United fans arrived in west London craving a glimpse into the future, a signal of how interim manager Ralf Rangnick would change their fortunes and how tactics and morale might evolve under his watch when he eventually takes charge. They left with a feeling that, at the very least, he will inherit a side that is finally learning to fight for its life.
A point at Stamford Bridge is a major positive for United as they bid to stop the rot and build a new future.
Rangnick’s arrival – and reports that he will stay as a consultant long after May 2022 - has led to suggestions that United are belatedly waking up to the modern way of running a football club, a way in which somebody other than the manager sets the vision for the club, the way it plays and the ethos it signs up to. A system in which the success of the team, and the type of players it utilises, does not depend entirely on a transactional leader at the top who entirely sets the tone for whether trophies are won or not.
That would be a major shift at Old Trafford, where Alex Ferguson’s reign convinced everyone that there was no need to modernise and prompted the appointment of David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskajer – four managers with very different views on how to set up a team, how to manage players and which ones to select. By the time that Mourinho arrived with his win-at-all-costs attitude and a visible indifference to the club’s history and culture, it was obvious the pendulum had swung too far and Solskajer’s job was to redress the balance.
Now he is gone and Rangnick is charged with designing a new blueprint which outlasts any manager of the future.
So, this was the starting point. And even though he wasn’t in the dugout at Stamford Bridge there was inevitable focus on how United lined up, how they approached the game and how they managed it under the guidance of Michael Carrick.
With that in mind, the team news almost broke the internet as United fans took in the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo had been dropped and a midfield diamond introduced in front of a back four – a system which required pace and pressing power rather than the veteran’s more pedestrian approach.
The first half was not especially encouraging, but the fact that United reached half-time on level terms, having kept out Chelsea despite their dominance, suggested that men behind the ball, intense pressing and the occasional counter-attack still had legs as a philosophy against Big Six rivals.
Then, out of the blue, fortune handed them a stepladder. One hoof out of defence by Alex Telles, one mistake by Jorginho and a good finish by Jadon Sancho, momentarily remnded us how football’s randomness can have as big an impact as any manager or any tactic.
The sheer outpouring of emotion when Sancho, the big money marquee signing whose poor form played a part in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s departure, hit the net told a story in itself; and hinted at a team finally unified by crisis.
Briefly, the goal galvanised United so much that they threatened to add to their lead; and although Chelsea equalised from the spot there were still positives here; something for Rangnick to cling on to.
Pictures of United Technical Director Darren Fletcher wearing an earpiece on the bench suggested he was in contact with the German veteran coach and that his influence was already being felt in terms of the style of play and tactical approach.
Ronaldo’s arrival as sub, in place of Sancho, suggests the striker may still have a role to play in the new regime, but the real positives came in the shape of Sancho’s hard-working performance, together with his second goal in two games, and the combative and concentrated defending of the back four, which excelled without suspended Harry Maguire.
Eric Bailly, in particular, shone as Chelsea bombarded the United goal late on, and there was resilience, energy and physical output that we haven’t always seen from United sides this season.
What part Rangnick’s arrival has played in that is hard to tell, but his influence on the future could last beyond this season if all goes well.