It was a day when Manchester United defended in numbers, when they sacrificed all attacking ambition in pursuit of something – anything – to stop a rot that had claimed the former manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, and sent their Premier League season into meltdown.
It was a long way from pretty but, watched from afar by Ralf Rangnick – the manager who is set to step in until the end of the season – the team got what they wanted.
Michael Carrick, the interim to the interim, had started with Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Fred in front of the back four and, with United entrenched in the deepest of blocks, it felt like a trick of the mind when Jadon Sancho suddenly streaked clear to put them in front at the start of the second half.
The goal followed a terrible piece of control by Jorginho on halfway after Bruno Fernandes had punted clear and, briefly, an outlandish thought formed. It had looked as if United simply wanted to avoid another humiliation after those against Liverpool and Manchester City – the other title contenders – that had in effect done for Solskjær. Could they steal victory?
Jorginho would disabuse them of the notion, atoning in part for his lapse when he converted from the penalty spot after Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s silly foul on Thiago Silva, and his goal was the prompt for a grandstand finish.
Chelsea appeared addicted to living dangerously and they almost threw it away in the 88th minute when Édouard Mendy played a pass straight to Fred. The midfielder was entitled to go for the chip but he got it all wrong and Mendy collected.
Thomas Tuchel had felt the frustration build, mainly because of his team’s profligacy, with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Timo Werner most culpable. He lost his cool when Cristiano Ronaldo, involved only as a 64th-minute substitute, wrongly avoided an offside flag to win a last-gasp corner. Tuchel was booked for his complaints.
But the Chelsea manager was on his knees in the final seconds when Antonio Rüdiger blew the chance to win it. Ronaldo had failed to follow the run of Christian Pulisic, another substitute, and when he crossed Rüdiger was free just outside the six-yard box. He blazed high over the bar.
And so Chelsea, who had entered with nine wins and a draw in 10 matches, felt the stab of regret. Their lead at the top of the table is down to one point and they have to hope that the two dropped here do not return to haunt them.
The pattern of the game was consistent from start to finish, Chelsea hogging the ball and pressing on to the front foot, United defending desperately and trying to get something going on the counter. Chelsea bossed the shot count 24-3 and David de Gea, the United goalkeeper, said he felt “danger for nearly the whole game”.
It was easy to wonder whether Rangnick had influenced the selection, which saw Carrick double down in midfield, using three screening players. Perhaps it was a reaction to being without three of the first-choice back four – Harry Maguire, Raphaël Varane and Luke Shaw – and it was always going to invite pressure.
Chelsea started brightly, with Hakim Ziyech shooting at De Gea after being allowed to turn too easily inside the box and a big chance followed shortly afterwards. When Marcos Alonso headed back a high ball, Wan-Bissaka got himself into a tangle and Hudson-Odoi moved inside Victor Lindelöf. De Gea turned the winger’s shot past the far post. Where would United be this season without him?
Chelsea were aggressive with their press, despite being without the injured N’Golo Kanté, but they were unable to create much more of note in the first half. A blast from Rüdiger on 31 minutes that rattled the crossbar stood out; it was unclear whether De Gea had brushed the ball with his fingertips.
Carrick had insisted Ronaldo’s reaction to being named among the substitutes was “great” and that it was simply a cold-headed selection decision which did not “need any more drama than that”. All the best with that, Michael. He recalled Fernandes and played him as a false nine, demanding that the Portuguese led the press with intensity, which he tried to do.
Fernandes was more visible in deeper areas and it was not his day. On 36 minutes he popped up at left-back and tried to ping a crossfield pass only to send it straight to Hudson-Odoi, who was five yards outside the area.
Hudson-Odoi advanced but he could not muster power in the shot.
United offered precious little as an attacking force before the interval and they seemed perfectly happy with 0-0, musing that maybe they could nick something on the counter. Then then they did. Jorginho had been the last man back and he did not bother to chase Sancho after his aberration. He knew what was coming. Sancho used Marcus Rashford to his left as a decoy, shook his hips and rolled past Mendy.
United flickered on the break and Chelsea’s anxiety rose, particularly as Werner shot wildly when in space after a corner. Chelsea needed a break and they got one when Wan-Bissaka went through Silva as he attempted to clear another corner. Werner, Ziyech and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would have half-chances and, after Fred failed to beat Mendy, Rüdiger’s sights were awry at the very last.