16 Conclusions: Chelsea 2 Manchester United 2

Date published: Sunday 21st October 2018 4:11

1. Well that was fun, wasn’t it? What a lovely way to return from an international break that was shepherded in by a disappointing 0-0 draw between two of the Premier League’s other heavy hitters.

When a game is described as ‘engrossing’, it’s normally largely a back-handed compliment, specifically meaning ‘I found it interesting but I wouldn’t call it exciting’.

This game was genuinely engrossing, in that there was plenty of intrigue: lots of individual battles to watch out for, some slightly unexpected team selections, and an interesting story to be told no matter the result.

But it was also exciting, with both teams leading at some point in a game where the result was decided by a substitute’s injury-time equaliser. Oh and some ridiculous squabbling, which is always a lot of fun, even if we pretend it isn’t.

Let’s get into it, for we have much to discuss.

 

2. There are obviously still problems for Jose Mourinho to sort out, which we will come onto later, but it is refreshing not to be forced into writing our 427th piece this year about Mourinho’s habitual tactical negativity.

After the 3-2 comeback win over Newcastle, plenty of people had suggested a 4-2-3-1 might be the answer for United in this game, but as it essentially meant dropping a defender (well, Scott McTominay, and apparently in Mourinho’s mind they are one and the same thing) to accommodate a number 10, many United fans will have dared not hold their breath until the teamsheets came out.

It’s not that Mourinho is afraid of making bold decisions; merely that he is rarely bold in such a way. But for a late, late equaliser and the extremely lolworthy scenes that followed, the overwhelming reaction to the game would have been to pick apart how well it worked in the second half against one of the most impressive sides in the league thus far.

 

3. Our preview of the game talked about how Maurizio Sarri’s teams love to lean left, especially in games against big opposition. In both their 3-2 win against Arsenal and their 1-1 draw with Liverpool earlier this season, a shade under 50% of Chelsea’s attacking moves went down Hazard’s side of the pitch; against mid-table sides, they tend to be more evenly distributed across the width of the pitch.

United’s response to that was to ask Ashley Young to tightly man-mark Eden Hazard, with Marcus Rashford dropping back to become a kind of second, wider-sitting right-back whenever the hosts got the ball into the final third. Despite some nervy moments for both Rashford and Young in the first half, overall it accomplished what it was supposed to: suppressing Eden Hazard.

 

4. The trade-off was that it allowed Chelsea to use Hazard as a dummy runner to create space for Marcos Alonso and Mateo Kovacic. United clearly viewed that as a risk worth taking, and as excellent as Kovacic was for much of the first half, they were probably right. I can’t help but feel that if Olivier Giroud been on the pitch rather than Alvaro Morata it might have been a different story – but you can read about that here.

For United, the more concerning aspect throughout the first half was that with both Rashford and Young pegged back, nominal number 10 Juan Mata had to play both very deep and very wide to try and inject some creativity into that area of the pitch.  Without Mata doing unpredictable things through the middle, United’s only recourse was to constantly go into harmless wide positions.

It all just made things a bit rigid when United had the ball. Chelsea were able to read United like a book, and not a very good book. Certainly not ‘Bravo Two Zero’ by Andy McNab, which actually improves with every read.

 

5. The opening 15 minutes had me worrying that this might be yet another big-game damp squib, with my only notes being about two Nemanja Matic fouls. My fears were compounded by a little passage in the 14th minute when David Luiz stepped out of defence and delivered an appalling ball straight into touch down the left wing. Having been gifted possession, Victor Lindelof then immediately did exactly the same thing for United.

Thankfully, United’s long-standing inability to defend set-pieces allowed Chelsea to score the goal that sparked the game into life, Toni Rudiger going completely unmarked to easily head home Willian’s impeccably delivered corner.

Paul Pogba was the man to blame on this occasion, and one can only hope that his angry explosion before the ball even hit the net was aimed squarely at himself. It is yet more grist to the mill that his (second) spell at Manchester United is characterised by a frustrating cycle of one step forward, one step back.

 

6. Suddenly, Chelsea were themselves again, looking more bright and zippy than the time the cast of Rainbow visited Crystal Palace in the early 90s.

For the rest of the first half, every time they won the ball they would play two or three quick, well-chosen passes designed to stop United settling back into a solid defensive shape. There is nothing quite like the joy of two or three players combining to send the entire opposition scrambling to fill in for one another and getting all lost at sea: it is the very foundation of why Chelsea have both been so successful and so enjoyable to watch this season.

That confidence is useful not just in attack, but as a means to stifle opposition chances. Whenever Rashford did push forward to try and steal the ball and force a counter-attack, the Alonso-Kovacic-Hazard combination proved far too assured to let it happen…

 

7. …until half time, when Chelsea suddenly, bafflingly, seemed to utterly lose it.

It was as though United had had a member of their medical staff sneak into the Chelsea dressing room and suck all the verve out of them before implanting it into their own players. I half-expected Chelsea to be forced into fielding Michael Jordan, Bill Murray and Bugs Bunny as their second-half substitutes.

The build-up to United’s equaliser featured Pogba nutmegging Jorginho, Romelu Lukaku superbly holding off Luiz, and a beautiful bit of control from Martial to tee him up for his finish. It was far from a stupendously attractive goal – the final cross only found Martial because it deflected off both Jorginho and Rashford – but it was a huge improvement on the utter mind-numbing predictability of United’s first-half movement.

 

8. One thing was key both in that goal and in United’s generally improved play in the second half. As noted, Mata had operated either by dropping deep, or by running out to near the corner flag on the right wing.

Whether through instructions from Mourinho or not, that stopped in the second half, with Mata generally operating in a much purer number 10 role just behind Lukaku. It brought the best out of everyone and played havoc with a Chelsea defence and midfield that had looked so composed and in control before the break.

 

9. Martial may have got the goals (and we’ll get onto him in due course) but the main beneficiary of that tweak to Mata’s role was Lukaku. A tame 16th-minute header was the only touch the Belgian had inside the box in the entire first half. He had had just two others in the final third of the pitch, and a further six around the halfway line.

He still wasn’t brilliant in the second half, but at least he was involved. His small but crucial part in the build-up to United’s equaliser – receiving Mata’s pass and laying it off for Pogba – may have been simple, but showed exactly why he is selected, despite his detractors and shortcomings.

If we’re praising Giroud for what he does as a non-goalscoring forward – and I will do so again later on – then it’s only right we also recognise that Lukaku has many those same qualities even on an off-day.

 

10. United went ahead on 73 minutes, and again their homework showed. Alonso pushed needlessly far into the United half to close down Young at right-back, and before he knew what was happening Mata was making a run in behind him.

Young’s perfectly-weighted pass forced Luiz to come wide to try and cut off the Spaniard’s run, but he missed the tackle and instead gave Mata the full right-hand side of the final third to run into.

Rashford intelligently filled in the attacking midfield position Mata had vacated to make the run, allowing him to release Martial, who dummied Cesar Azpilicueta into committing to a challenge before finding the bottom corner with the exact right finish.

The Space Jam-style reversal was complete: United suddenly looked dangerous and inventive while the previously impressive Chelsea laboured.

 

11. Having completed the brace, Anthony Martial looked understandably bewildered and then gloomy when his number went up to signal his withdrawal. Mourinho, to his credit, immediately greeted him the moment he stepped off the pitch with a kind word and a hug that makes the Frenchman utterly beam.

Rumours have persisted for years that United are looking to offload Martial, but that would surely be utter madness. It’s not ‘incredible’ so much as it is ‘the way time works’, but it’s worth pointing out that the forward is still only 22 and only going to get better.

 

12. Not to toot our own horns, but HONK HONK, we were right about Giroud.

Go back and look at his movement for Chelsea’s late equaliser: it is a masterclass. Azpilicueta’s cross was wonderful, but Luiz would never have got there if Giroud had not knowingly but fairly manoeuvred himself into Chris Smalling’s path to stop him getting there first. There was no shoving, no arms around the shoulders; just distraction and good positioning.

If that weren’t savvy enough, Giroud also recognised that Luiz had a much better chance of getting good contact on the ball. A less intelligent player – a more selfish forward – would have tried to win the header himself and simply got in the way or tamely deflected it towards the corner flag.

Instead, Luiz was able to put a powerful header against the post, and after David De Gea saved from Antonio Rudiger, Ross Barkley continued his career resurgence by following it in to send Stamford Bridge crazy. And crazy is exactly the right word.

 

13. Regarding the scenes that followed: we can only say ‘lol’.

Actually, here’s some more things we can say: we are all sick to the back teeth of Jose Mourinho and his sniping, sneering, and excuse making. Watching him run after one of Maurizio Sarri’s assistants was fun, but even The Simpsons still occasionally write a good joke now and then; it doesn’t mean it’s back to its glory days. If and when he leaves English football, the overwhelming majority will celebrate.

But I still can’t help but feel that five or six years after that, we will look back on Mourinho and find ourselves missing him, in the same way that you might smilingly remember a long-deceased grandfather as ‘a miserable old sod’, his ruining Christmas every year becoming a memory you enjoy sharing rather than an annual chore the whole family dreads. Feeling are weird init.

 

14. To be fair, on this occasion, you can kind of understand Mourinho’s reaction, even if you still think he made a bit of a prick of himself.

For the second game running, United worked enormously hard in the second half to pull out what they thought was going to be another comeback win. If the Newcastle game bought Mourinho more time, a victory at Stamford Bridge could have been a result to build the rest of the season on.

Viewed dispassionately from afar as a classic game-of-two-halves, a draw seems right. But the chronology of events always changes the way you view them, and you could understand if the United fans, players and staff felt more than a little bit deflated as a result. But that will fade.

 

15. Conversely, despite being odds-on favourites before the game, taking a point each does more for Chelsea than for Manchester United.

Chelsea will end the weekend just two points behind league leaders Manchester City, and somewhere between two points behind and one point ahead of Liverpool. Given how last season went, Chelsea fans should be elated to be in that position with a quarter of the season done.

Even though there were some signs of it here, Chelsea have been so convincing so far this season that one poor second half against a talented team should not have them too concerned about a return of the inconsistency that plagued them under Antonio Conte last season.

 

16. United, meanwhile, will remain under pressure for as long as they are playing catch-up. They remain four points behind fifth-placed Spurs having played first this weekend. Their next five games: Juventus, Everton, Bournemouth (who are good now, remember), Juventus again, then a trip to Manchester City.

United’s poor start to the season won’t be forgotten either way; whether it will prove fatal to their entire campaign depends whether they give us first-half Man U or second-half Man U in those crucial games.

 

Steven Chicken –  he is on Twitter

 

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