And you can sit there all night, playing with your silly machines. By the end of this taut and thrilling match, the iPads and the tactics boards had been stashed away. Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag stood on the touchline, contemplating this 1-1 draw, looking drained and perhaps even a little concussed by the experience. It had been a game of stratagems and counter-stratagems, plans made and then remade, two coaches trying to control the space on the pitch with the space in their heads. But ultimately this is also a contact sport, a thing of guts and loins, of inches and millimetres, of who can win the grapple and who can summon the courage to leap highest when everything is on the line.
There have been more consequential games between Chelsea and Manchester United over the years. Louder games. Better and more exciting games. But perhaps never a game that has felt like more of an intellectual exercise, that has been so unashamed of its own erudition. As Potter and Ten Hag traded blows on the touchline, the evening began to splinter a little, not so much a single game of football as several distinct campaigns, a ceaseless and gripping battle for supremacy in which both teams probably got what they deserved.
Perhaps there was a certain bitter poetry in the fact that it was the late substitute Scott McTominay who gave away Chelsea’s penalty with an ugly wrestle, and Casemiro who ended up getting him off the hook with a soaring 93rd-minute header. This is a rapidly changing United team, and nowhere is the transition more dramatic and noticeable than in midfield. Doubtless McTominay will still have a role to play in the coming months, and Fred’s brilliant display against Tottenham in midweek was further evidence of his own personal evolution. But the era of “McFred” – in tone and intent – feels like it has already gone.
Casemiro. Christian Eriksen. Bruno Fernandes. For the first time since the days of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick, this is a United midfield you would willingly pay to watch. And when it does work, everything else works a little better too. The full-backs have the security to get forward. The front three can make runs knowing that they will get service. David de Gea has more options. The centre becomes a place where United want to funnel the ball, rather than – as was so often the case in the last decade – an engine for funnelling the ball somewhere else.
This is a shift in culture as much as in personnel. United had 53% of the possession here, but more important was the ambition and calmness on the ball. You could pinpoint the moment when Casemiro took possession under pressure, 20 yards from his own goal, facing the wrong way, and simply clipped a pass of the purest silk, curling 30 yards over the head of Raheem Sterling, and into the path of Diogo Dalot to launch another attack. Can you imagine McTominay or Nemanja Matic or Marouane Fellaini even attempting such a pass, let alone pulling it off?
Or the moment on the half-hour, when Eriksen burgled the ball from Ruben Loftus-Cheek high up the pitch, Casemiro came away with it, Fernandes made the run off him, and for a moment the three of them were jetting off in tandem, like a little lightspeed triangle, creating a chance that Kepa Arrizabalaga saved from Marcus Rashford. With Jorginho and Loftus-Cheek getting swamped, Potter had to act. The introduction of Mateo Kovacic and the switch to a 4-3-3 led to Chelsea’s best spell of the game. On the touchline, Ten Hag frowned at his miniature tactics board, engaged his assistant, Mitchell van der Gaag, in deep conversation, plotting his response.
Early in the second half, it arrived: seeing Chelsea’s third central midfielder and raising them a fourth, Fred replacing Jadon Sancho. Briefly we were confronted with the arresting prospect of ten Hag and Potter simply loading more and more midfielders on to the pitch, until finally all 20 outfield players were playing a furious rondo in the centre circle while the two goalkeepers idly watched from afar.
That wasn’t quite how it turned out, but the effect was largely similar. For half an hour the two sides continued to trade tired punches, hopeful crosses, aborted counterattacks, and finally two scruffy late goals. And even amid the late drama, it was possible to glimpse how Ten Hag’s side are still developing, still training their instincts, still not quite the finished article. But finally they have a fine coach, a defined style of play, a balanced buildup, a mixture of youth and experience, and most of all a functional midfield. Welcome to modern football, Manchester United. We’ve been expecting you.