There were many pleasing factors to come out of our comprehensive victory over Chelsea on Sunday. One major question I found myself asking was how do United take this forward and is this an approach that can bring success in the future?
It was, probably, our most cohesive and impressive team performance this season. With the emphasis on the team’s overall performance, it might have been our best since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down in 2013. To have the runaway league leaders leave Old Trafford having been outthought and outfought was incredibly pleasing and it feels as it if could be the turning point, the making of, Jose Mourinho’s United. It was a performance that reinstalled confidence and belief in both the manager and the players, both of whom have taken plenty of criticism in recent months.
Yesterday’s result may have a huge impact on the title race, a spectacle that United will only get to watch unfold rather than partake in themselves. However, the impact it may have on next season’s title race, and of course, the remainder of United’s season (which is far from finished) could be colossal.
For Mourinho, the victory of his former employers will have been a startling reminder of his ability as a manager. In the eyes of many, he has gone from the ‘Special One’ to ‘Special Once’ following his acrimonious departure from Chelsea last season and United’s struggles under his stewardship during this campaign. His appointment at United was touted as his last chance to prove that he is still a manager capable of living up to his glamorous CV. For the club, it was regarded as a risk. They had hired a man who came with the label of ‘broken goods’, a man who like his club had seen better days.
His permanent replacement at Chelsea, Antonio Conte, has come to be regarded as more than just Mourinho’s successor at Stamford Bridge, but as the new managerial king on the throne. Chelsea’s ascent to the top of the table mirrored with United’s stumbling outside of the top four only served to highlight that Conte was the new special one and that Mourinho was finished. The successive defeats at Stamford Bridge would have hurt Mourinho and enhanced the doubts surrounding him. The 4-0 humbling in October sparked an unbeaten run of form, though littered with draws, and although his approach in the FA Cup match in March looked to be working, the 1-0 defeat left an impression of him being a negative and cautious tactician. Such tactics can hardly be regarded as befitting a manager of Manchester United, where the emphasis is on attacking and stylish football. Mourinho is fully aware, however, that the team must win matches and a campaign littered with draws will have highlighted the deficiencies in the side’s attacking department.
The 4-0 humbling in October sparked an unbeaten run of form, though littered with draws, and although his approach in the FA Cup match in March looked to be working, the 1-0 defeat left an impression of him being a negative and cautious tactician. Such tactics can hardly be regarded as befitting a manager of Manchester United, where the emphasis is on attacking and stylish football. Mourinho is fully aware, however, that the team must win matches and a campaign littered with draws will have highlighted the deficiencies in the side’s attacking department.
When the team sheet was revealed on Sunday, many will have felt that Mourinho’s selection was either brave or stupid. The latter seemed to be the popular opinion on social media with many supporters shocked by his omission, from the start, of Mkhitaryan and Ibrahimovic. Few believed that with his selection, Mourinho had a trick up his sleeve and had worked out how to combat Chelsea. It was acknowledged that he was likely to be replicating the approach in the cup match last month, which arguably worked until Herrera was sent off in the first half although it lacked any real creativity or attacking quality.
What happened at Old Trafford, though, was a United team producing a performance which balanced perfectly between defence and attack. Mourinho called it a controlling performance and he is completely right. With Rashford and Lingard up front, the team had pace and vibrant link-up play that Chelsea’s defence never really coped with. The defence was superb, Bailly and Rojo continuing to develop an impressive partnership and Matteo Darmian, who has failed to convince this season, produced arguably his finest display in a United shirt. The Italian was both diligent and tactically astute and completely nullified the threat of Pedro.
It was a performance of the kind of intelligence that the manager claimed Luke Shaw lacked. The standout performer was surely Ander Herrera though. His discipline in remaining defensive (there were times when he played at right back, centre back, left back and central midfield) and starving Chelsea of Eden Hazard, and choosing the opportune moments to move forward in attack, was superb. For a player, whose chief role was to man-mark Hazard, to also get a goal and an assist in the match, speaks volumes of his performance.
What pleased me most about the match, was the reminder that football is a team game. What Mourinho gave us (and Chelsea) was tactical and a team selection masterclass. Yes, he could have chosen a stronger side on paper and there is no doubting the abilities of those who were left out. But he selected a team that he knew could win the game, that would fit the occasion.
It reminded of the times when we used to play Arsenal under Sir Alex. Look at those team sheets and you are reminded of the power of getting the team right. It is worth remembering, when we enter the summer period of transfer speculation, that having the best individuals does not necessarily make the best team. Players like Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian and Jesse Lingard; like Darren Fletcher, Anderson and John O’Shea before them, are the ones who provide a platform for the more individually talented stars to win you matches.
Of course, we still need the top players and by no means does yesterday’s result make Mkhitaryan or Ibrahimovic surplus to requirements. They are and will be, important to us. They just weren’t required for what Mourinho wanted, and United needed, against Chelsea. What we need to remember is that our tactical approach and style in that game won’t be suitable for every match. Mourinho needs to find a way of playing against teams who defend in numbers that is just as effective as how we set up against Chelsea. What he has proven though, is on this occasion, he is still the special one and with him, you must feel that the future is bright at Manchester United.