David de Gea was the busier goalkeeper; and Chelsea hit the woodwork twice. Yet the speed of United’s forward line reflects the speed with which the game was taken away from Frank Lampard’s team. They went from in contention to 4-0 down in the blink of an eye.
It was a strange game in that respect. Leading by a Rashford penalty at half-time, many thought United fortunate. Their second goal was a counter attack that started with the excellent Harry Maguire getting the better of Tammy Abraham on the edge of United’s penalty area.
Yet from there Chelsea crumbled in a way that will worry Lampard intensely. This was the worst first game defeat for a Chelsea manager since Danny Blanchflower lost 7-2 to Middlesbrough on December 16, 1978. Yet Chelsea had won two games all season before that point and would eventually drop from Division One in bottom place.
This was meant to be the start of a brave, new and youthful world, a clean start under a new boss. At least Lampard should get more time than Blanchflower. He was gone the following September after just nine months in charge.
Yet for all of their good work early on, Chelsea were trying to find a way back into the game once Kurt Zouma gave up a penalty after 17 minutes. It is fair to say that his first half performance was so bad it made one wonder just how much of a colossal pest David Luiz must have been that Lampard would see playing Zouma as preferable to keeping him.
He had already almost handed United the lead by passing the ball to Martial in his own penalty area after seven minutes. He got lucky, only because Martial’s shot was weak and easily saved by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
Chelsea defender Emerson Palmieri beats David de Gea at his near post with a powerful shot, but it rattles the woodwork
Chelsea forward Tammy Abraham works some space in a tight area and lets fly but his effort also rattled the United post
Aaron Wan-Bissaka breaks down the right-hand side and looks to cross into the area but Emerson does well to block
Harry Maguire uses his strength to hold off Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount during the first half at Old Trafford
Ross Barkley strikes a powerful left-footed effort at goal from close range but David de Gea keeps it out with his feet
Frank Lampard cut a frustrated figure as he watched his side squander several chances in the first half from the touchline
Nothing – not the goalkeeper, or even VAR – could help Chelsea with Zouma’s second clanger, though. He was clumsy and careless in legging over Rashford after 17 minutes. Referee Anthony Taylor pointed to the spot and with no quibbles from a warehouse near Heathrow, Rashford took his now familiar angled run and whipped the ball deftly into the left side netting, high and out of reach.
How heartening, also, to see the end of Paul Pogba’s ego driven spot kicks, the pitter-pat attention-seeking run-up. This wasn’t about the taker. This was about the whole, and taking full advantage of the circumstances.
United most certainly did that after half-time. Counter-attacking has always been the forte of the best United teams, and of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first games, too. And, ultimately, it won them the game here. The rest of the goals, all three, came because United can move the ball from back to front at startling pace.
If they can keep and refine this core philosophy they will frighten plenty of teams this season. To that end, it helps to have an intelligent ball player in Maguire at the back, and an outstanding passer like Pogba in midfield, even if his defensive work-rate remains questionable at times, jogging back when he should be running hard.
The second goal came after Maguire rattled Abrahams – who had a quiet game after an explosive start – and immediately fed the ball to Rashford. He set off down the field, blue shirts trailing in his wake before attempting to release Lingard with a pass that was overhit. His friend chased it down, however, the ball finding its way to Andreas Perreira, whose low cross was turned in by Martial, his physicality winning the day.
Barely had the game restarted when it was as good as done. Pogba hit a fine pass from deep that split Chelsea’s defence, falling sweetly at the feet of Rashford. In the past, his finishing has been criticised. Not on Sunday. He stuck it away, giving Arrizabalaga no chance. It was the clinical completion many feel is the stage yet to come in his game. If it arrives in earnest this season, watch out.
Yet while the contest may have been over, the scoring was not. With nine minutes remaining, United broke again. It was Pogba this time, his athletic strides powering through Chelsea’s shell-shocked defensive ranks, before delaying his pass to deftly roll the ball to United substitute Daniel James.
The young man looked to have missed his chance by hesitating, then had another go and benefitted from a deflection off Emerson for his debut goal. Pace again. His arrival along the right flank was scorching. It had become the rudest of awakenings for Lampard, and his young charges.
Paul Pogba leaps in the air to head the ball clear and remove the danger from Manchester United’s penalty box
Manchester United goalkeeper de Gea comes off his line to collect the ball and relieve the pressure off his defenders
Lampard handed Christian Pulisic his Chelsea debut by bringing him to replace Ross Barkley in the second half
Chelsea forward Olivier Giroud tries to retain possession for his side as several United players close him down
Wan-Bissaka attempts to add insult to injury on Chelsea but fluffs his line as he tries a speculative volley at goal
Could it have been different? Definitely. The game was only four minutes old when Abraham, entrusted with centre-forward duties ahead of Olivier Giroud, lashed a shot against De Gea’s right post, with United’s goalkeeper in no position to stop it.
In the 40th minute, a long, deep ball from Jorginho – benefitting from the fact every move doesn’t have to pass through him now Maurizio Sarri has departed – was missed by United’s entire back line, falling to Emerson on the left. He hit the same post as Abraham earlier. On the touchline, Lampard looked stunned by his ill-fortune.
These were not Chelsea’s only chances. Mason Mount took a lovely touch before having his shot saved, after a pass by Pedro, while Ross Barkley had a decent attempt travel wide after 35 minutes. De Gea remains United’s lynchpin, however, and four minutes later a lovely move involving Jorginho, Pedro and finally Barkley produced his best save of the half. Emerson forced its second-half equivalent.
Yet momentum is key and Lampard knows he will have to change Chelsea’s, and soon. They play Liverpool in the UEFA Super Cup on Wednesday and he will be wary of his young charges being exposed again. After that, Leicester – possibly the Premier League’s best of the rest – come to Stamford Bridge.
As for United, this is the type of result from which a good season can spring. There wasn’t four goals between the teams, but United’s forwards made it so. That is not to say there are not problem areas at the club. Scoring, however, might not be among them. Don’t challenge them to a race, either.