Contemporary football is often the object of hysteria, nowhere more so perhaps than in England where throngs of journalists — from the Murdoch employees to The Guardian scribes — provide incessant coverage, innuendo and gossip of sports’ best-marketed product, the Premier League, analysed and disseminated in ever greater detail. The cycle is one of constant hype, always building to the next match, which, by default, is always bigger than the previous one.
On Monday Chelsea versus Manchester United, for once the remit of hysteria extended to the FA Cup, was no different. The razzmatazz, the blanket coverage — it was all part of a protracted build-up to the match, a fifth-round game in England’s domestic cup. The consensus was simple: these were teams at a crossroads, this was about so much more than just the FA Cup, this was a game that could well decide the future direction of at least one of the clubs, a 90 minutes viewed as an audition for both Maurizio Sarri and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to show that they’d still deserve their jobs.
And then, at a packed Stamford Bridge, the match kicked off, not without moans about Sarri’s trademark 4-3-3 formation in which N’golo Kante plays out of position in spite of a misfiring Jorginho in the number six role. The visitors seized the initiative, but Chelsea responded well in the opening exchanges. When the hosts ventured forward Hazard was imposingly central. When he does stir, Chelsea stirs. He drifted inside from the left, combined with Marco Alonso, but his shot flashed wide. Just after the hour mark Chelsea’s number ten went on a darting run again — this time from the right — but Victor Lindelof shifted his feet and blocked the Belgian’s finish.
However, by then, Hazard and the Blues were out of the match. They seemed to go round and round in the same system, but without the quick, snappy football that their opponents had played in the first half — a football that Chelsea had failed to match and which allowed Manchester United to take a decisive 2-0 lead before the interval. With superb execution, Paul Pogba assisted a goal and scored another one.
It is not a Pogba world we live in, but the Frenchman has been rejuvenated under Solskjaer. He is no longer a midfield prisoner. The shackles have come off and on Monday he drove Manchester United to the last eight of the competition. From the left channel he set up Ander Herrera to peel away from Alonso and head past Kepa Arrizabalaga. On the stroke of half-time, Pogba converted a Beckham-esque cross from Marcus Rashford, attacking the ball in the box. His anticipation, leap, power and athleticism dazed the world’s most expensive goalkeeper.
The Frenchman and a ruthless Manchester had picked off Chelsea. They had shown the intelligence of movement and goalscoring prowess, exposing Chelsea’s Achilles heel, the defense. After the break Manchester United restricted themselves to a simple containment act. They marshalled the game with a disciplined display against an eleven who showed neither cohesion nor ideas. Sarriball had burst with Pogba’s second goal. The match became procession for Chelsea as the Italian coach offered no solutions in the second half.
With twenty minutes left on the clock and the match meandering towards its end — Chelsea were nothing more than a lateral stasis — rebellion and mutiny broke out at the Bridge as expletives and dismissive chants aimed at Sarri rolled down from the stands. This wasn’t just a procession, but a public crucification: Sarri had to be sacked, preferably first thing in the morning. On the other hand Manchester United fans proclaimed that Solskjaer deserved the full gig at Old Trafford. The Norwegian, the new conviction went, was a god-sent saviour.
These snap judgements are the logical result of a culture that nourishes the short term, furthered on a daily basis by the media, fans, board directors and an industry at large that always values results over the process. That becomes a dangerous and contradictory vicious cycle: without results, change is demanded, but results in general demand a long term approach. In 2003 Roman Abramovich took over Chelsea, heralding the age of the superclubs, but with his myopic philosophy, the Blues ironically have fallen behind a super-sized Manchester City, a club informed by a single, overarching philosophy. Chelsea foster a philosophy that isn’t compatible with a process-oriented coach like Sarri. They may have recruited poorly, they may face a major rebuilding phase in May, but for Sarri to have a chance of success Chelsea must change as a club: the Italian must be given the one commodity in short supply at Stamford Bridge, time.
Manchester United’s woes have deeper roots as well. In the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, Old Trafford has become a graveyard for coaches, one more esteemed than the other, all falling in an environment that rapidly turned toxic, ultimately culminating in the sullen reign of Jose Mourinho, whose self-imposed despondency led to a sense of defeatism at the world’s biggest club. But at least the Portuguese was right about one thing: Old Trafford needs more people with football knowledge in key decision-making positions. Solskjaer’s flurry of good results, with the exception of a more telling 0-2 defeat at the hands of PSG, is just another mirage: they will not solve all the problems at Manchester United, neither will Solskjaer’s appointment.
Above all, Monday night showed that both Chelsea and Manchester United need to think long-term, even if the noise and hysteria of the game drowned that thought out.
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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2019 09:30:30 IST