* Given how early Manchester United conceded, we will never know the intricacies of Jose Mourinho’s gameplan to take on Chelsea in his first game back at Stamford Bridge as a Premier League manager. Yet whatever that grand strategy was, we can be sure that it fell flat on its arse.
Mourinho’s selection, with only one change from the one at Anfield, smacked of a team looking to carry out a replica performance. There is nothing wrong with being defensive, but it does reduce the margin for error somewhat. Mourinho was rightly praised for United’s defensive solidity on Monday evening, but must be criticised for the abject way in which his team defended against Chelsea. If defending stoutly was the plan, it was buggered after less than a minute.
The first 20 minutes were an embarrassment. United were open in defence and pinned back by Mourinho’s former club. Chelsea scored twice and could have scored three more times, lapses in concentration and positional discipline costing them dear. It was supposed to be Antonio Conte’s team that couldn’t defend.
This was Manchester United’s worst league defeat at this ground in 17 years, and the heaviest defeat for Mourinho in all competitions since losing 5-0 against Barcelona in November 2010. We are only in October, but Jose Mourinho already has big issues to solve. United have played three teams of the six above them and taken only one point. The gap to the top five places is already five points, and Mourinho’s team have won one of their last six league games. Most worryingly of all, despite significant investment this summer, United have taken fewer points this season than in the same fixtures last year under Louis van Gaal.
* We’re now officially allowed to be worried about the Manchester United future of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Having been left out against Fenerbahce on Thursday, The Times’ Paul Hirst reported that the Armenian was incredibly frustrated to not be picked for the squad despite being fully fit, a well-timed leak to reveal his disappointment to supporters. Four days later, and Mkhitaryan was again conspicuous by his absence.
There’s now no doubting the fact that Mourinho does not fancy Mkhitaryan, which makes it phenomenally difficult for him to succeed at Old Trafford. You do not leave a player of Mkhitaryan’s quality and price tag out of squads on a regular basis unless it is to make a point to player, club or both. Wide midfield is the one position in which United have the best cover (just ask Anthony Martial, Juan Mata and Memphis Depay) and Mourinho is famously a manager not for turning.
Why Mourinho has made his choice is not yet known, but if it is simply a question of not rating Mkhitaryan’s ability, it would seem incredibly harsh. Mkhitaryan was poor during the first half against Manchester City, but so too was Jesse Lingard and he has responded excellently since. Can a player with 26 league goals and assists last season be cast aside so readily?
* Speaking of wide players struggling for a foothold at Manchester United takes us to Martial, who has now failed to start each of United’s last four Premier League games. The Frenchman was impressive on Thursday evening against Fenerbahce, but is evidently now firmly behind Marcus Rashford in Mourinho’s thoughts. Having been injured for the one dominant league performance against Leicester, Martial now has plenty to do to get back into this team.
While the sacking of Van Gaal was obviously appropriate, Martial’s struggles this season highlight why regularly getting rid of managers is an unworthy strategy. United’s best outfield player last season is struggling to cope with Mourinho’s demands, and thus finds himself almost back to square one. The goodwill built up under Van Gaal now counts for nothing, but it’s a tough situation for a young player – and one with off-field issues – to overcome. United supporters and neutrals hope that this is only a temporary stay in the wings.
* Sorry to interrupt at this point, but there’s a bit of an emergency. Can somebody please find these women and release them from the hideous song-writing of their captor?
I'm crying ?? pic.twitter.com/eL3fAPFV6U
— luce (@lucyjxmes) December 18, 2015
* If Mourinho thought that he could settle into the game back at the Bridge, he was proved emphatically wrong. United fell behind after exactly 30 seconds, the fastest goal in the Premier League this season.
There were three abysmal pieces of defending that allowed Pedro to score with his first shot on target of the season, so let’s cover them in turn:
Daley Blind – Caught watching the ball and not his man (Pedro), and then guilty of not tracking that man when he ran forward. Blind was also responsible for sitting too deep and thus playing Pedro onside as the pass was played by Marcos Alonso. That’s a pretty bad combination.
David de Gea – Slow to react to the danger, and therefore caught in no man’s land when he did stream out from his goal. Having initially delayed, De Gea would actually have been better staying put and making Pedro beat him with the shot.
Chris Smalling – Saving the worst until last, Smalling was actually given an easy ride by Gary Neville on commentary. The defender has an annoying habit of holding out both of his arms when making a mistake, as if to insist that he should be exonerated of any guilt.
Sorry Chris, but that just doesn’t wash – why on earth would you let that ball go past you rather than attacking it and heading clear? De Gea’s reaction demonstrates that Smalling didn’t get a call from his goalkeeper. That means you can’t assume that leaving it will result in anything but disaster.
* Several news outlets in midweek picked up on the fact that Zlatan Ibrahimovic has missed more big chances than any other player in the Premier League. That statistic did immediately confuse me as to what constitutes a ‘big’ chance, but the general point is obvious: Zlatan’s just not finishing his dinner.
Further evidence of that came a few minutes after Chelsea’s opener. Ibrahimovic‘s decision to hang at the back post looked sensible when he easily rose above Cesar Azpilicueta, but his header went comfortably over the bar. Had he managed to send the ball low to Thibaut Courtois’ left, the Belgian would have been helpless and United level.
* Having set their standard for bad defending in the first minute, United raised the bar again in conceding their second. They had been given a warning when failing to pick up Chelsea players from their first corner, but didn’t learn the lesson.
As the set-piece was delivered into the box, Smalling turned his back on the ball for no good reason. That not only meant that the deflection fooled him, but also that Gary Cahill was able to run off Smalling to meet the ball. Cahill leathered home the ball in the style of a man who has suffered his own criticism in recent weeks. De Gea looked apoplectic with rage, and you can hardly blame him.
* Can this be the end of the experiment with Fellaini starting in big games please? I’ve got a petition signed by 50,000 United supporters.
It was funny at first when Fellaini was picked by Mourinho, and then a bit confusing when the Belgian started performing with a degree of competence that we had not previously witnessed. Now the old Fellaini is back, sluggish when out of possession and ungainly when in it.
When Fellaini plays badly, he has the power to suck all the joy from United’s attacking play. In the first half against Chelsea, he moved so slowly he needed a regular beeping noise and a computerised message to tell the other players he was reversing. His party trick was to be 20 yards ahead of the ball having been ineffective in stopping another surge forward.
The comparison with N’Golo Kante was the most unflattering. One has the drive and energy to buzz around the pitch, putting out fires; the other got friction burns on the pole and then forgot to pack the hose. Fellaini’s half-time withdrawal was the kindest thing to do.
* David Luiz was extremely fortunate not to get a red card for his challenge on Fellaini during the first half. It was high and reckless, and Fellaini was lucky not be more badly hurt.
That said, perhaps United supporters fuming over the lack of red card will remember Ander Herrera’s challenge against Stoke on October 2, which was also shown only a yellow card. Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don’t.
— Shiraz Khan (@Shiraz109) October 23, 2016
* United actually had a spell of pressure at the start of the second half, as if given a dressing down by their manager. With Chelsea happy to sit back on their lead, Lingard, Rashford and the newly-introduced Mata were able to enjoy spells of possession on the edge of the box and fashion chances. United actually had more shots than Chelsea during the second half, while Mourinho tried to make the point post-match that Courtois made more saves than De Gea. That’s because he didn’t let four past him, Jose.
Unfortunately, the success of United’s more attacking strategy relied on them scoring the game’s third goal, yet increased the risk of Chelsea doing so. When you leave a player as talented as Eden Hazard one-on-one with a central defender who performed as shonkily as Smalling, the third goal was an inevitability.
From the moment Hazard stopped the ball dead at his feet in the penalty area with Smalling facing him, it was obvious that he would set it to the right before aiming for the corner. Not only did Smalling get sold by the feint, he then failed to do more than hang out a leg to stop the shot. The power gave De Gea no chance.
* If Chelsea supporters had been asked to choose the identity of the final goalscorer, many would have opted for Kante’s first for the club. When the Frenchman dribbled to the edge of the penalty area I worried about the danger of nosebleed, but the dummy that sold Smalling up each of the world’s ten longest rivers proved otherwise. The finish was just as neat.
While Kante has continued to be excellent since moving from Leicester, the presence of Nemanja Matic alongside him has increased his attacking role. Rather than just being an all-running, all-tackling dynamo (although neither are exactly lacking), Kante has more licence to move forward.
Against Manchester United, Kante not only scored his first goal for Chelsea but had as many shots as Pedro and created more chances than Hazard. No player completed more passes or covered more ground for Chelsea (proof that last season’s specialities remain), but his average position was significantly higher up the pitch than Matic’s.
Kante is actually playing the role that Cesc Fabregas was asked to do when picked alongside Matic in a central midfield two last season. He’s also doing it a damn sight better.
* Oh wow. The poor baby. And the emphasis is truly on the word ‘baby’.
According to Sky Italia, Mou said it's just his opinion, but "u don't wind up crowd at 4-0. You do it at 1-0. It's humiliating."
— Gabriele Marcotti (@Marcotti) October 23, 2016
Honestly, Mourinho’s insistence that Conte was being disrespectful is ludicrous because a) Conte was simply responding to Chelsea supporters being outsung by the away end, and b) THIS IS JOSE MOURINHO, BANTER-OFFERER EXTRAORDINAIRE AND KING OF ALL THE SH*THOUSES. Dear me.
* Luke Shaw was not included in United’s squad for the trip to Chelsea, despite playing against Fenerbahce on Thursday. If that was a choice of selection rather than injury by Mourinho, you can add it to the list of things the United manager got wrong. Blind was appalling, and that might be the end of that experiment too.
Morgan Schneiderlin, Shaw, Mkhitaryan. These are Mourinho’s forgotten ones, and all should at least be given a proper chance to impress. I’ve given up on Bastian Schweinsteiger now, training at home like a kid on suspension from school forced to do maths by his mum.
* The biggest concern for Mourinho was that Chelsea did not even need to be at their best to win. They created a number of chances, but principally through United’s own defensive incompetence rather than the home side’s brilliance in attack. Having got a 2-0 lead, Chelsea sat back and waited for the chances to come on the counter.
Of course conceding a goal in the first minute isn’t in anyone’s manual for the perfect away performance, but nor should it be fatal to your chances of salvaging something from the game. Of course having individuals committing poor errors of judgement and application isn’t expected, but when seven or eight players all perform badly the question must be asked of the methodology and preparation. Of course it’s just one defeat, but Manchester United spent an awful lot of money over the summer just to look unadventurous against the best teams in the league and occasionally unimaginative against the rest.
Mourinho is a manager who has prided himself on resilience through adversity, but United’s players carried their white flags in their pockets and waved them after 25 minutes. That is completely unacceptable.
* Conte, meanwhile, deserves praise for changing Chelsea’s shape following a poor run of results. Since the Italian switched to a 3-4-2-1, his team have won all three games without conceding a goal. Luiz looks comfortable and Hazard happy too, but it is the central midfield pair and wing-backs who are most enjoying the change in shape. The added security of one central defender has changed Chelsea. Mourinho must look for a similar quick win.
* For Chelsea’s players too, a hugely important win. Mourinho’s parting shot was to talk of betrayal by certain first-team regulars, leading to many supporters at Stamford Bridge siding with the manager. It may feel a long time ago now, but Diego Costa was booed by fans during Guus Hiddink’s first match in charge. The mood could not now be more different.
This was vindication for the importance of a squad feeling loved and respected, and emphatic evidence that Chelsea possess the players to qualify for the top four as a minimum ambition. The post-title dirge of 2015/16 could still have a happy ending.