At the beginning of a difficult run of fixtures for Manchester United, we might look back on Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge as the beginning of the end, as the moment we knew he could not possibly last the whole season in the United dugout.
Chelsea have enjoyed a superb start to life under Maurizio Sarri and their elegant attacking football makes them heavy favourites to dispatch the visitors. A comfortable victory seems likely, but it’ll be the difference in class, not the result itself, that decides Mourinho’s future.
Sarri’s side are everything Man Utd want to be. To lose at Stamford Bridge would accentuate that difference, highlighting Mourinho’s fading tactical relevance and plunging United back into crisis.
Here are five big questions ahead of Chelsea v Man Utd:
1) Will Mourinho use a brave tactical approach or revert to type?
It has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between Man Utd’s tactical and psychological failings: is their lack of pressure on the ball and general aimlessness a symptom of Mourinho’s defensive instructions, or is it just mental frailty? The truth is somewhere in the middle. Risk-aversion is an implicitly negative approach to life; negativity breeds self-doubt and the spiral worsens, hence Mourinho’s third-season-syndrome and hence the hesitancy – cowardice, even – of United’s first-half performance against Newcastle United a fortnight ago.
The obvious solution, as the second half at St. James’ Park suggested, is to unshackle these players – both tactically and psychologically – but Mourinho’s defensive instincts will most likely prevent this from happening. He is stubborn if nothing else, and keen to prove everybody wrong; the United manager is more likely to double down on his park-the-bus approach.
This hands a clear advantage to Chelsea, whose slick one-touch football is, paradoxically, even more structured than Man Utd’s. Sarri’s coaching aims are to create automation of movement, meaning Chelsea play with the illusion of freedom after committing their passing moves to muscle memory. Consequently, United sitting deep won’t help them defend but rather give Sarri’s team the time and space to calmly go about their business.
Most passes in the Premier League this season.
— Chelsea Viral (@chelsea_viral) October 17, 2018
2) Will Hazard and Barkley cut through United’s stand-offish midfield?
Instead, confrontation and disruption is the way to mess with Chelsea’s aesthetic, but it would be a huge shock if Mourinho attempts this after years of conservatism in top-six clashes. The consequence of this tactical pattern could be felt most in the left-centre zone of the Chelsea attack, where Eden Hazard, Ross Barkley and Olivier Giroud combine.
Sarri teams tend to lean left, the left-sided central midfielder being the most creative – and direct – of the three. Barkley’s penetrative runs and physical presence in possession will likely feature heavily (Barkley, who got a goal and an assist at Southampton, is a confidence player), particularly with his opponents so keen to retreat.
Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matic have been remarkably hesitant this season, which should create space for Barkley to burst into as Eden Hazard pulls players away (note both Newcastle goals at Old Trafford were the direct consequence of Man Utd’s disconnect between defence and midfield). Giroud’s role in showing for the ball with his back to goal is hugely under-rated, and the Frenchman should quite easily find a passing lane for Barkley to feed him. United are too flat-footed in the middle to close off the gaps.
Hazard and Barkley bounced off each other so much. First time in years I have seen Barkley being able to express himself and actually enjoy his football. Sarri obviously believes in him too. Rossy knows this is his last chance, so he must take it.
— Brano (@CFCBrano) October 7, 2018
3) Can United’s quick forwards expose Alonso’s defensive problems?
One of the final problems for Sarri to solve is at left-back, where Marcus Alonso continues to look vulnerable when opponents counter-attack. He was a liability in Spain’s 3-2 defeat to England, showing the same poor positional play that has disrupted his start to life under Sarri. Mourinho usually picks his quicker, more direct winger (Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford) to play on the left, but on Saturday he will probably put them up against Alonso.
– He is great going forward
– He scores big goals
– He cannot defend
– His vacancy left by attacking on the left leaves us vulnerable
There are obviously more, but that's the general analysis. It's a catch-22 situation for us. What's more important?
— Chelsea Activity (@ChelseaActivity) August 26, 2018
United’s ability to counter-attack successfully depends upon Pogba’s performance; if the Frenchman can succesfully clip passes into the channel behind Alonso then the visitors can find success, particularly if Antonio Valencia is afforded the freedom to get forward on the overlap. It might only be a small chink in the Chelsea armour, but it’s United’s best chance of avoiding another damaging Premier League defeat.
4) Is Fellaini the man to get Man Utd into the game?
Everyone is aware of Jorginho’s ludricious passing statistics this season, and although impressive it could be argued this has hidden the fact the Italian rarely completes tackles or interceptions (1.8 and 1.0 per match). Sarri has the best defensive midfielder in the world at his disposal but plays him awkwardly out of position, deploying Jorginho in the deepest role.
There is an argument for swapping Jorginho and N’Golo Kante around. Jorginho would adapt quicker to a new position than Kante, while the chaotic nature of Premier League football makes a holding midfielder particularly important (see Pep Guardiola’s obsession with ‘second balls’ during his first year in England).
That won’t happen, and so Mourinho could find joy in United’s number ten zone via Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian helped turn the tide at Newcastle, proving once again that he is highly effective at both ends. His ability to bring down long balls as a second striker could help United get up the pitch, relieving pressure after long spells of Chelsea possession. Whether from the bench or as a starter, Fellaini is uniquely qualified to punish the lack of defensive strength at the base of midfield.
Fred needs to start as DM against Chelsea. Play Fellaini and Pogba a little higher up the field.
Keep Kante busy with Pogba’s movement and physically out power Kovacic by marking him with Fellaini.
Moment that happens, Jorginho will be left more exposed. United can’t sit back.
— The United Link 🏆 (@TheUnitedLink) October 11, 2018
5) Can Willian make the most of Shaw’s vulnerability?
Pedro has fallen out of favour at Chelsea because of his poor defensive skills from the right, and Willian’s directness could be just what Sarri needs to win the battle on that flank. The hosts’ natural inclination to attack in numbers down the left tends to leave the opposite wing light, creating simple one-on-one situations between right winger and left-back; Luke Shaw might be in trouble.
The 23-year-old, who signed a new contract on Thursday, might be starting regularly but he is still some way off the pace. Slow on the turn and easily drawn out of position, Shaw’s wayward defending has cost United on several occasions this season.
Should this match be tighter than anticipated, the battle with Shaw could prove decisive – particularly late in the game. In the 1-1 draw with Liverpool Sarri brought Victor Moses on for the last 15 to run directly at Andrew Robertson. Moses’ fresh legs in the final minutes would hand Chelsea a significant advantage on that flank.