* “I never had doubts but it is still remarkable that after the four defeats in a row we have started to win,” Louis van Gaal said before kick-off, stroking his own reputation and ego. “I hope it has given the fans the stimulus to now believe in the manager. The aim here is still the same – to qualify for the Champions League and to finish one step higher than last year, so third place.”
If that is still the aim, Manchester United were minutes away from making it reality, minutes away from recording back-to-back away league victories for the first time since March 2015. Yet they let it slip. Memphis Depay was hideously wasteful in attack, Daley Blind panicky in defence and Diego Costa assured with his finish.
All points count for the same, but it feels like these two will be crucial to United’s hopes. They will be crucial too to Van Gaal’s future employment, should United miss out on a top-four finish. As for that belief in the manager, most still remain unconvinced.
* With Jose Mourinho departed from the Premier League, Guus Hiddink vs Louis van Gaal might represent the biggest managerial rivalry in the division. Enjoy it while you can.
The two Dutchmen have never got on. They refused to even acknowledge each other before, during and after an El Clasico in 1998, and for so long they represented opposite ends of the football spectrum. As Dutch journalist Elko Born wrote in December: ‘If Van Gaal is the “Iron Tulip” of Dutch football, Hiddink is the “Velvet Rose”.’
While Van Gaal prefers to manage through control and Hiddink through a more laissez-faire attitude, their footballing styles are also noticeably different. In the build-up to the game, Hiddink placed the thinnest of veils over his criticism of United’s possession-based approach.
“You must not overrate the amount of possession. Most teams want the ball. What do you do with it?” Hiddink said. “Say we had 65, 67 and 70% possession, but our opponents said, ‘We don’t care how much possession you have, we have the score on our side’. Do you secure your way of playing? Or do you go as soon as possible into the attack? I prefer the latter option. The first thought must be vertical.”
Game on, you’d have thought, yet there never seemed to be any tension brewing in the fixture. After the vibrancy of Leicester on Saturday came the grim realisation of a Chelsea vs Manchester United fixture. This used to be a glamour fixture.
* The question of managerial rivalries is a relevant one. Next season, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Premier League may be home to Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. English football may not be able to boast the world’s best players, but it would have the highest-profile coaches. Surely that counts for something?
Chelsea’s manager is unconvinced. “We must not overvalue the role of the managers and the coaches – they prepare the games and the opponent and the way we like to play. That’s it,” Hiddink said. “At the end the players have to execute what you are doing in training and in team meetings. We must not overvalue the battle between managers; it’s a battle between the players.”
That’s true, but there is something special about managerial rivalries. They are not merely a by-product of football as Premier League soap opera – some of the greatest rivalries came in the 1970s – but a vital part of the game’s entertainment value. A match played out with the undercurrent of animosity between two coaches only allows for greater intrigue, setting the tone for the 90 minutes ahead.
* United started the stronger, pressing high up the pitch against a Chelsea side who played like they had just woken up. Van Gaal’s side forced nine corners in the first 23 minutes without Chelsea earning one, and dominated both possession and territory.
That said, they were again found lacking in the final third, with Wayne Rooney isolated and touching the ball fewer times (22) than any other United outfield player before the break. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Michael Carrick both had shots from outside the penalty area that were never likely to end in a goal, and it was left (again) to Anthony Martial to force the best chance of the half for the visitors.
Branislav Ivanovic may have improved on his woeful early-season form, but he is no match for the wonderfully explosive Martial. Rather than showing the Frenchman to the touchline, Ivanovic instead let his opponent drift into the penalty area. Martial’s powerful shot was expertly saved by Thibaut Courtois. Both goalkeepers were excellent throughout the match. If the Premier League is to do a fine line in managers next season, we’re being spoilt for goalkeepers during this campaign.
* It was a first half of two halves. Having looked abject for the first 25 minutes, Chelsea then gained a foothold and began to create chances. It was they who were unfortunate not to lead at half-time.
Chelsea’s first chance came from their first flowing attacking move. Oscar exchanged passes with John Obi Mikel before playing Diego Costa through, the Spaniard able to ease past Blind in what was to become a running theme of the game. The Dutchman’s lack of pace makes him an unideal solution in central defence, but Costa’s shot was dragged wide to save Blind embarrassment. Within three minutes, Oscar had also fired wide and Nemanja Matic seen his header saved by David de Gea.
* Before half-time came the game’s biggest moment of controversy. Replays showed that Michael Oliver’s view of Blind’s handball was blocked, but John Terry’s shot still struck the Dutchman on the elbow.
Importantly, Blind’s arm was in the ‘unnatural position’ officials are asked to consider when making their decision. Terry was understandably aggrieved to not be awarded a penalty, though it is worth pointing out that Chelsea’s captain has made a career out of such last-ditch lunges. “I’ve seen them given,” Mr Normal Football Fan said to anyone in the pub who would listen.
* One of my notes from the first half was that Jesse Lingard is slightly too conservative for a winger and therefore far better drifting infield, but criticism of the 23-year-old can be parked for now after his superb opening goal.
Usually slipping as you shoot is a disadvantage, but the slick surface actually helped Lingard. Having controlled Rooney’s pass on the toe of his boot, Lingard planted his left foot. As he swung his right that left foot gave way in the turf, which actually allowed Lingard to generate more power. The ball flew past Courtois.
In fact, Lingard actually played like a second striker for much of the match. He failed to create a single chance but had five shots, three more than Martial and Juan Mata combined. Whereas Martial stayed wide to receive the ball, Lingard regularly drifted in from his flank.
Lingard now has three goals in his last five Premier League appearances, and three of his last four shots on target have found the net. It cannot be the said of every Manchester United player, but the winger has improved under Van Gaal this season.
* On a slightly related note, Adnan Januzaj turned 21 on Friday. He moves no closer to his United coming of age. It has been a rotten year.
Having had his loan at Borussia Dortmund cancelled and followed by criticism from Thomas Tuchel, Januzaj failed to even make the squad for Sunday’s game. Andreas Pereira has overtaken Januzaj, while Lingard is over the hill and far away.
That European Golden Boy nomination feels an awfully long time ago. If a new manager doesn’t see Januzaj progress at Old Trafford, it may be time for a permanent move away. Something has to give. Luckily Mourinho doesn’t have a reputation for ruining wingers.
* Chelsea may plead that Eden Hazard is not yet fully fit, hence his position on the Chelsea bench, but supporters will be worried. Were Chelsea in the hunt for the title or a top-four place, Hazard would surely have been in the starting XI.
Given 35 minutes to impress, Hazard was tidy in possession and created two chances, but there is little of the spark that made him the Player of the Year in 2014/15. The Belgian’s ability to control, dominate and win matches looks lost. We should hope that it is a temporary absence.
Hazard’s relegation to the bench makes his quotes all the more interesting.
“Yes, of course [I would like to play under Zidane],” Hazard told Belgian newspaper La Gazette. “When I was little, I watched him on TV and on the internet for hours. But, and I repeat, I feel very well at Chelsea, so this is not news.
“It is always nice to hear that the player I admired during my childhood speaking about me. I have always appreciated Zidane. I know about him as a player but not so much as a coach, although he has been very successful debut at the Bernabeu. But I am still under contract at Chelsea and I feel fine.”
Whatever Hazard may think, these quotes are news. There are rumours of potential summer interest from Real Madrid and Paris St Germain, and Chelsea’s most valuable asset has fluttered his eyes at his suitors. Even if that flirting is inadvertent, Hazard is experienced enough to know that “of course I’d like to play under Zidane” will gain more publicity than “I am still under contract at Chelsea”.
The question is whether Chelsea would choose to cash in on a player potentially worth more than £60m. Hazard’s form of last season made that look cheap, but his form of this season makes dismissing any offers a far harder decision. Simeone in, Hazard out and Antoine Griezmann in is not an unthinkable scenario.
* There is something almost haunting about a player screaming out in agony when injured. The close-up pictures of Kurt Zouma’s face were awful, and the replays no better. The Frenchman looked to open up his knee joint after landing awkwardly, and crumpled into a heap. Horrible.
“Tomorrow we know more, but if you have this injury – and everyone has seen how bad it is – hyper-extension is always bad,” Hiddink said after the game. “I had this same problem once and it hurts. But let’s hope and see tomorrow what the MRIs will show.” Get well soon.
* Although Terry’s summer departure had been confirmed by the Chelsea captain, Sunday’s programme may have offered hope of a reprieve. There was no mention in Terry’s column of him leaving the club, despite this being his first home game since the announcement. Quite how much of the column Terry actually writes is open to debate, but it would seem remiss for his departure to not even be referenced.
While the player confirmed that no contract offer was forthcoming, with Chelsea “going in a different direction”, there has been no corroboration of that fact from the club. In fact, quite the opposite.
“John was advised that while no new deal was currently on the table, that situation could change in the coming months,” a spokesman said on February 1. “The club has the utmost respect for John and everything he has helped us achieve to date. He is a fantastic servant of Chelsea and a superb captain. As such, the club will keep the channels of dialogue open.”
Perhaps Terry was too previous with his announcement, perhaps he was publicly forcing the club’s hand, or maybe the omission in the programme is a mere coincidence. Whatever the answer, it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see the captain still at Stamford Bridge next season.
The game against United was Terry’s 566th as Chelsea captain, and it’s hard to imagine Mr Chelsea anywhere else. His style does not rely on turn of pace but positioning, and one wonders too whether the extent of Zouma’s injury may affect the club’s decision.
* If you ever had any doubts about the superb technique of professional footballers, watch Ivanovic’s second-half shot (and De Gea’s save). Cesar Azpilicueta headed the ball high in the air at the back post, and Chelsea’s right-back took on the volley with his weaker foot. With no word of hyperbole, it was Zidane-esque.
Unfortunately for Ivanovic and Chelsea, De Gea’s reactions were just as supreme. Dave saves, again.
* United seemed comfortable after taking the lead, content to invite Chelsea onto them with De Gea a superb last line of defence. They were undone by their own foolishness.
Memphis Depay has struggled at Old Trafford this season, and his introduction was a time-wasting move as much as anything else. The Dutchman still managed to have a hand in his side’s downfall. Rather than play an easy pass to Schneiderlin with United enjoying an overlap on the counter-attack, he lost the ball.
Still speechless that Depay failed to square it to Morgan with this simple pass to make it 2-0 before they equalised pic.twitter.com/82ZXKYT6vF
— Dale (@Dale_MUFC_) February 7, 2016
With Schneiderlin caught upfield, Chelsea surged forward. There was still time for another United mistake, with Blind caught ball-watching. As he tried to turn and atone for his mistake, Blind slipped, allowing Costa in on goal. He rounded De Gea superbly before rolling the ball home.
One can only envisage Van Gaal’s anger at those individual mistakes. Two of United’s three Dutchman spoiling it for the third.
* Costa deserves praise as much as Depay and Blind merit censure. The striker’s Chelsea career looked to be in doubt when Mourinho left the club, but he has responded in fine fashion. Costa has had a hand in eight goals in his last seven Premier League games, with six goals and two assists. Few inside Stamford Bridge are booing now.
I wrote late last month about the way in which Costa has improved his all-round game under Hiddink – more movement, more sprints, more shots, more touches. Again it showed against United.
Costa still appeared angry and frustrated at times – this leopard is unlikely to change his spots – but both are now being channelled into positive results. He has now scored six goals in his last seven league games after only three in the previous 14 this season. Those goals have gained Chelsea five points.
* A final word of praise for Matteo Darmian, who is again excelling after a significant dip in form. This is the right-back that we were promised. He was the game’s best player.
With Lingard drifting in from the right, Darmian was given licence to overlap and attack down the flank. The Italian attempted more crosses from open play than any other player on the pitch, and 39 of his 69 touches came in Chelsea’s half. With Fellaini and Carrick as cover, he was able to roam forward. It’s clear that is where his abilities lie.
However, while Darmian has looked defensively unsteady on occasion, he also coped admirably with the threat of Oscar on Chelsea’s left. The right-back made more tackles than any of his team-mates, while Oscar only created one chance before being substituted. Job well done.
* For Van Gaal, perhaps a terminal late equaliser. His team have improved since their dire November and shambolic December, but are still falling far short of their potential.
“There has been such nonsense created about me,” Van Gaal was quoted as saying in the build-up to the game. “I don’t believe there is already a relationship between Jose Mourinho and Manchester United because I have seen what has happened here over the last two months. It has been very difficult for me, for my wife, for my kids, for my grandchildren and for my friends to cope with that. But it is the football world these days.”
It is indeed, Louis, and it isn’t going to change for one man. Mourinho continues to stand in the wings, coughing loudly at opportune moments. Manchester United’s manager cannot pretend he has not had the opportunity to change the club’s fortunes.
“We were the better team and didn’t win,” Van Gaal claimed after the match. “We had the chances but we didn’t reward ourselves. Not for the first time.”
It is not the 1-1 draw against Chelsea that will cause his downfall, but the defeats to Norwich, Bournemouth, Stoke and Southampton that turned these fixtures into must-win matches. The excuses and the reasons do not matter. The problem for Van Gaal is that United didn’t win, when that’s precisely what they must do to keep him in a job. Not for the first time.