5 December 2023
Manchester United vs Chelsea: Battle of the falling giants
It used to be that Manchester United versus Chelsea would be a battle between title challengers. These days, it resembles more of a mid-table skirmish.
As the teams gear up for their midweek clash (streaming live on Showmax Pro Mobile), you have to ask yourself how we got here. How did this become a fixture that’s seventh position against tenth?
That both teams are underperforming is something they have in common. However, the reasons for their declines are very different.
For Manchester United, it’s all been part of a gradual downfall since Sir Alex Ferguson’s managerial reign ended in 2012/13. All successors have failed to win the league in the decade since then and while there have been fleeting positive signs, it’s become clear that they are well off challenging consistently.
Erik ten Hag has experienced positive and negative extremes in his year and a half as manager. Last season’s return to third place, along with a Carabao Cup win, was seen as a promising start.
Currently, their league position might put them into contention for a Europa Conference League place, which would probably be an ignominy the club would rather not experience at all.
A dip in results is certainly not for a lack of money spent. The last transfer window saw Andre Onana, Mason Mount and Rasmus Højlund enter Old Trafford with hefty price tags to justify.
There were plenty of new players who arrived last year too who haven’t lived up to expectations. Go down the years and there are plenty of examples of failures with inflated price tags.
If the club management are honest with themselves, they would have to admit that their recruitment just hasn’t been as effective as their competition.
Tactically, the Premier League has also moved on in a way that United have failed to keep pace with. In the last six years especially, they just haven’t been in a position to match the ways of playing that Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have brought to the competition. At the moment, United have their best chance of getting results against top clubs by adopting a counter-attacking approach – a far cry from when they were the ones dictating play.
This season’s record against the form clubs has been particularly damning for them. They’ve played five games against clubs that are currently in the top eight and have lost all of them.
The fall of the Blues
For Chelsea, the fall has been less gradual than at Manchester United. The Todd Boehly ownership era was ushered in in such a whirlwind after Roman Abramovich’s forced exit, and the unsettling effect has been clear to see on the field.
Boehly has invested heavily in transfers only to see Chelsea slide down the table. He would argue that most of the players were brought in with the future in mind. This could be the case, but the drop in results has been hard for many supporters to stomach.
It would be wrong to pin Chelsea’s problems on multiple managerial changes, as the club has operated like that throughout the most successful period in their history. When you add in all the changes to the squad, though, with many players coming in as well as leaving, you start to realise that this has become almost a complete reboot at the club.
It’s difficult these days to decide what should be seen as realistic success for Chelsea at the moment. Is it European qualification? A trophy? It surely can’t just be an improved league finish from last season, as their current position currently tops that.
Unlike Manchester United, they’ve had big games where they’ve shown some fight. Recent wins against Tottenham and Brighton are worth celebrating. Draws against Arsenal and Manchester City were encouraging. It’s their results against teams around them in the table that have been more of a concern.
Their next challenge is a trip to Old Trafford and it’s difficult to tell what category the Red Devils currently fall into. Their history obviously makes them a big club, but their form is suggesting otherwise.
Both clubs know how important a consistent run of form over the December period is as a means to set up the second half of the season. If one of them is going to show marked progress as the campaign goes on, it could well start with this game.
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