Big spends, tiny returns: Chelsea and United have a mid-table feel
A top-four finish for either team seems like a long shot even though it’s still early days in the season.
They are two of the biggest clubs in Europe and have been two of the biggest spenders this year. But five games into the Premier League season, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Manchester United and Chelsea have looked like mid-table clubs at best.
United find themselves in 13th position after two wins and three losses, while Chelsea are a spot behind them with one win, two losses and as many draws. There is, of course, a long road ahead but given the lacklustre performances so far, both clubs will need to mount quite a comeback to get near the top four.
For United, the most successful club in Premier League history, there was a lot to be optimistic about not too long ago. They had finished third last season and even won the League Cup, having missed out on a Champions League berth the year before that. Erik ten Hag, after a successful tenure as manager at Ajax, had done well to adapt quickly and bring some stability to the side. And in the last transfer window, United spent nearly 130 million pounds and brought in the likes of Rasmus Hojlund, Mason Mount and Andre Onana for massive sums.
However, things have not gone as per plan for the Red Devils and they’ve suffered their worst start to a campaign in almost a decade. United started with a narrow win over Wolves before going down 0-2 against Tottenham Hotspur. They managed to beat Nottingham Forrest despite conceding twice inside the first five minutes but in the next game, they conceded twice in stoppage time to lose against Arsenal.
The worst was yet to come, though, as they were beaten comprehensively at home by Brighton, with the result leading to boos from the Old Trafford faithful. After a promising start to his stint, ten Hag finds his back against the wall as his side appears to be moving in the wrong direction. The team has lacked cohesion in attack while their defence looks vulnerable at most times. In their Champions League opener, too, United scored a couple of late goals but were largely dominated by Bayern Munich in a 3-4 defeat.
“We have to be very disappointed and annoyed at ourselves,” ten Hag had said after the Brighton loss. “We will turn this around, but there is a demand on us to win games. Out form is definitely something that bothers me, but I also have to see the way we play. It’s about character. We have to see how strong we are and how the team sticks together. Players standing up and showing character because in all the games, especially the game today and against Arsenal and Forest, we have seen we can play well and create chances.”
Chelsea, meanwhile, came 12th last season which was their worst Premier League finish in three decades. With Todd Boehly taking over as owner after a prosperous era under Roman Abramovich, the Blues appointed Mauricio Pochettino as manager in the hope of a revival. The Argentine had done well at Spurs and PSG and was expected to bring a sense of structure that’s been familiar with his sides.
Chelsea were aggressive in the transfer window but unlike years in the past where they invested greatly in established stars, they put faith in younger players like Moises Caicedo, Romeo Lavia, Cole Palmer, Axel Disasi and Christopher Nkunku this time around.
However, like United, it’s been a far-from-ideal start for Chelsea. They suffered defeats against West Ham and Forest and apart from a win against newly-promoted Luton, have looked listless across the pitch for the most part. Hampered by injuries to some of their key players, they scored three goals against Luton but just two in their remaining four games so far.
“We need to be more relaxed,” said Pochettino after the draw with Bournemouth. “Sometimes the defensive players want to help because the feeling is we are creating chances but do not score. Then we need to be clever but many of the players are still learning about the game. That happens when you are building a new team with many areas we need to improve.”
Realistically, a top-four finish for either United or Chelsea seems like a long shot even though it’s still early days in the season. But funnier things have happened in sports and their fans will hope for a swift change in fortunes. Although there's enough talent in both their ranks, it could come down to belief as much as anything.