* You’ll say they parked the bus. You’ll say they were defensive, and that some of the gloss of their title win is therefore diminished. You’ll say that their players stay down injured and take longer to leave the field after substitutions, and that cheapens their victory. You’ll say that there is a large element of fortune to winning through being defensive.
They’ll say that they’ve done it too many times for lady luck to be too greatly involved. They’ll say that league titles are won on points not aesthetics, and they need just nine more to guarantee their triumph. They’ll point out that no Premier League side has scored more goals this season and that no other side in the top four has conceded fewer. They’ll remark that they have the best player, the best manager and the best team. They’d be right on all three points.
Manchester United came to Stamford Bridge with ambitions to be Chelsea’s nearest rivals, but they left defeated. They arrived with Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera all in the best form of their United careers, but all were snuffed out, or at least held at arm’s length. Whatever your demand for elegance or distress at Chelsea’s perceived ‘dark arts’, don’t let it cloud your judgement. They are truly deserving champions, and they’ll take some stopping next season too.
* Some foolishly labelled this game as close to a dead rubber, with Chelsea almost certain to lift the Premier League trophy and United safely nestled in the top four. Don’t be so bloody silly.
With Jose Mourinho’s side slightly limping towards the finish line and Louis van Gaal finally generating the fluidity in United’s performances he has long been promising, this was as much an appetiser for next season as the dessert course of this campaign. Van Gaal’s United have the best record in the top seven in matches against the other sides, and victory at Stamford Bridge would reassure supporters that they will mount a significant title challenge next season. We had the earliest of auditions.
* It was also impossible not to make the apprentice and master analogy. It is 18 years since Van Gaal gave Mourinho a job at Barcelona. He had been impressed by the Portuguese’s belligerence and anger at being overlooked in favour of Van Gaal to replace Bobby Robson in the Camp Nou hotseat. After three years under Van Gaal’s tutelage, Mourinho left Barcelona for Benfica, flying the nest. A managerial star had been born.
‘A former Tory leader once said when asked what their greatest achievement was: “New Labour”,’ Gary Neville wrote in his Daily Telegraph column. ‘I can imagine Louis van Gaal, when answering the same question from a group of journalists, peering back from his desk and responding: ‘Mourinho’. Mourinho is Van Gaal’s star pupil, having achieved so much since working under the Dutchman during his time at Barcelona.’
This was only the third time the pair have met as managers. The first was the 2010 Champions League final, in which Mourinho’s Internazionale beat Van Gaal’s Bayern Munich; the second was the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford this season. Van Gaal is still waiting to put his former pupil back in his place.
*After a midweek with no English interest in the Champions League, Manchester United’s team news became Friday’s biggest news story. Given the options unavailable to Van Gaal, that was no surprise.
“Carrick is injured, he cannot play,” Van Gaal revealed. “But not only Michael Carrick – Daley Blind, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo cannot play. It cannot be worse because it’s two players in the left central defensive positions, and Jonny Evans is still suspended. Blind and Carrick play in the holding position in midfield, so I have to change my line-up a lot against Chelsea.”
And change it he did. Radamel Falcao was given his chance to impress in Wayne Rooney’s role, with Rooney dropping into the holding midfield position Van Gaal had hinted at. Luke Shaw replaced Daley Blind in a straight swap at left-back, whilst Paddy McNair deputised for Phil Jones.
Van Gaal was not the only one with injury issues. Loic Remy’s failure to recover from a calf injury meant that Didier Drogba started consecutive Premier League games for the first time since his return to the club. Mourinho also predictably chose to add steel to his central midfield by providing support for Nemanja Matic. The only slight surprise (and it was only slight) is that it was Kurt Zouma and not Ramires asked to perform that duty.
* United started on the front foot, dominating possession and pushing Chelsea into their own third. It would be a stretch to suggest that chasing the game unsettled Mourinho, but the Stamford Bridge crowd certainly grew restless as the home side had just 30% of the ball in the opening half-hour. The sight of McNair striding forward 40 yards from goal epitomised United’s supremacy.
The first chance also came United’s way. Shaw’s burst down the left flank ended with a pull-back to the edge of the area, where Rooney was able to strike the ball with his left foot. What followed was the longest extended mis-celebration since Raheem Sterling vs Italy in last year’s World Cup. David de Gea was made to look particularly foolish.
* Despite the groans from the stands, this was not a scenario to panic Chelsea. They stayed disciplined (no fouls conceded in the opening half-hour) and robust. In fact, Rooney’s shot was the closest to goal of United’s five first-half efforts. All were from range, and none were on target.
Being under pressure doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative if you back yourselves to repel danger. It could be Mourinho’s big game mantra: Don’t count the moments, make the moments count.
* Like a boxer prepared to take body shot after body shot before hitting on the offensive in round eight, it was Chelsea who scored first. They’ve done it far too many times for it to be anything other than a deliberate strategy, and yet still many claim otherwise.
‘It’s fair to say that goal came somewhat out of the blue,’ was how Manchester United’s official Twitter feed welcomed the opener. ‘Neither side had shown signs of a breakthrough in recent minutes.’
That’s not quite true. In the five minutes before Eden Hazard gave Chelsea the lead, the home side began to finally pass the ball through midfield with greater assurance, and Drogba could begin to hold the ball up and bring others into play for the first time in the match.
It was also a goal of sumptuous quality. From Cesc Fabregas’s strength to hold off his opponent and fire the ball into the feet of Oscar, to the superb vision of the Brazilian and the impudence to backheel the pass into the feet of Hazard. The rest was just a wonderful player doing what wonderful players do. More on Hazard later.
There were questions regarding a foul in the build-up to the goal, but it would have been soft to penalise John Terry’s physical challenge on Falcao. Sorry, United fans – if it was the other way round I’m sure you’d agree.
* The other notable incident before the break was a bizarre handball by David de Gea.
A Chelsea counter was sparked by Branislav Ivanovic heading the ball into the opposition half before being clattered by McNair. A mishit cross-field pass then promptly caused confusion between De Gea and Antonio Valencia, with the goalkeeper coming out to clear the danger.
Television replays showed that De Gea was outside the area when handling, missed by an assistant referee in the perfect position. It would not have merited a straight red card, but the goalkeeper should have been booked and a free-kick given to Chelsea from a dangerous position.
* Luke Shaw this week admitted that he is intensely disappointed by his debut season as a Manchester United player. “It’s been a frustrating one because of the injuries I’ve picked up,” he said. “If I was to write a school report on my first season here I’d give myself a C-.”
That assessment may be fair, but on Saturday Shaw hinted that next term may see him move up much closer to the top of the class. The left-back was the second best player on the pitch, and United’s most effective performer.
Daley Blind has been brilliant at left-back for Van Gaal, but attacking full-backs are one of the most prominent recipes for Premier League success. The presence of Shaw in tandem with Ashley Young gave United a constant overlap on the left side, leaving Ivanovic outnumbered. Unlike Valencia on the right, Shaw’s crossing is also better than incompetent.
Only Juan Mata created more chances than Shaw against Chelsea, but it was the defender’s composure in possession that was most impressive. Shaw attempted 52 passes; he completed 51 of them. Van Gaal has some difficult decisions to make in the summer.
* But there can only be one player to take the majority of the plaudits. The nominations for the PFA Player of the Year may eternally generate argument and counter-argument, but surely all can agree that Hazard is the deserved winner? He is by far the most important player for the champions-elect. Thirteen league goals and eight assists barely begins to scratch the surface of his brilliance.
Hazard’s majesty can be summed up by one tiny facet of his game. Watch him for no more than ten minutes and you will see his favourite trick. When running with the ball alongside an opponent, the Belgian stutters his movement, as if giving the impression he will trap the ball and turn back 180°. Instead, he lets the ball carry on rolling, breaking out of his stutter into a dart forward. More often than not it creates that half-yard and half-second that is plenty long enough for him to produce a pass or continue his run.
It’s a trick Hazard repeats so often that opposition players must know what to expect. Too many analysts watch too many videos for genuine surprises. And yet the trick works almost every time.
The key is this: Hazard’s skill is such a threat that defenders never have time to act, only react. His pace usually dictates that that reaction comes too late to thwart the danger. Hazardous is very much the appropriate adjective.
* Given Fellaini’s deserved plaudits of late, Kurt Zouma deserves significant praise for his management of the Belgian. This was obviously a pre-planned man-marking job, and Zouma sacrificed most other aspects of his game in order to shackle his opponent.
In Fellaini’s previous six league games he has had ten shots, but against Chelsea he failed to register a single one. The midfielder was able to create two chances, but both of those came when he moved into the penalty area and Zouma passed him on to a teammate.
Crucially, Zouma did not continuously try and will the ball in an aerial battle with Fellaini, but instead put enough physical pressure on the Belgian in order to challenge for the ball once he had brought it down. The danger was cut off at source.
A potentially difficult (and unenviable) task done extremely well by a player who looks a snip at £12m. Less than a third of an Eliaquim Mangala, if you will.
* It is difficult to be too harsh on Drogba given his age, but Chelsea supporters must feel torn regarding the Ivorian’s bid to play on into next season. The ambition, desire and heart will never die, but the abilities have waned.
At one point in the second half, Drogba was played through on goal, running onto the ball. The striker of old would have shrugged off Chris Smalling and laid the ball across for the onrushing Hazard. Instead, Smalling blocked off the pass. Drogba’s shot still looped off the defender and Hazard hit the bar, but the damage had been done. There just isn’t enough gas in the tank anymore.
Drogba lost the ball on 25 occasions. He completed just seven passes in United’s half, and failed to have a shot on target or create a chance. There were the odd occasions when the ball was held up well, but these are now the exception rather than rule.
Like an old master batsman making 20 attractive runs before misjudging a straight one, there is no possible way for Drogba to improve those parts of his game. He has been a tremendous servant, but Chelsea must ensure that Diego Costa’s hamstrings have more sustainable back-up next season.
* The tendency would be to sweepingly claim that the light of Falcao’s United career may have been extinguished by the width of a post, his second-half shot cannoning of Thibaut Courtois’ left-hand upright.
Unfortunately for the Colombian, that’s wildly optimistic. United supporters wish him no ill-fortune and have no malice towards him, but we knew this wasn’t going to work out before Stamford Bridge. It’s not me, it’s you.
Whether or not you consider a shot hitting the woodwork as bad fortune or poor accuracy (it’s the second one), it was a chance that the old Falcao would score. United did not agree to pay £265,000 a week to a striker on the hope that he would finish only the most presentable chances. They wanted an improvement on Rooney and Robin van Persie, not a dejected understudy. Given the chance to play for his Old Trafford future, Falcao fluffed his lines in now-customary fashion.
I could give you all sorts of statistics to highlight the malaise, but you’ve got your own eyes. Instead, hear this: Falcao’s last shot on target in the Premier League came on January 31. Manchester United have paid him £2.95m since then. The sooner he leaves, the better.
* With his flamboyance in pointing to the penalty spot and apparent self-importance, Mike Dean is a difficult referee (and man) to warm to. However, it would be remiss not to praise him for his decision in stoppage time.
My initial thought was penalty. As the whistle went to his lips I was awaiting the customary Dean crouch-and-point, as if acting out the charade of Vantage Point. Instead, the arm pointed Chelsea’s way, and Herrera was booked for diving.
The decision was spot on, and Dean should also be congratulated for being in the ideal position so late in the match. Cahill’s leg was planted on the ground, and did not make contact with Herrera. Instead, the Spaniard deliberately moved his leg towards Cahill, fabricating the contact.
My point is the same as ever: Cut out the cheating, and the refereeing will improve. If you consider it part of the sport, then mistakes from the officials will be too.
* Despite the injuries, Van Gaal spoke before the game of his desire to see further improvement from his United side.
“We are progressing and playing more like a team,” the United manager said. “I do believe that we can play very well but we haven’t played very well for 90 minutes. First we have to play 90 minutes very well. Against City we didn’t manage.”
The Dutchman is still waiting, whatever his prickly post-match claims. “Why would I be frustrated?” was Van Gaal’s reaction to a perfectly reasonable post-match question. “I am proud of my players. We played the best match of the season.”
When asked whether he thought the changes to the side worked, his response was equally curt: “I just said we played the best match of the season. I think that makes this one a rhetorical question.”
Van Gaal is not the first manager to be left visibly frustrated by a defeat to Chelsea, and he will not be the last. But if that really was the “best match” of United’s season and yet they were left with nothing, there is still much to do.
* For Chelsea, fingers will be inserted firmly into ears, silencing those who wish to cheapen their fourth Premier League title. To tweak Malcolm X’s famous quote: “If you have no success you’ll likely have no critics.”
Chelsea will win the title with three more victories, and could still achieve a total of 94 points. That’s more than any other club has managed since the start of the Premier League. Mourinho is heading for his eighth league title in 13 seasons.
Winners talk about winning; everyone else talks about the winners.