three of Mane, Firmino and Salah are risked.
Like a lot of us, I am looking forward to this one and it may give us an inkling of how Frank is thinking ahead of the weekend’s visit from Leicester. Does Toni Rudiger get thrown right back in there? Is N’Golo fit enough yet? Does Pulisic start this time? Which system do we play against the champions of Europe? What about the centre-forward positon? Tammy could have been the hero, and the weekend could have been so different, if his piledriver had ricocheted into the net instead of back off the post in that first half, but he has Michy and Olivier breathing down his neck. Do you give the youngster a decent run?
These are the questions Frank is asking himself this week and the questions most fans are asking too. I am looking forward to seeing some of the answers revealed tomorrow. Don’t miss it, because remember it could yet be another trophy, which would mean two major trophies won in our last three competitive games. Now wouldn’t that put a positive shine on things for the weekend ahead?