The managers of Manchester United and Chelsea secured Champions League football for their respective teams, but can they now take the next step?
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard, the 2019-20 season will be looked upon as a job well done
Both managers arrived at their respective clubs as inexperienced coaches with huge doubts over their ability, but both have completed their primary objective in their first full seasons in charge after securing Champions League football for next term.
Both continue to look tactically naïve at times and exciting at others. And with Manchester United and Chelsea now expecting a title challenge in 2020-21, both now face a summer that will define their tenures.
But what do they need to close the gap on Liverpool and Manchester City? And do Solskjaer and Lampard have the coaching ability to challenge Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola?
Can Solskjaer lead Man Utd to the Premier League title?
United find themselves in a stronger position than Chelsea heading into next season, despite Solskjaer seemingly lacking the tactical detail of the world’s leading coaches.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign, United lacked purpose in possession as they endlessly passed sideways and searched for non-existent attacking options. It portrayed the absence of a clear attacking vision beyond vague references to a ‘United Way’ of ‘pace and power’.
But then Bruno Fernandes arrived at Old Trafford in January, and everything changed.
Fernandes’ impact has been technical, tactical, and psychological; a mixture of work ethic, high-tempo passing, and sheer creativity has rubbed off on his team-mates to produce a far more dominant, purposeful outfit in 2020.
The Portugal international has shown that when the tactical ideology is geared towards freedom of expression over collective organisation – an individualistic mentality – one star player can be transformative.
Kai Havertz could have a similar impact at Chelsea next season, but while Lampard’s side would still be contending with their much-publicised defensive concerns, Solskjaer has already built a solid foundation.
The Norwegian’s defensive structure has been the biggest tactical success of his tenure so far, with United conceding 36 goals in 2019-20, just three more than champions Liverpool.
In fact, Solskjaer’s continued success at sitting deep and playing on the counter in matches against ‘Big Six’ sides means his team simply have to learn how to bully the middle class of the Premier League to be in with a real shot of the title.
The club’s financial power ought to make that happen, and indeed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is looking to build his own ‘Mancunian Galacticos’ this summer with the signings of Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish.
Real Madrid have just won La Liga under Zinedine Zidane despite lacking any real tactical sophistication. Rather, the best players have simply turned up in an era of troubling financial disparity in Spain. United can follow Madrid’s template.
For that to happen, Solskjaer will need more than just a couple of new stars. United looked particularly weary in their last two games of the season after their manager failed to rotate, reflecting his lack of trust in the current squad players.
Given that Solskjaer’s greatest strength is improving individuals – Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Fred, and Luke Shaw have made huge strides this season – he deserves Woodward’s backing in the transfer market.
And so, United are not as far away as they might look, even if praise for their tactical nuances since Fernandes’ arrival have been overblown.
But with the money to buy ready-made superstars, and the defensive foundations upon which to build, they are a lot closer to the Premier League crown than Chelsea.
Can Lampard lead Chelsea to the Premier League title?
So why, despite an aggressive summer of recruitment being well under way, are Chelsea behind United in terms of winning the title?
From the very first game of the 2019-20 season – a 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford – Chelsea’s major tactical flaw has been glaringly obvious.
Lampard’s apparent inability to cope with transitions from attack to defence – to prevent the opposition from carving them open on the counterattack, as United did back in August – has undermined Chelsea from start to finish.
This is not a question of individual quality, but of team shape. Shielding against being caught on the break requires a compressed formation at all times, the sort of positional organisation that was starkly lacking at Chelsea this year.
Far too often they were spread haphazardly across the pitch when in possession, freely improvising to create space, and in doing so leaving the midfield and defence badly exposed.
That players as talented as N’Golo Kante and Jorginho looked lost and caught in no-man’s-land as the ball whizzed past them shows this is not a personnel issue, but a fundamental tactical concern.
The last four Premier League titles have been won by managers who apply microscopic detail to positioning, movement and attacking structures. The apparent improvisations of Klopp, Guardiola or Antonio Conte teams are in fact pre-prepared moves committed to muscle memory, with an eye on compactness and shape no matter the phase of play.
It is why they were rarely caught on the counterattack despite playing with a high line.
Chelsea’s poor defensive record (they conceded 54 goals, more than any other club in the top 10) is inextricably linked to their patchy creative output. When confidence was high in the autumn, those free minds and free movements led to a flurry of goals, but creativity seizes up when morale dips.
The lack of ruthlessly organised tactical instruction from the dugout means Chelsea are prone to spells of poor form, and to conceding sloppy goals on the counterattack when their forwards begin to drift all over the pitch in a desperate search for space in the final third.
Lampard is highly unlikely to make the wholesale tactical changes required, judging by the consistency of this issue from the first game to the last. The solution, then, must come from an upgrade in key positions.
Kepa Arrizabalaga has a save percentage of 52.5, lower even than Claudio Bravo, and surely a top-class shot-stopper like Jan Oblak or Andre Onana would put a decent sticking plaster over the defensive problem.
At least one commanding centre-back would also help, but an out-and-out defensive midfielder like Declan Rice would answer the wrong question. To tighten midfield, the whole system needs to change.
The imminent arrivals of Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and potentially Havertz can certainly solve Chelsea’s issues at the other end of the field. If the manager is unable or unwilling to coach intricate pre-set attacking moves, then he needs world-beating space invaders; players with exceptional intelligence in their movement, reading of a game, and eye for goal. All three new signings offer precisely that.
But Lampard will not win the league title as Chelsea manager without something more substantial happening to his system. Perhaps some truly elite defenders can work out the transitions by themselves as well as barking enough orders and plugging enough gaps to prevent the sort of counterattacks that led to 12 league defeats this season.
More likely, in the age of Klopp and Guardiola, Lampard does not quite have the coaching skills to take his club all the way back to the top.