It was archetypal José Mourinho. On Sunday, the Portuguese manager found the perfect tactical riposte to the champions elect at Old Trafford. His Manchester United side emerged victorious after nullifying Chelsea in impressive fashion. Not that Mourinho’s team was on the defensive in victory against Antonio Conte’s side on Sunday. Far from it. The Portuguese manager reimagined his natural and historical inclination towards destructive football in his finest performance as United manager to date.
United’s dramatic victory potentially opens up the title race, with Tottenham Hotspur now just four points behind Chelsea. More importantly for United, victory leaves the Reds in touch with the top four as the season’s denouement approaches. If Mourinho’s team wins games held in hand over Manchester City and Liverpool the gap will be down to one and zero points. All to play for with just seven games to go.
United impressed by destroying Chelsea’s ability to play, highlighted by the visitors taking just three shots over the match and getting none on target. This is a Chelsea team that averages more than 14 shots per game over the Premier League season and has scored 65 goals.
But this wasn’t Mourinho’s anti-football at play, at least not as many understand it in the context of the manager’s career. On Sunday United enjoyed 47 per cent possession at Old Trafford, only dropping below 50 per cent in the second half when Mourinho sacrificed Jesse Lingard’s pace and endeavour for Michael Carrick’s greater defensive nous.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]This was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine. He is the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.[/blockquote]
United also took more shots than Chelsea and played more passes in the attacking third. This was a vibrant, attacking United, even if the team was set up to destroy the visitors from the inside out.
Nor did United kick Chelsea off-the-park as Conte suggested was Mourinho’s strategy during the recent FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. On this occasion it was the visitors who committed more fouls, even though Mourinho’s team attempted, and succeeded with, more tackles.
United won because, much as in that FA Cup tie, Mourinho targeted both Chelsea’s main attacking threat and principle defensive fulcrum. Once again Ander Herrera was charged with shepherding Eden Hazard, while Paul Pogba’s incessant ability to drive forward occupied N’Golo Kante, mentally and physically.
More than Herrera and Pogba, United can thank Mourinho’s decision to impose a high press for what might be only the second time this season, after the team played with similar intensity at Anfield. Chelsea simply couldn’t cope with it.
Little wonder Mourinho found room to crow in the aftermath, celebrating not only United’s victory on Sunday, but the opportunity lost in the Cup, when Herrera’s controversial dismissal cost the Reds.
“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with same tactics and the game was totally controlled when we played with 11 players,” Mourinho said.
“Only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half, plus some minutes in the first half, gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant, but we knew that if we played this way then it would be very difficult for them. I think everyone did what they had to do.”
“I am really happy with the team and the results, because the Manchester City and Liverpool results left us in the position of needing to win. Not even a draw would be a good result for us, so I am really happy for the boys and for us because we keep two windows open to try to play Champions League football.”
Mourinho’s team selection also paid off in spectacular fashion. The Portuguese manager rested Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in league football, seemingly suggesting from the off that he had decided to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League match with Anderlecht.
Far from it. As the match played out, with United punishing Chelsea on the break, it became clear that Mourinho has worked out that brilliant though Ibrahimovic is, the Swede has a certain inhibiting influence on United’s pace. Not so Rashford and his strike partner Jesse Lingard. “Maybe we didn’t rest,” noted the manager. “Maybe we just chose the team that we thought was the best team.”
With two in attack, Rashford and Lingard continually isolated David Luiz, with the Brazilian exposed once before the young England striker burst past the defender to score United’s opener.
The manager’s decision to switch to a back three was also vindicated, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young full of endeavour at wing-back, restricting the space normally enjoyed by Victor Moses and, on this occasion, César Azpilicueta. The system also offered Pogba the freedom of Old Trafford, with the £89 million midfielder, protected by Herrera and Marouane Fellaini, finally imposing himself on countryman Kante.
It was also a day on which Herrera excelled in a destructive role. The Spaniard was sent off at Stamford Bridge for two innocuous fouls on Hazard, one probably not an infringement at all. Now came retribution, with Herrera shadowing Hazard to such good effect for more than 70 minutes that the Belgian took no shots, created just one chance, and completed just 78 per cent of his passes, with only 15 in attacking areas. One of the players of the season, reduced to a passenger.
“It was almost perfect,” said Herrera post-match. “Defensively it was perfect; they’re top of the table but didn’t have any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them but we played football as well; we controlled the game. I think we can be very happy.”
Herrera, of course, was much more pivotal than solely being the hosts’ defensive shield, with the Spaniard playing the perfectly weighted pass from which Marcus Rashford score the opener. The former Athletic Bilbao player then smashed home the second in joyous fashion.
This, of course, was perfectly set-up for Mourinho to shine; the great reactive tactician, a master at building a bespoke plan for a one-off game. It is the ability that has won the 54-year-old so many trophies.
The challenge now for the manager is to parse Sunday’s victory into seven more than will guarantee Champions League football next season. While the Reds have suffered most when facing middled-ranked teams at Old Trafford, the manner of United’s win over this season’s probable champions may provide a lesson learned. There are, after all, pivotal away games at City, Arsenal and Spurs yet to come. United will probably need to win them all.
“I cannot yet give up the Premier League,” said Mourinho in the aftermath. “We have to try and if one day we are in the Europa League and in the Premier League the distance is too big, then we have to prioritise and nobody can criticise us if in the last matches of the league we do it in a different way. But while it is mathematically possible, we have to go with everything we have.”
Supporters must hope that Mourinho is picking the strongest side possible when the Reds travel to Crystal Palace on the final day. The manager may not need a special plan for that one.