Manchester United defeated Chelsea 2-0 at Old Trafford to throw the title race wide open in a game where Mourinho’s tactics of stopping Chelsea and having a flexible front line paid off.
Mourinho made few surprise changes to the lineup with one eye on the Europa League quarter-final second leg coming up this Thursday. The Portuguese started with the flexible front two of Rashford and Lingard. The midfield consisted of Fellaini, Pogba and Herrera. For the first time, we saw a flexible back-line with two central defenders Bailly and Rojo supported by Young, Darmian and Valencia.
Chelsea was dealt with two pivotal injuries prior to the game when Courtois and Marcos Alonso were deemed unavailable for the game. This forced Conte to change the personnel in his shape with Zouma as the third centre-back and Azpilicueta at left wing-back.
Now, let us concentrate on the game-plan laid out by Mourinho and how it clicked well to stop the current league leaders from even putting a shot on goal throughout the game:-
The above image shows us the general positioning of each player during the game in formation. It was not a typical 5-3-2 or 6-2-2 from Mourinho, rather there was man-marking and positioning of defenders just to stop the opposition from building up play with the help of creative players.
If we see the above image, the encircled players just give us an idea as to how tightly likes of Hazard and Pedro were marked by Herrera and Darmian. The Spaniard on more than few occasions dropped in the last line just to follow the movements of the Chelsea playmaker. Darmian was tucked in from that inside fullback position watching the movements of Pedro.
This allowed Valencia and Young from natural fullback positions to move forward and help the front line of Rashford and Lingard. Fellaini was stationed in between the lines to win high balls or be physically tight to Matic. Pogba was given a role to stop Kante but predominantly his work was to support the front line whenever possible and also win the second balls from attacking situations.
Such was the homework done by Jose and all the players that Chelsea were left shell-shocked, Conte could never find the answer to this special game-plan even after trying to move Hazard to different positions by bringing Willian into the game. As soon as Herrera was booked for a challenge on Hazard in the second half, Carrick, who came off the bench was handed that responsibility.
We all know central defenders never like pacey strikers who can breach the offside trap and run in behind. This is what happened in the build-up of first United goal.
In the above image, the run from Rashford is shown and how Luiz got caught out easily by the raw pace of the striker. When Herrera played the ball in between Cahill and Luiz, Rashford started the run from the other side and ran across the last man so that the defender cannot foul him.
This meant he had a free run on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat which he did expertly. Chelsea keeper Begovic should take a bit of stick for that, the strike wasn’t well hit so if he would have made himself big and tried to cut out the angle, maybe the goal could have been stopped. The build up to that goal was controversial too when Herrera handled the ball before playing in the assist.
All in all though, a perfect day in the office for Jose who laid out the plan which was executed to perfection by his players. Conte’s men could have done better with more desire and better execution of passes in the middle third.
Hazard was man-marked but the Belgian never tried to drop deep or hog the touchline just to attract defenders and create space for others, instead, he constantly ran into spaces that was marked tightly which means he could not take passes on half turn and run.
The gap at the top is just 4 points now with 6 games to play for both Tottenham and Chelsea, one would still fancy the leaders to take the title with the kind of games remaining to them but nothing could be said with surety in the Premier League, Spurs have won 7 in a row and in between that run, Chelsea have lost two games in 3 weeks to make this race an interesting one.