LONDON — Chelsea spent last season searching for a clinical goal scorer to help sustain a Premier League title challenge. Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United will raise fears they are still looking.
The answer appeared to be Romelu Lukaku, signed in the summer from Inter Milan for €115 million — a premium price justified by his expected immediate impact — yet the Belgium striker, fit again after an ankle injury, played only the final eight minutes of this game, with Chelsea chasing a winner.
It is both a sign that Lukaku is not yet match sharp, but the lack of urgency to introduce him is perhaps also an indication that manager Thomas Tuchel considers his team at least as potent at present without the former United striker, who has four goals in 12 appearances since rejoining the club.
But while Lukaku’s absence and indifferent form has left others to step up — Chelsea have had 17 different scorers in all competitions this season — it makes tasks such as converting territory and possession into goals more difficult when lacking a sharp finisher at the top end of the pitch.
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United’s conservative approach made this resemble the sort of test at home to a mid-table team that title challengers routinely pass, and it was technically true, given United’s recent travails left them sitting in 10th place at kickoff.
As if to underline the point, Tuchel referenced the same result against Burnley at the beginning of the month when ruing a missed opportunity — “Was it two points dropped? Yes, for sure,” he said afterward — to repeat what Liverpool (5-0) and Man City (2-0) have done in recent weeks and take full advantage of United’s vulnerability.
Chelsea dominated the ball and registered 24 shots, but required a Jorginho penalty midway through the second half to find a way past David De Gea, the Italian midfielder cancelling out his own error that allowed Jadon Sancho to open the scoring five minutes into the second period.
With Cristiano Ronaldo only a substitute, United’s xG at halftime was 0.03, the definition of an almost non-existent attacking threat. However, Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic, deployed in midfield together for the first time since March 2020, were effective in stifling the ability of Jorginho to get early possession to Chelsea’s attacking players.
United pressed with renewed vigour. Albeit not always with the consistency of teams better versed in the methodology, but Chelsea lost the ball in such circumstances more times than Tuchel would have liked and it was from such a situation that United scored.
Following a Chelsea attacking free kick, too many blue shirts were upfield when Bruno Fernandes hacked clear a looping clearance. Jorginho tried to control the high ball but failed — Tuchel suggested afterward he had been distracted by the Stamford Bridge floodlights — and suddenly Sancho was through on goal.
Marcus Rashford raced alongside and Sancho used his United and England teammate well, threatening to square it long enough for Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy to shift his bodyweight to his right before Sancho slotted a simple finish in the opposite corner to claim his first Premier League goal.
Jorginho got the chance to atone when Aaron Wan-Bissaka clumsily kicked Thiago Silva’s leg in the penalty area as United tried to deal with one of Chelsea’s 15 corners. The 29-year-old sent De Gea the wrong way with a trademark hop, skip and sidefoot; 13 of his 15 Premier League goals have been penalties, missing just twice in his Chelsea career.
Tuchel turned to Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic to refresh Chelsea’s attack before Lukaku, despite Timo Werner enduring another one of those afternoons where you wonder just how much patience is left for the misfiring German.
Nobody on either team had more than his six shots, but none were on target and, moreover, he lacks conviction in key moments that could turn tight games like this. Werner is only just back from a hamstring injury himself but his profligacy is a problem that long pre-dates this season.
“We still see that [Werner] hasn’t played for a long time so can we expect he is at his absolute peak? No, we cannot,” Tuchel said. “It is always a bit like ‘what do you expect’ in this moment? He looked very sharp in training. He scored many goals in the last two training sessions; that’s why I went with my gut and put him on the pitch and hoped he could maybe hurt the two central defenders.”
Antonio Rudiger’s late miss meant the points were shared, but while Chelsea remain top of the table — one point ahead of Man City and two clear of Liverpool — they do not have a player with more than four goals. It is a quirk that does not feel compatible with a prolonged push for the title; Tuchel must develop an approach that maximises Lukaku’s strengths.
United’s ambitions are more modest, by contrast, but caretaker manager Michael Carrick, charged with the responsibility of injecting some semblance of organisation, the lack of which finally did for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the start of the week, has picked up a vital Champions League win and a worthy point at a top-six rival.
Incoming interim manager Ralf Rangnick was not in attendance here as he awaits a work permit before taking charge until the end of the season, but his presence was felt. United’s backroom staff all donned earpieces in the dugout, as two screens in front of them showed a longer-range tactical view of the game to accompany their pitchside position.
Carrick claimed afterward “it was not the case” that Rangnick had influenced team selection, but a change in tactics, style and personnel appeared at least partly influenced by his impending arrival.
Technical director Darren Fletcher wore one white earbud, different to those around him. He appeared to be relaying messages throughout the game, when not engaging in words with the Chelsea bench, specifically Cesar Azpilicueta when Ruben Loftus-Cheek left something on Eric Bailly in a late tackle shortly before half-time.
United ended with just three shots, their lowest total in a league game this season, but left Stamford Bridge with credit for displaying a basic shape and discipline throughout an encounter many expected them to lose in a comfortable manner. Chelsea, meanwhile, were left to bemoan falling short in the final third. It is a familiar story.