José Mourinho’s Manchester United is not the first team to beat Antonio Conte, Chelsea, and even in the first team to defeat Conte’s Chelsea from his season of change to switch to 3-4-3 again in October.
But no other side has been nullified Chelsea’s attacking threat as effectively – this was the first time in a decade in which Chelsea did not have a shot on target in a Premier League match. Suddenly, the title race is back, and Chelsea the next opponents have a tactical template to follow.
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Mourinho’s main strategy was simple: man-marking Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s dangerman and the player fell out with so spectacularly last season. This should not have been a surprise, considering Mourinho used this approach in the recent 1-0 FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Stamford Bridge, when Phil Jones was deployed in that role, but Ander Herrera was dismissed for fouling Hazard when the Belgian drifted in your area. Herrera was given the responsibility here, and played the role to perfection. Only one player in the Premier League, Middlesbrough in the fast end Adama Traoré, has dribbled past opponents more frequently than the Dangers of this season, and yet, at Old Trafford, he did not attempt a single dodge. He was deprived of the possession, hunger space and Herrera deserves a lot of recognition for their diligence.
It was peculiar, however, the Danger and the Chelsea does not have a clear plan for the fight against this man-marking approach, considering Mourinho had displayed these tactics in the FA Cup meeting. In fact, while Mourinho complained that Herrera’s dismissal was the turning point in the match, with some justification, the Chelsea had become in the competition before his red card, precisely because Hazard and Willian drifted around, switched positions, and bewildered States of the marked man.
Here, the Danger of not showing enough tactical intelligence to drag Herrera in uncomfortable positions, and Chelsea is the game of attack suffered a lot. Conte’s decision to change the wing-backs Cesar Azpilicueta and Victor Moses after half an hour, put the last to the left, apparently, was to give more intention to attack down that flank and allowing Hazard to drift around.
Herrera was detailed to turn off Danger, but Matteo Darmian, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia all had a role to play in denying Chelsea space to create. Photograph: Guardian
Herrera’s man-marking role meant he played very little at Manchester United, the game of attack, so that it was unworthy that he played the crucial step for their opening. Intercepted a pass intended for Danger with an outstretched arm – before curling a wonderful ball behind the Chelsea defence of Marcus Rashford to sprint, and beat the advancing Asmir Begovic.
This justified the decision of Mourinho to start Rashford ahead of Ibrahimovic in the FA Cup game, with the Swede suspended, Rashford had worked the channels effectively and mocking of David Luiz, but missed their key opportunity. This time he played in a similar way, there was more support with Jesse Lingard pushed forward in a second striker role, and emphasized its potential to become an exceptional all-round striker. At the start of the second half, Herrera’s deflected shot extended States.
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After the second goal Conte changed things, the introduction of Cesc Fabregas to Moses, and asking for the Spanish to play in the top of the center of the field. This briefly caused States of confusion, as Fabregas was playing in Herrera’s natural area, and, suddenly, he looked worried by the threat of stopping both Hazard and Fabregas. Five minutes later, however, Mourinho introduced Michael Carrick for Lingard, moving from a 4-4-1-1 to 4-1-4-1, and Carrick is focused on nullifying Fabregas. Sometimes, this was a marked man exhibition, with Mourinho seen screaming frantically to the left-back Matteo Darmian to stick firmly to Willian, another substitute, in the closing stages. Such a strict man marking is relatively rare in the modern game, but Sir Alex Ferguson used Jones in the role against the key dangermen – Gareth Bale, Marouane Fellaini, Cristiano Ronaldo – in his last season, and Louis van Gaal’s midfield pressing strategy often involved nothing more than three man-marking jobs. Of the states, more so than most of the sides, they are accustomed to that approach, although it is doubtful whether this is a viable long-term strategy.
The more pressing question, however, is how Chelsea will respond to this defeat. This match underlined his confidence in Danger by the attack of inspiration, with Diego Costa, apparently, focused on his fight with Marcos Rojo, Peter also subject to a strict marking, and little creativity from the centre of the field before the introduction of Fabregas. Conte can point to the absences of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and left-back Marcos Alonso to explain your side of laziness, but the title of winners must be able to manage without two first-choice players. Its operation is relatively simple, but the Danger can expect more problems with man marking after the success of Mourinho approach here. Conte, so much admired for his tactical intelligence this season, must find a solution.