José Mourinho came into this match looking to avoid a third defeat of the season against his former side. League leaders Chelsea, meanwhile, hoped to reestablish their seven-point advantage over London rivals, Tottenham.
What developed over the 90-minutes was a perfect implementation of the Portuguese manager’s defensively controlled tactics as they kept their top four hopes alive.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic was dropped as Mourinho set his side up in a similar way to their F.A. Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge last month.
Antonio Conte was without his first-choice keeper after Thibaut Courtois injured his ankle during a reported basketball commercial event. Asmir Begovic stepped in for the Belgium number one.
Marcos Alonso was unable to participate due to illness and pulled out during the warm-up. It ended a run of 25-consecutive league appearances which went as far as back as the loss at Arsenal that triggered the successful formation change. As a result, Kurt Zouma came into the side while the versatile Cesar Azpilicueta initially started in Alonso’s place.
Man Utd’s approach was fixated on a stubborn block with Matteo Darmian playing an auxiliary centre-back and man-marking Pedro. Alongside the Italian defender were Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo who kept Diego Costa quiet and frustrated. Captain for the day, Ashley Young, then dropped into a left-wing-back position when out of possession to cover Victor Moses down the right while Antonio Valencia did the same on the opposite flank. That left a two vs two in the middle between Pogba and Marouane Fellaini and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic.
This led to a toothless attacking display by the league leaders who failed to manage a single shot on target.
When the home side had the ball, they exploited the channels behind Chelsea’s wing-backs, isolating the wider centre-backs when possible. The pace of Jesse Lingard and more noticeably, Marcus Rashford, enabled this option as Ibrahimovic – who prefers the ball to feet and crosses into the box – sat on the bench.
This troubled a Chelsea side clearly disjointed by Alonso’s absence, which was to be expected given the consistency of their wing-backs’ presence in the starting line-up since September. It was little coincidence that Chelsea’s recent defeat at home to Crystal Palace occurred when Moses was unavailable. The Blues’ current squad doesn’t provide cover for what are specialist positions and this will be a priority over the summer.
The greatest tactical move by Mourinho was putting Ander Herrera on Eden Hazard. Chelsea’s most dangerous player and one of the favourites for the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, was reduced to one of his quietest games of the season as Herrera followed the Belgian playmaker all over the pitch.
Hazard’s lack of tactical intelligence was highlighted as he failed to drag Herrera out to the wings for a prolonged amount of time or tightly support Diego Costa upfront. Graeme Souness on Sky rightly pointed out that Hazard should have tried to get Herrera yellow carded as soon as possible to put him on the back foot. But the Spaniard was able to hold out until the 73rd minute before he was cautioned as Hazard didn’t attempt a single take on during the game.
By that point, Man Utd were two-goals to the good and Chelsea looked devoid of ideas. Both goals were largely down to man of the match, Herrera, who first benefitted from an unseen handball before playing one of the passes of the season for Rashford to score a 7th minute opener. The former Athletic Bilbao midfielder scored his first Premier League goal in 14 months via a deflection off Zouma Just a few minutes into the second-period.
The above table shows Hazard’s stats against the top seven sides this season. Sunday’s loss at Old Trafford was only the third time in the 11 games that he failed to attempt a shot on goal – the other two came against Liverpool.
Hazard’s only assist was provided via the winning of a free-kick which David Luiz scored from during the 1-1 draw at Anfield. But his goal return of seven in 11 has been impressive.
However, Herrera really did a number on Hazard as he struggled to have any impact in the final third.
Pogba v Kante
In a pre-match interview, almost as defensive as Mourinho’s line-up, Paul Pogba tried to justify his peformances this season, which have been average at best, by comparing himself to Kante. The world record transfer cited the praise Kante has been receiving despite scoring far fewer goals from midfield while Pogba has a queue of critics jumping on his every mistake.
Previously, the Frenchman has shown little to no care about the criticisms he’s received as he appears confident and unflustered by the pressures such a high price tag carries. This response was inconsistent with his past demeanour and totally misguided.
Any football fan who watches both players regularly will know they have very different roles. Kante is a destroyer in midfield who retrieves possession for his side before starting off the counter-attacks. He essentially does the work of two players such is his timing and energy. Pogba, on the other hand, is a more attack-minded player who has great athleticism and an eye for the spectacular in the final third.
The table below compares each player over the season in terms of defensive and attacking duties. Their ranking in brackets are based on players with a total number of appearances greater than the league’s average.
As expected, Kante excels in the defensive tasks while his French compatriot enjoys more success further forwards. Chelsea’s midfielder has an 88.8% pass completion compared to Pogba’s 85.2% which is influenced by the former Juventus midfielder playing further up the pitch. This is supported by his 1.9 key passes per game with Kante managing just 0.6 and Pogba can feel slightly aggrieved that his teammates haven’t helped rack up more assists.
But it’s unwise to start defending himself to the media when he is quite clearly failing to match his Serie A performances in recent seasons. That’s not to say he can’t, but keeping as low a profile as a human emoji can is the better approach than comparing yourself to one of the six PFA Players’ Player of the Year nominations.
This win has at least made the title race marginally more interesting, although the four-point lead and more favourable fixtures still leaves Chelsea as big favourites. But the manner of this defeat and their issues triggered by Man Utd’s set-up coupled with a missing wing-back will give future opponents food for thought.
The once sturdy backline has now gone 10 league games without a clean sheet while Costa is going through a dry patch at the other end with no goals in his last five appearances. Conte looked slightly deflated on the touchline and will need to get his side back on track. This weekend’s F.A. Cup semi-final against title challengers, Tottenham, could really have a psychological impact on both teams.
Mourinho’s tactical victory would have given him great pleasure as he prepares for the second-leg quarter-final tie against Anderlecht at Old Trafford on Thursday. These three-points were a must following results elsewhere in the top four battle but the Europa League still looks a more likely route to Europe’s elite competition for the Red Devils.
EPL Results (Gameweek 33):
Tottenham 4-0 Bournemouth
Crystal Palace 2-2 Leicester
Everton 3-1 Burnley
Stoke 3-1 Hull
Sunderland 2-2 West Ham
Watford 1-0 Swansea
Southampton 0-3 Man City
West Brom 0-1 Liverpool
Man Utd 2-0 Chelsea
Middlesbrough 1-2 Arsenal