EPL

Big zero six: Man Utd cannot win the title if they don't start scoring against the best

By Sports Desk February 28, 2021

There was an enticing Italian appetiser to Chelsea and Manchester United's lukewarm main course on Sunday.

Antonio Conte's Inter stretched their lead at the top of Serie A to seven points, beating Genoa 3-0 at San Siro thanks to goals from three former United players. They've now won 14 of their previous 17 league games and failed to score just once in that run. They will more than likely become champions for the first time since 2010 under Jose Mourinho, the last manager to deliver trophies at United and the most successful modern coach Chelsea have had.

Assessing the match at Stamford Bridge through the lens of another game in another country probably tells you enough about the quality of the contest.

With Leicester City having lost to Arsenal and Manchester City beating West Ham, this was a chance for United to consolidate second place in the table, and just maybe keep their title hopes from sputtering into ash. For Chelsea, earlier results meant this represented an opening into the top four and a means to close the gap to the Red Devils to three points, all while prolonging the Thomas Tuchel unbeaten streak to nine games.

They may not sound like the loftiest of ambitions, but this was not a game of ambition, or excitement, or precision. It was the coronavirus football calendar made flesh: frenetic, apprehensive, with a permeating feeling that things would, eventually, get better.

That Inter reference was not meant as a 'what if'. Conte's time at Chelsea was a success but the relationship had soured long before they parted ways. As for United, nobody could honestly claim they should have kept Matteo Darmian and Alexis Sanchez, scorers of Inter's second and third goals. And while Romelu Lukaku continues to rampage through Serie A defences, United have become leading goalscorers in the Premier League this season without their old number nine, who had wanted to leave anyway.

Still, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season, United have swapped potency for pragmatism when it comes to facing the 'big six'. It's made for soporific viewing: 0-0 twice against Chelsea, 0-1 and 0-0 against Arsenal, 0-0 against Liverpool, 0-0 and 0-2 (in the EFL Cup) against City. All their previous four such games have ended goalless. At least that 6-1 battering at home to Tottenham in October saw them score a penalty.

Solskjaer highlighted the need for more in "tighter games" in the build-up, but his message – and Tuchel's – was still contain first and attack later. Marcus Rashford's whirligig of a free-kick was as close to a goal as they came in the first half, beyond a penalty shout for a Callum Hudson-Odoi handball. Chelsea were scarcely more enterprising, but at least Olivier Giroud was a centimetre or two of scalp from heading a Hudson-Odoi cross on target.

There were flashes after the break. Mason Greenwood cracked a shot narrowly over, Scott McTominay planted one in Edouard Mendy's midriff, a curling right-foot shot from Fred drew an amused thumbs-up from his manager. At least he was smiling; even a grin seems beyond Anthony Martial at the moment, the striker touching the ball six times in his 11 minutes on the pitch.

Perhaps a goalless draw really was Solskjaer's plan all along: perhaps even the baby-faced assassin accepts City have long since killed the title competition. In that sense, moving a point above Leicester, maintaining the gap to Chelsea and stretching the club-record unbeaten away run to 20 league games is no disaster.

But is this the way to win titles again? The way to get at City at the Etihad Stadium next week? The so-called United Way?

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    While he displayed the skillset to play virtually anywhere across the midfield for Las Palmas, by his own admission Pedri felt most effective in the centre where he can take the game to the opposition, exploit gaps in defences and dazzle with his close dribbling.

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    Despite missing a chunk of the 2019-20 campaign to take part in the Under-17 World Cup in October and November, Pedri played more league matches (36) than anyone else for Las Palmas and his 60 chances created was unmatched among team-mates. Only nine players in the entire league produced more key passes.

    Nineteen Segunda players attempted more dribbles than Pedri's 108, but only three of those could better his 62 per cent completion rate.

    And of 1,284 attempted passes, 80 per cent found a team-mate. While by no means a startling statistic on its own, context is key – many of those with better records on the face of it were central defenders or players operating in less-congested areas of the pitch than Pedri.

    One thing was abundantly clear: Pedri was already operating at a high level for a 17-year-old, and with something of a new era sweeping over Camp Nou when he arrived in August, it perhaps wasn't a surprise to see him settle quickly.

    It had initially been expected that Pedri would spend another season on loan in the second tier with Las Palmas, or move to Barca's B team had they been promoted to the Segunda.

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    He's certainly taken it.

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    While there was never any doubt about Pedri's technical abilities, adapting his game to fit in at a club with a style of play as iconic and ingrained as Barca's was likely – in theory – to take time. Regardless of how things work at Las Palmas, Barcelona are simply a different beast in every way, shape or form.

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    Pedri also ranks similarly high in terms of secondary chance creation – so, the pass to the player who sets up the subsequent shot – with Messi (64), Dani Parejo (37) and Fekir (36) the only individuals beating his 31.

    When you also factor in that Pedri's 37 chances created this term puts him behind only Messi (65) and Jordi Alba (42) in the Barca team, this all highlights just how much influence the now 18-year-old already has on their general play.

    Not only is he frequently teeing up shots himself, but he's one of Barca's most-involved players when it comes to retaining possession as they probe packed defences. And it's not as if Pedri is constantly offloading the ball once he has possession either - he has created eight chances following a carry (defined as a movement of at least five metres with the ball), the third most among central midfielders in LaLiga this term, evidence his ability on the ball also helps drive Barca forward and spark opportunities.

    It's precisely these factors that make comparisons with Iniesta seem more sensible, particularly since Koeman recognised he'd be at his most effective in the middle.

    But Pedri, who earned his first senior Spain caps last month, appears to have the quality to carve out his own lasting legacy at Camp Nou. A first experience of winning silverware in Saturday's Copa del Rey final will surely just be the start if Barca see off Athletic Bilbao.

    Snow may have prevented a move to Madrid three years ago, but Pedri's outlook at Barcelona is gloriously bright.

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