* What started the weekend as a fixture between second and fourth had become a meeting between third and fifth by kick-off on Sunday afternoon. Liverpool and Tottenham overcame differing obstacles to sneak up on Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, placing undue pressure on an already huge clash.
Both clubs drew against Spanish sides in midweek, and although Chelsea’s stalemate was at home and United’s was away, the outlooks could not have been more different. For the Blues, it was positive. For the Reds, quite the opposite.
And yet even with Chelsea taking the lead at Old Trafford, United emerged with all three points. It was only their second comeback win in the Premier League this season, and the first time Chelsea had failed to win after scoring first. This was a crucial result for both sides, but for very different reasons.
* Jose Mourinho spoke of the need to “neutralize” the imminent danger posed by Eden Hazard on Friday. The Portuguese had previously displayed two strategies for dealing with the Belgian: man-marking and tactical fouling. One was remarkably effective, Ander Herrera shadowing him to perfection in a 2-0 win in April 2017, while the other was less so. Herrera was sent off for a foul on Hazard in a 1-0 FA Cup defeat a month prior, 30 seconds after Phil Jones had clattered into the forward.
It came as no surprise that Mourinho tried to replicate the success of the first. Herrera’s injury in the first half against Sevilla in midweek threatened to scupper those plans, but Scott McTominay stepped up to the plate.
The midfielder neither struck out nor hit a home run. McTominay was great when considering the responsibility placed on him, but Hazard was phenomenal. He created four chances – two more than any other player – and completed four dribbles while misplacing just four of his 52 passes. It was a fine performance from a player who hardly deserved to be on the losing side.
* Hazard was taken off in the 73rd minute, much to the disapproval of the Chelsea supporters. Their mood hardly improved when United scored two minutes later. The visitors were forced to attack without their most potent weapon.
Antonio Conte received due praise for his tactical decisions against Barcelona, but this was the reverse. Taking Hazard off was one of the numerous mistakes the coach made that cost Chelsea a potential point or more. Even if the Belgian was tiring, he poses the sort of threat and presence the Blues can ill afford to lose.
Starting with Alvaro Morata despite the success enjoyed by a flowing front three was an error in hindsight, as was giving Cesc Fabregas just ten minutes to try and find a gap in a tired defense. Olivier Giroud had a comparatively short time to make an impact, and Chelsea completed just two crosses after his introduction despite having the Frenchman and Morata up front. After getting it so right against Barcelona, Conte got it wrong here.
* Mourinho, in turn, deserves credit. This was framed as a battle between two warring managers, and the Portuguese eventually came out on top.
United was lucky to enter half-time on level terms but was much improved in the second half. They were quicker, more aggressive, more incisive, and seemed to have a far greater idea of what was expected of them. Yet the decisive goal would still not come.
The next substitution would prove crucial for either manager, and it was Mourinho who blinked first. Jesse Lingard came on for Anthony Martial, and he scored the winner 11 minutes later.
The questions about style remain, for they cannot truly be answered in one half. But Mourinho provided a timely reminder that he can still positively affect a game.
* One of the biggest questions before the match, indeed one of our five, was whether Conte would look to repeat his Barcelona trick against United. Willian, who was phenomenal against the Catalans earlier in the week, said Chelsea “would have to play in a similar way” on Sunday. The Blues prospered with a fluid front three and no fixed striker against a solid Barca defense and could look to exploit a weaker United one with a similar tactic.
Not so. Conte handed Morata his first start since early January, with Hazard and Willian behind him and Pedro dropping to the bench. The dynamic which had almost been utilized to perfection against Barcelona was altered, and Conte sought to fix what was not broken.
The experiment started well. Morata was bright, with his characteristic darting runs and intelligent movement creating openings. It was his fine first-time volley that struck the bar from an excellent early Chelsea move.
But as the minutes clocked by, the Spaniard’s influence on the game dwindled. He could no longer find space, was being beaten for pace and in the air by Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelof and has now gone exactly 540 minutes without scoring. He has more yellow cards (9) than combined goals and assists since the start of October (8). The three-man forward line Plan B is more effective than Conte’s Plan B right now.
* Morata was subjected to the usual Graeme Souness half-time withering diatribe treatment, with the Sky Sports pundit insisting that Chelsea would be ahead if they had “a proper striker”.
The analysis was cut – and many would argue accurately – but it failed to include one key moment in the 13th minute. Morata, dropping deep and thereby likely incensing Souness even further, played a wonderful ball into the path of Victor Moses down the right-hand side. He then delayed his run and lurked unmarked to the edge of the area, waiting for Moses to return the favor. The Nigerian instead tried to dribble past two men before failing to deliver a cross or pass of any sort.
The defensive improvements Moses has undergone under Conte have been remarkable, but it has taken away from his attacking output. His only two assists this season both came in a 3-1 win over Newcastle in December, and he has created just 11 chances in the Premier League this season – one more than David Zappacosta in considerably more time. He is the most obviously upgradable member of Chelsea’s regular starting XI.
* Chelsea started the first half the better side but were made to wait 32 minutes to find the breakthrough. That it came from a United corner and included as many as six individual mistakes will be enough to interrupt Mourinho’s sleeping patterns for the next month.
First Paul Pogba lost a header to Moses, then Lindelof was aggressive in closing down Hazard before backing off. Next, Scott McTominay failed to track his runner, Ashley Young was stuck in no man’s land, Antonio Valencia played Willian on and David de Gea failed to stop the Brazilian’s powerful effort.
The biggest culprit was McTominay. As harsh as it sounds to criticise a 21-year-old on his third career league start, the midfielder passed the first part of his driving lesson before somehow totaling the car while attempting a three-point turn. He tracked Willian’s run halfway before reaching Hazard, then inexplicably allowed the Chelsea forward to continue unopposed. It was the double-page spread in a catalog of errors, and provides the sort of harsh lesson one can only learn from such a painful first-hand experience.
* As Hazard played that pass into Willian and Old Trafford watched the situation unfold, Nemanja Matic was afforded a front row seat. His reaction was telling, the Serb throwing his arms up in the air in sheer frustration. The designated driver could hardly believe the state of such drunken defending.
Matic seemed to take Chelsea’s goal as an affront, as he was United’s best player thereafter. He marshaled a nervous defense, cutting off all supply lines and monitoring any potential attack with an air of assurance. He made the most tackles (4), interceptions (4) and blocked the most shots (3) of any of the five starting midfielders, and it was his ability to quickly break up play and start moves upon which United built their foundations for a comeback win.
When Mourinho chose to pass a note onto the pitch in the second half, there was only one man the Portuguese would choose to read it. Matic is the club’s assistant coach on the pitch, and this was his best game in some time.
* It is difficult to defend De Gea’s role in the goal, but then there is no real need to do so. Willian’s shot was powerful but close to him, and the Spaniard’s immediate reaction suggested that he knew he could have done better as he punched the turf in frustration. Quite frankly, it was about time United saved Dave instead of the other way around.
* It was a considerable test of United’s resolve. The goal came during their one period of first-half dominance, with the Old Trafford crowd increasing the volume as first Romelu Lukaku had a shot blocked before Alexis Sanchez forced a save from Thibaut Courtois. Four minutes later, Chelsea was ahead.
The goal did more to light United’s fire than it did to dampen it. Sanchez was key in the build-up, taking the initiative to switch the play from right to left before bringing it centrally. A series of short passes between the Chilean, Matic, Lukaku and Anthony Martial followed before Sanchez finally played the ball into the box. Martial took a touch before playing in Lukaku, who treated the ball with the same courtesy before slotting home.
Martial’s role should not be downplayed and is further evidence that there might be no player who displays such fine close control on instinct. It was an assist reminiscent of his deft turn and touch for Lingard’s first strike in the win over Arsenal in December, and no less impressive.
* The goal was a bonus for Lukaku in a fine performance. He led the line impeccably and gave a three-man central defense something to think about constantly with his movement and clever hold-up play.
His assist for Lingard’s winner was even better. The Belgian ghosted between two Chelsea defenders with delightful footwork before delivering an inch-perfect cross for Lingard to head home. There is always something beautiful in a striker providing the sort of assist he usually relishes scoring from.
It feels a little unfair to single out one individual, but Alan Shearer was one of many who said that his display ‘begs the question, why doesn’t he play like that more often?’ Rather, it begs the question as to why some are still concentrating on what he supposedly can’t do just minutes after he has offered an example of what he can.
* As far as learning curves go, Andreas Christensen’s has been rather steep this past week. A mistake against Barcelona was followed up with an uncertain game against United, which will likely knock the confidence.
“I know I made a mistake, but there is not much else to do than to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said after his error led to Barcelona’s equalizer in midweek, and he was again at least partially at fault for both of United’s goals. It is important to remember that he is still just 21 and does have credit in the bank, but this was another sobering reminder of his limitations.
* The official Manchester United Twitter account was as transparent as possible when announcing the line-ups. ‘It looks like 4-3-3 for the Reds,’ the message stated, suggesting that Mourinho had taken over social media duties temporarily.
The manager was keen to highlight that, contrary to recent reports, Pogba has played in his favored position in his favored formation plenty this season, and that point was labored before kick-off on Sunday. The Frenchman was accompanied by Matic and McTominay in central midfield, the two bouncers for his VIP treatment.
There were better players for either side, but what should be noted is that Pogba hardly demanded the limelight, despite the continued laughable attempts to denigrate his personality or life choices. He can have as many haircuts, wear as many outfits and have as many discos in his basement as he wants as he long as he influences games as he did on Sunday.
* Mourinho got his second-half substitutions right, first changing the game with Lingard’s introduction before consolidating the win by bringing on Eric Bailly. The man the center-half replaced endured one of his stranger games.
Sanchez has never looked a natural fit in this United side, and there were times on Sunday when he appeared to be playing on this team for the first time. He constantly glanced over his shoulder in the first half to look at Mourinho and see whether he wanted him to press or not, and cut something of a confused figure throughout.
The problem with Sanchez is that he is the very definition of making something out of nothing. He helped create the equalizer, teed up Lukaku for an impressive volley, and slowly but surely helped United get a foothold in a game they might previously have let pass them by.
* Roy Keane has cultivated quite the reputation as a big opinion gun for hire, but he was scathingly accurate in one of his most recent assessments. “I’ve always thought with Ashley Young in your back four, you are going to struggle,” said the former midfielder earlier this month.
It was less a “struggle” with Young in the starting line-up at Old Trafford, more a puzzle as to why he was there. The 32-year-old was not particularly poor on Sunday but offered nothing in either defense or attack. He found himself in favorable positions a number of times on the left-hand side throughout the game but failed to create a single chance with a cross or cutback.
Young’s deterioration in form of late would ordinarily be a cause for concern at United, yet the only worry is how long Mourinho persists with him. “I don’t see many left-backs better than Luke Shaw,” the manager said on January 19, yet Shaw has started just one of the five Premier League games since. He has earned his opportunity to prove himself as much as Young has lost his.
* The gap between fourth place is hardly massive. Chelsea is two points behind Tottenham with ten games to play, including one against their north London rivals at Stamford Bridge on April 1. But it is difficult not to suggest that, on a weekend where the three teams directly above them have won in impressive circumstances, the pendulum has swung. Momentum is no longer in their favor, and although they have been branded the ‘crisis club’ on a number of occasions this season, this is the first time since mid-October that they will end a game week outside the top four. It threatens to be more of a controlled explosion than the usual dramatic implosion, but failure to qualify for the Champions League is failure nonetheless.
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