“There are lots of poets in football, but poets don’t win many titles,” Jose Mourinho had spoken like a vindicated man after Manchester United’s UEFA Europa League triumph last May. On Sunday, as he calmly watched Eden Hazard run circles around his players at Stamford Bridge while Antonio Conte kept getting increasingly agitated with every fluffed Chelsea chance, one would wonder what was going on in the Portuguese manager’s mind.
Antonio Conte vs Jose Mourinho. Alvaro Morata vs Romelu Lukaku. Tiemou Bakayoko vs Nemanja Matic. There were subplots and backstories behind every on-pitch battle between any two individual players — further convoluting the significance of this match beyond it being a six-pointer not only for either side, but also in terms of Manchester City’s slowly surmounting lead at the top of the table.
Chelsea won every individual contest with ease, whether it was on the pitch or at the touchlines, yet it was Conte who went into the game with the proverbial sword hanging over him — the aftermath of Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 loss at AS Roma had been brutal — the Italian’s tactics criticised, an already short-in-depth squad further struggling with injuries and lack of form of key players, a porous defence plaguing the London club.
Both sides lined up in a 3-5-2 formation, but with a slight variation — while Henrikh Mkhitaryan was the sole point of reference between United’s forwards and two-man midfield of Ander Herrera and Matic, Conte allowed Tiemou Bakayoko and Cesc Fabregas to push forward as N’Golo Kante held fort — the midfield triumvirate separating the shape and the fortunes of the two clubs.
The first outfield player to win consecutive top flight English titles with two different clubs since Eric Cantona, N’Golo Kante’s return reinvigorated the defending champions to take the game to the visitors right from the onset. Ever since Kante was ruled out with a hamstring injury, the Chelsea midfield has been embarrassed to different shades of red, often resembling a rudderless ship as the likes of Fabregas and Bakayoko struggled spectacularly. The Frenchman’s relentless drive was integral to Chelsea’s renaissance last season and against Manchester United, Kante once again demonstrated how his mere presence simply elevates Antonio Conte’s side to play a superior standard of football.
Although Kante’s 53 successful passes in comparison to the combined total of 84 passes from Matic and Herrera may not seem significant enough for Chelsea who enjoyed the greater share of possession, it was his feat of winning back possession every time United attempted to mount an attack, which settled the game. Kante’s presence allowed Fabregas to play his natural game, aided by Matic’s inability to effectively press his former teammate into committing errors.
There has been a lot of debate among fans and pundits alike regarding Chelsea’s decision to sell Matic to a direct rival, but Bakayoko’s performance proved why the London club had got the better deal. While the responsibility of disrupting the rigid defensive lines fell upon Hazard and Fabregas, Chelsea’s latest blue-haired boy was tasked with rallying forward and opening up spaces amidst those midfield channels.
For years, Chelsea had a constant source of goalscoring opportunities through Frank Lampard who arrived late in the box and dispatched loose balls — an art the Englishman perfected during Mourinho’s first term in London, but on Sunday, Conte envisioned a similar role for Bakayoko. On another night and with better finishing, Bakayoko might have had two goals to himself as his surging runs forward completely left the United backline exposed.
At the fifty-fifth minute, when Alvaro Morata rose above everyone to meet Azpilicueta’s inch-perfect cross to put a thumping header past a hapless David de Gea, it was Bakayoko who had pulled away Chris Smalling from his natural defensive position, all but allowing Morata a free header in the six-yard box.
On a night when Romelu Lukaku failed to get a single touch on the ball in Chelsea’s penalty box, not due to any fault of his, for the Belgian has cut an isolated figure whenever Manchester United have played a top side, Morata settled yet another debate in Chelsea’s favour.
It wasn’t simply Chelsea’s execution of Conte’s plan, but Mourinho’s reluctance to let his team play an expressive brand of football against a clearly under-pressure Chelsea side which contributed as much to the result. Jose Mourinho has a straightforward blue-print whenever his club is playing against another top club — set up a compact defensive line, soak up all the opposition pressure and hit them on the counter. While this tried & tested plan bore him fruits during Inter Milan’s infamous win at El Camp Nou or Chelsea’s dispatching of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool at Anfield, Mourinho’s sides have not won any of their last ten away games against a “top six” Premier League opponent — losing five and drawing five, netting only once in over 900 minutes of play.
Just the two shots on target on Sunday (a trend for Manchester United this season as they have registered a cumulative five shots on target against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur) speak as much of Mourinho’s disinclination to reinvent himself as a manager as it does of United’s lack of game-changers in their ranks — the current Manchester United set-up is a strange amalgamation of one-dimensional players who form a disjointed band of merry men — capable of stifling play but not more.
Even for a club of United’s stature, Mourinho could justify the lack of flair if they were winning games but with their noisy neighbours almost running away with the Premier League title all the while penning a beautiful poem, the Red Devils will do well to compose a simple prose.
Updated Date: Nov 06, 2017 10:48 AM