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Manchester United and Chelsea Are Chasing Their Former Selves

Two former title-winning teams face off in the opening weekend of the Premier League, each managed by a club legend looking to reclaim past glories with the help of new blood

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Meet the new Premier League, same as the old Premier League. It’s a stretch to read one Community Shield as a gauge for an entire season, but then overreactions are half the fun.

Let’s take it back to Sunday’s season christener at Wembley. On the one hand was Liverpool, who last season were champions of Europe and by every measure outperformed all other, previous Liverpool teams in the domestic league. Then there was Manchester City, who insist on outdoing league- and club-bests, and “regressed” by putting up 98 points, instead of 100, on the way to their second title in a row. Both teams mostly stood pat over the summer, with one key exception: City backing up Fernandinho with Rangier Sergio Busquets doesn’t feel fair, but it technically is. Here’s how little separated the two teams when they met again last weekend:

City eventually won by a single penalty, which means that things could have easily fallen Liverpool’s way. If you like rivalries, which you do, you might’ve even gone so far as to call the game “encouragingly even.” If you’re a neutral, you’ll feel encouraged because Liverpool can save the season from feeling like a prolonged trophy presentation for City. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’ll be encouraged because you’re still right there. And if you’re a City fan, you’re probably confident that you’ll end up with the silverware like you tend to. Fans of other teams will probably feel a mixture of apathy and despair. Which brings us to the biggest match of the Premier League’s opening weekend, between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday!

Wait, I thought Manchester United was good?

Where on earth have you been? United are consistently in the top three of the world’s richest clubs, but haven’t exactly been “good,” in a consistent-on-field-product sense, for a while now. Since winning the 2013 Premier League walking, United has been a mixed bag of later-for-now moves, thwarted ambition, and away losses. Going into the 2018-19 season they faced their longest odds to win the Premier League at 7-to-1; the odds this year are at 20-to-1. I want to stress that they’re not a disaster, just worse than I can ever remember them being. I came into United fandom in the late-’90s; I saw them win nine titles. If your United fandom matured along a similar track, then you too are in the depths of something like a midlife crisis.

Their last six league finishes, starting with the 2013-14 season, are as follows:

  • 7th
  • 4th
  • 5th
  • 6th
  • 2nd
  • 6th

Top four is the best—best—case scenario going into this season. But coincidentally, they’ll have to fight Chelsea for it.

So Chelsea’s not good anymore either?

Chelsea are in a weird spot—their first loss under Maurizio Sarri last season didn’t come until November in a 3-1 loss to Tottenham, but things got incredibly weird after that. At first, Sarri lost control of the dressing room slowly, but loudly, and then emphatically, when his keeper refused to be sacrificed as a tactical sub in the League Cup Final against City. Everybody saw it. The reports that his future as Chelsea boss was being called into question, in his first season, broadened and deepened. He eventually decamped for Juventus, and Chelsea’s star Eden Hazard—who’d been making eyes at the Bernabéu for years—left for Real Madrid.

So that’s their shiny new coach and club talisman gone, and to complicate things even further, Chelsea were slapped with a two-window transfer ban, which meant they couldn’t bring in any new players this summer, and won’t be able to in the winter either.

… But Christian Pulisic?

Yeah, loophole. That deal was done last January, and as a necessary condition of his transfer, Pulisic stayed to finish out his last season with Borussia Dortmund. It’s sort of like what Liverpool and RB Leipzig did with Naby Keïta.

He’s a pretty good replacement for Hazard though, right?

If you want to be bitterly disappointed, by all means expect Pulisic to be a like-for-like replacement. I don’t think he’ll be Hazard this season, but most reports agree that he very well could be in the near future. The numbers suggest he’ll at least resemble his predecessor, in terms of dribbles completed and creative output—but he is coming off of a comparatively down season at Dortmund where he was coming off the bench behind Jadon Sancho. Best case, together with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Pedro and Willian, Chelsea will manage to reproduce Hazard by committee. Worst case? There’s millions of newly interested American Premier League fans who choose Chelsea as their team.

Speaking of transfers, didn’t United just sign someone for a billion dollars?

That’s Harry Maguire, formerly of Leicester City, known affectionately as “Slabhead.” He’s calm under pressure, good at passing out of the back, and worth the £80 million United paid for him. The Athletic’s Carl Anka had the most accessible way of explaining this on a recent episode of the Total Soccer Show: Liverpool bought Virgil van Dijk for £75 million and he turned their defense from frighteningly inconsistent to stalwart, effectively making them title contenders. If van Dijk went on the open market today, the going rate would be something like £150 million. Surely then, Maguire is worth £80 million.

I’ll add that if he’s not, then he’s definitely worth £50 million and the £30 million kicker is to see a lot less of Phil Jones.

Aren’t the managers of both teams former club legends?

Yeah, Frank Lampard was a vital part of José Mourinho’s (first) Chelsea team, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once came on as a sub for United and scored four goals. The cynical way of looking at the appointments to their respective positions is as a nostalgia play: They both have an undying LOVE FOR THE CLUB and have intimate knowledge of TRADITION, and their elevation to full-time manager signals a return to CLUB VALUES. Lampard was managing in the Championship with Derby County last season, and before Ole became interim manager for United last December, he was managing Molde in Norway. All of this conspires to lessen accountability; there’s not too much they have to do to be moving in the right direction.

Ole seems to have a clear idea of how he wants United to play—swift, counter-attacking soccer organized around small passing triangles—and at least has a solid back line to build on. Paul Pogba would rather be in Spain, but he’s still Paul Pogba and a professional, and will probably have a great season before moving on to Real Madrid. Nemanja Matic will still have to play major minutes this season, and you can’t really say there are any first-choice out-and-out strikers. Ole’s at the top of the Next Manager To Be Sacked Odds, so uh, take that as you will.

Do you have any kind of prediction?

For this game? Sure. Let’s call it Chelsea 2-1. Pulisic gets off the mark early with his first Premier League goal, Pedro pokes a second in during a goalmouth scramble, and Paul Pogba scores the consolation goal before giving a very diplomatic postgame interview.