Premier League: Typical Jose Mourinho win might be true dawn of post-Ferguson era at Manchester United
Manchester United's first win over Chelsea since Ferguson departed hints that they are on the verge of regaining their intimidating self of their glorious past.
"Jose Mourinho... Jose Mourinho... Jose Mourinho" chanted the terraces of Old Trafford as a football match between Manchester United and Chelsea, which lacked in competition drew to a close. The Red Devils outplayed, outmuscled and most importantly out-thought the Blues from the opening minute to the final one during what proved to be a dream 2-0 victory at the Theatre of Dreams.
The Mourinho chants were something that the Chelsea players would have been used to since the Portuguese's days at Stamford Bridge, but they wouldn't have been accustomed to the sheer helplessness and frustration that a team goes through when it runs into a Mourinho-assembled machine that's set out to nullify the opponent's strength and then slowly dismantle it piece by piece. On Sunday, Chelsea were served a dose of their own medicine by Manchester United and it didn't taste particularly well.
While the defeat spoilt the Blues' palate, it sent Manchester United fans home savouring every bit of the delicacy that they were treated to. It wasn't a signature Old Trafford recipe, in fact it was quite distant from what the United faithful have been used to, but nonetheless it had the kind of after effects reminiscent to the times of their legendary manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
Under the great man, United had a different kind of swagger. They were full of flair and blew travelling teams away at Old Trafford. Their football was often expansive, and it served them very well for the 27 years that the Scot remained in charge of the club.
Sunday's win was achieved in a manner slightly alien to the United crowd. It was all about playing according to the opponent, making it hard for them, confusing and frustrating them to a point where they make mistakes. It did involve some nice football from United too, but the performance was all about puncturing the league leaders. That's how Mourinho wins big games and has done so throughout his career.
The Portuguese manager surprised everyone when he dropped top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic from the starting line-up and went with Marcus Rashford upfront. He also kept Henrik Mkhitaryan on the bench and instead went for the more industrious Jesse Lingard. Ashley Young, who is known for his work rate and his defensive capabilities, was deployed on the flank.
It was the line-up United went in with for the FA Cup clash with Chelsea little over a month ago. Despite losing that game, the front three on the night had done well to stifle Chelsea's attacking play and prevent them from building attacks from the back. Once again on Sunday, the energy of Rashford and Lingard made it difficult for Chelsea's center backs to initiate moves, and the duo's pace that caused the visitors problems defensively.
"We went with the same tactics like the game in the cup at Stamford Bridge. That game was totally controlled by us until we were down to 10 players. It was only after that decision that Chelsea were able to dominate. We knew playing that way we would make it very difficult for them," Mourinho said after the game.
"From a personal point of view, by the way I prepare the team for the games, the win gave me the conviction that we would be playing the FA Cup semi-final had it not been for that decision in the first half at Stamford Bridge. We controlled a team with fantastic players with a lot of pace and ability and we controlled them very well throughout the game," he added.
The Portuguese might claim to have won the tactical battle in the FA Cup game at Stamford Bridge last month, but United were extremely troubled by Eden Hazard's pace and trickery during that game. They were hardly able to live with the Belgian, as they chased his shadows for most of the first half and it eventually culminated in Ander Herrera getting sent off for fouling Hazard too many times.
While Mourinho may never admit that, his decision to ask Herrera to man-mark Hazard on Sunday certifies that the former Chelsea manager took note of his side's inability to deal with Hazard's threat in that FA Cup game. The Spaniard on Sunday was thus able to shackle the Belgian much more effectively. Similarly, Matteo Darmian was also asked to remain tight on Pedro and the Italian did a good job of taking the little Spaniard out of the game.
Mourinho fine-tuned his master plan used in the FA Cup game ahead of Sunday, and his players finally executed his tactics to perfection. It was perhaps the best Manchester United performance under Mourinho, and certainly the first one where they looked a like a trademark Mourinho team.
United's bid for three points was aided by the fact that Chelsea refused to turn up on the day, apart from a bit of good fortune when a clear case of handball missed referee Bobby Madley's attention in the build-up to the opening goal. The second goal too was a bit fortuitous as it was only a wicked deflection that saw Herrera's hopeful shot sail over Asmir Begovic into the Chelsea net.
However, on the balance of overall play, there was only one team that deserved to win the game and it was Manchester United. More importantly, Mourinho's Manchester United.
Old Trafford has seen more tough times than pleasant ones ever since Ferguson retired. But the win over Chelsea, and the complete dominance with which it was achieved, brought back flashes of what Manchester United were all about under the Scot. The fact that this was also United's first win over Chelsea since Ferguson departed hints that the Red Devils could just be about to regain their intimidating self of their glorious past.
There have been good wins at Old Trafford post-Ferguson, the 4-2 win over Manchester City, the 3-1 victory over Liverpool and the 3-2 success against Arsenal to name a few. In addition, United also reached the summit of the Premier League at a point under Louis van Gaal in the 2015/16 season, but there was always something left to be desired. As it panned out, all those wins proved to be false dawns. It was the odd case when United played like a Ferguson team, while otherwise struggling for an identity that could match up to what the club had been over the years under the Scottish manager.
Even under Mourinho, United have struggled at times, but a run of 22 games without a defeat in the Premier League, even if it included a handful of frustrating draws, points to progress of some sort. It signals to some much-needed change in direction and shows the team is moving past the hangover of the glittering Ferguson era.
The win over Chelsea was a classical Mourinho win, the same sort of win that United fans used to be critical of during the Portuguese's time at Chelsea. But nothing in football is permanent and that's the beauty of the game. The Old Trafford faithful have warmed up to Mourinho and his ways. The atmosphere at Old Trafford on Sunday showed the fans think that's the way forward for the club from here, even if it means moving on from certain virtues of the Ferguson era.
Maybe they are right. It is time for a new era at Old Trafford and after multiple false dawns, this typical Mourinho win could just be the true dawn of the post-Ferguson era.
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