16 Conclusions: Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United

Date published: Sunday 5th November 2017 8:02

* That Jose Mourinho record in the biggest away league games, updated:

26/04/15: Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea
16/08/15: Manchester City 3-0 Chelsea
29/11/15: Spurs 0-0 Chelsea
17/10/16: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United
23/10/16: Chelsea 4-0 Manchester United
27/04/17: Manchester City 0-0 Manchester United
07/05/17: Arsenal 2-0 Manchester United
14/05/17: Tottenham 2-0 Manchester United
14/10/17: Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United
05/11/17: Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United

So why do you appoint Jose Mourinho as your manager, if you are Manchester United? You appoint him because of his ability to attract the best players in the world, and he has done exactly that. You appoint him to make your team perform better, and he has done that too.

You do not appoint Mourinho because you do not want to score in games away at your peers. You do not appoint Mourinho because you want a team reliant on the availability of one midfielder to make you tick. You do not appoint Mourinho because you want to be eight points behind the Premier League leaders after 11 games, and as close in points to Huddersfield in tenth as your title and city rivals. Dress it up how you want, but this is not good enough. Not good enough at all.

 

* Antonio Conte, meanwhile, has provoked a positive reaction again. Three times since taking over at Chelsea the Italian has been told that his club is in crisis, and three times Conte has come (literally) roaring back. He screams and screeches his way through every match, but the manager’s reaction at full-time demonstrates just how much he needed this. His mannerisms when walking back down the tunnel after full-time, like a man electrocuted while being told he had won the lottery, were a mix of unbridled joy, sweet revenge and blessed relief.

Chelsea merited victory at Stamford Bridge, and should have extended their lead ahead of the nervous final throes. They looked far stronger defensively, but crucially won a midfield battle that effectively decided the contest and had Alvaro Morata looking sharper than he has for weeks. For all that talk of crisis, Chelsea are one point behind Tottenham and Manchester United and have won three straight league games.

 

* The big news when the teams were announced was Mourinho’s decision to match Chelsea’s formation by playing with a three-man central defence and Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia as wing-backs.

“We know that if you look in a pragmatic way, you see the last winners of the Premier League, they did not play attacking football,” said Mourinho of Conte’s use of that formation with Chelsea in September, performing a spectacular duet with Alanis Morrisette.

“They played defensive football and counter-attack football. So according to the results, that is the way to win the Premier League. We try to play positive, we try to play good but we try to win.”

How lovely, Jose. Steep that quote in irony like the others. It is quite the collection.

 

* We thought we knew what to expect. We saw Mourinho against his old club and we saw Manchester United’s recent record at Stamford Bridge, and we made assumptions. United would wheel out that bus again. Mourinho would not play for a draw – because that isn’t the point of what he does – but he would play to not lose. See any weakness in the opposition, and United would look to take advantage. Otherwise, they take their point.

The problem was that Manchester City’s victory over Arsenal, and subsequent eight-point lead at the top, made draws in games like these insufficient for United. In any other season, playing for a point in the toughest away games is a viable strategy. But we are almost 30% of the way through the season and Pep Guardiola’s team have dropped only two points. The chances are that United will need 90-plus points to win the league.

Neither set of supporters will like me thanking Pep Guardiola for giving us an entertaining spectacle, but that is the reality. City have forced ambition out of their title challengers. That can only be a good thing.

 

* If the mirrored formations and combative midfields suggested that this would be another sluggish, sludgy affair, then the reality was mercifully something quite different. With three central defenders and therefore extra cover, Mourinho instructed his midfielders and forwards to press Chelsea high up the pitch. The bus had been left in the garage.

This approach had an impact at both ends of the pitch. Firstly, Chelsea were forced into mistakes, haunted by their recent form, and were less than convincing in possession. Romelu Lukaku gained possession after one turnover, and fired a shot that Thibaut Courtois pushed away.

Yet there was one Chelsea midfielder too good to be affected by United’s press. Cesc Fabregas had a wonderful first 20 minutes, picking passes down the channels and playing through balls into Chelsea’s forwards. United pressing rather than sitting left the sort of gap between defence and attack that Fabregas delights in playing passes into and Eden Hazard delights in dropping into to receive them.

 

* It was the away team that should have taken the lead. A cross was played into Chelsea’s box, and Marcus Rashford evaded three central defenders with embarrassing ease. With so much space six yards from goal, Courtois could not predict where the header would go. Instead, the Belgian made himself as big as possible and jumped at Rashford to put him off. It worked.

Rashford’s heading is hardly his finest asset, but it was a dreadful miss. Had he headed it downwards rather than up and over Courtois, United would have had the lead. Instead, the ball landed on the roof of the net.

 

* Chelsea had their own chances before the break; plenty. Tiemoue Bakayoko (who was Chelsea’s worst player) somehow contrived to look as awkward as a toddler kicking the ball in the garden when 12 yards from goal, before Fabregas headed wide after David de Gea had parried a Hazard shot. Christensen headed a corner up and over rather than down and in.

In their defensive display against Liverpool, Manchester United allowed the opposition 19 shots all game and had six of their own. In the first 40 minutes against Chelsea, the home side had 15 shots and they had four of their own. Each of those four was a presentable chance.

 

* Yes, we’re going to talk about Phil ‘The Volley’ Jones now. I know why you’re here.

Firstly, it was a foul. Morata is a striker who would argue that black was white if the referee pointed out the night sky, so when the Spaniard didn’t fully commit to moaning about the decision to disallow Jones’ own goal, you knew it was correct. Replays proved as much.

Yet there will always be a small part of all of us (not like that, you children) who rue referee Anthony Taylor’s decision, for it robbed us of one of the great Premier League own goals. Anyone who cannot get on board with Phil Jones’ contorted face as he sees a majestic volley heading into the top corner of his own net – and I’m including Manchester United fans and Jones’ own family – doesn’t know what great comedy is.

As an aside, no man has perfected the art of sliding into a foul, getting up and receiving his yellow card all in one movement quite like Jones. He is a master of many arts.

 

* I don’t normally write sections on individual players until later in these pieces, but will make an exception for Henrikh Mkhitaryan. I for one am looking forward to seeing the lewd photos the Armenian is harbouring of his manager that allows him to continue to start Premier League games. He has been abject for two months now.

The most frustrating thing about Mkhitaryan’s miserable run of form is the impact it has on Manchester United’s two forwards, and therefore their entire attack. He is the link between central midfield and Rashford and Lukaku. When he does not do his job effectively, they cannot do theirs.

There is a strong argument that Mkhitaryan has been adversely affected by Paul Pogba’s absence, but that can only offer a partial defence. Pogba does not make you pass in a straight line, beat the first man with a cross or stop getting bullied out of possession. If Mhitaryan starts the next league game, we demand to see those photos.

 

* This is a shout out to the over-expressive Chelsea fan who ran down to the front of the stand before half-time to brandish his own mobile phone as the replacement for a yellow card when referee Taylor failed to brandish one. You have shown incredible dedication to looking like a fool. I only wish you had put a yellow lock screen photo on your phone to fully commit to the farce.

 

* When Chelsea’s goal came, it stemmed from two pieces of brilliance and one piece of miserable defending.

Firstly, the brilliance. There is no more prolific combination of assist provider and goalscorer in the Premier League this season than Cesar Azpilicueta to Morata, and one Spaniard provided for the other for the fifth time in three months. Azpilicueta is able to run forward and then use the time on the ball that crossing from so deep provides to pick out his man. Morata’s header was a delight, guided rather than hit with power and giving De Gea no chance to make a diving save.

Yet the defending was abysmal. There can be little secret when Azpilicueta picks up the ball that he will aim for Morata, so how was Chelsea’s only striker left to roam in his own postcode in the penalty area? Mourinho will be furious.

 

* I understand the desire to stay close to Hazard and Morata, because giving them space is to effectively welcome defeat, but Manchester United’s treatment of Chelsea’s two most advanced players during the second half bordered on victimisation. More importantly for Mourinho, it actually became counter-productive, for it allowed Chelsea to reset their defence and slow down the game.

The most times a player has been fouled in a Premier League games this season is Jordan Ayew for Swansea against Watford, with seven. Hazard and Morata were both fouled six times each on Sunday. Giving away at least 12 free-kicks in your own half is asking for trouble.

 

* Manchester United did have a customary late assault on Chelsea’s goal in the final ten minutes, and caused panic in a creaking defence, but they did not merit getting back into the match. The only surprise was that Chelsea did not extend their lead, with Morata, Bakayoko and Fabregas all guilty of wasting promising positions.

After a positive first half, it was incredibly disappointing to witness such a second-half collapse from the visitors. Chelsea were impressive going forward, rejuvenated after miserable defeat in Rome, but it was United that allowed confidence to grow.

Sorry to repeat the first point, but this is the opposite of what we expected from Mourinho. It is as if he has been unnerved by how much Guardiola has improved City in the space of one summer, and is struggling to find an answer to that improvement. As a man who prides himself on being the best, Mourinho is being forced firmly into second place.

 

* Marouane Fellaini is a much-improved player in 2017, but this was a return to the bad old days. Perhaps the Belgian was simply rusty after injury, but it doesn’t say much for Manchester United that a half-fit big man was their attempted saviour.

Fellaini was booked for an elbow nine minutes after his introduction, and was twice robbed of possession in his own half to put his team in danger. He did win two headers in Chelsea’s box as United resorted to aerial bombardment in the final ten minutes, but that hardly atones for his terrible general play.

 

* Andreas Christensen has had a weird season at Chelsea. He has started four league games, but three of the opponents for those games were Manchester City, Tottenham and Manchester United. That proves that Conte is not afraid to use the Dane in the big games, but he is having to wait his turn behind several senior central defenders.

He should not wait any longer. Christensen was exceptional against United, probably the game’s best player. He marshalled the isolated Lukaku, won his headers and stepped up in possession to play passes into midfield when appropriate. With Antonio Rudiger relegated to the bench and David Luiz injured, this was a test of Christensen. He earns top marks.

Importantly for Chelsea, Christensen is a success story of their loan system that can be measured in something other than financial profit. Having learned his trade in the Bundesliga and been welcomed back at Stamford Bridge, the defender should be cherished.

 

* I made Christensen my Man of the Match, but the last words go to N’Golo Kante. Overlook his impact on this Chelsea team at your peril. It is no coincidence that Kante’s return to central midfield instantly made Chelsea look more solid. Like every selfless player, he makes the job of those around him easier.

The best passing accuracy of every Chelsea starter. Possession gained from an opponent twice more than any other player on the pitch. Possession lost fewer times than any of his teammates. Yes, we remember this man. He’s a bloody marvel.

Daniel Storey – Enjoyed this? Please buy Portrait of an Icon, and support research into treating and beating cancer.

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