This Manchester United are three points behind champions Manchester City. Turns out they just needed to face a team amid a bigger season crisis, on the pitch at least, than their own.
As their forward line faltered again – strikers have still only found the net once, collectively, in the Premier League at Old Trafford this season – their top goalscorer – yes, you guessed correctly, Scott McTominay stepped up when it mattered to fire them to a crucial victory over Chelsea on a week that has been binfire, even by their standards.
This was, and it is a low bar this term, United’s best showing of the season. The fact the result could easily have gone the other way, given the calibre of chances created by the visitors, tells its own story.
While they are anything but out of the mire yet, Erik ten Hag can still breathe a huge sigh of a relief. United can produce the fine, flowing football the Dutchman promised he would bring. Now, and this is the tallest of orders for a club who have made a habit of the old one step forward, two steps back routine, for some consistency.
The opening exchanges were, predictably, an absolute omnishambles.
Inside the first 11 minutes, Robert Sanchez was forced into three fine saves, one to deny Bruno Fernandes from the penalty spot, while Mykhailo Mudryk, of course, dragged a close-range effort against the post.
The penalty decision was very 2023 – those much-loved decisions spotted by only one man in the universe, via and ultra slow-motion replay, in Stockley Park. Those delayed Fernandes run ups look great when the ball hits the back of the net, but makes misses look all the more glaring.
Since his Premier League debut in February 2020, no player has taken more penalties than Fernandes, while only Aleksandr Mitrovic has missed more than the Portuguese’s four in that time.
If you so much as glanced at your watch, one team, mainly United, were through on goal by the time you looked back up. Both sides’ midfield may as well have not been there.
It took the newly-prolific McTominay to make one count, after numerous attempts had been blocked.
Scotland’s answer to Michel Platini should have doubled his tally for the evening just after the half-hour mark, but saw his header and follow-up attempt from close range saved by Sanchez, before seconds later, Nicolas Jackson missed a sitter, Andre Onana racing from his line to block.
Mudryk dragged another golden moment wide as his yips showed no signs of subsiding, but Cole Palmer, a boyhood United fan, on his first senior appearance at Old Trafford, did level in first-half stoppage time, squeezing a daisy-cutter past Onana.
It was a microcosm of United’s season. Some sublime football at times, but their ability to shoot themselves in the foot knows no bounds. Their 2.78 xG was the most any Premier League team have mustered in a single half this season, while the 18 shots on Chelsea’s goal is the most the Blues have faced in 45 league minutes since such records began 20 years ago.
United’s performance was a difficult one to read. On one hand, they were playing some of their best football of the campaign, but how much of their chance creation was down to Chelsea being so porous, all over the pitch.
Ten Hag needed Chelsea to at least resemble a coherent unit to be able to analyse this afterwards, and the second half proved a better marker of the calibre of display as the chances dried up. It was about probing, trying everything to unlock Chelsea in the second 45 minutes, like clashes between these two fallen giants used to be, when they were good.
The winner wasn’t down to any flimsy preventative measures, with the superb pickout from Alejandro Garnacho worthy of the grandest of stages, McTominay finishing the job with a bullet header.
Substitute Armando Broja headed against the crossbar late on, but United held on for a result they and their manager desperately needed.
Chelseas supporters booed their own players upon the final whistle, but those in red were beating the air with delight.
The dressing room, for one night only at least, will be a harmonious place.