The holders are out. Manchester United were knocked out of the FA Cup after losing 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Ten-man United struggled to impose themselves on the game and were beaten thanks to a rare N’Golo Kante goal.
Jose Mourinho named a surprising starting XI before kick-off. An intriguing selection that had everyone guessing included three central defenders, wing backs, Ashley Young and a fit again Marcus Rashford, who made the team despite suffering with illness just 24 hours ago.
Although expanding into a 3-4-3 in possession, Mourinho’s side was a combination of multiple systems without it. You could argue it was a defensive 4-4-1-1, but in most situations without the ball it was 6-3-1-1. The idea was simple. Match Chelsea’s 3-4-3 and create advantageous 1 vs 1’s and 2 vs 1’s across the pitch to nullify and contain their attacking threat. It worked. For the first thirty minutes.
The full backs, Darmian and Jones, played as interior full backs and matched up 1 vs 1 against their opponents. Jones vs Hazard, Darmian vs Willian. Rojo and Smalling dealt with Diego Costa. In midfield, Pogba and Herrera went up against Matic and Willian, Ashley Young was responsible for Moses and Valencia engaged Marcos Alonso. Across the pitch, Manchester United were equipped to handle Chelsea and match them for energy, intensity, strength, anything necessary to win the individual battle. Rashford and Mkhitaryan pressed from the front, leaving Cahill as the spare Chelsea man. When the ball went into midfield, Mkhitaryan would drop in to join Pogba and Herrera and create a 3 vs 2 against Matic and Kante and give them an advantage in that midfield battle. The plan was set, battle lines were drawn, Manchester United were comfortable defending against Chelsea in this way.
Another feature of Manchester United’s early defensive system was the variation of their press. With so many defensive reinforcements, they felt comfortable stepping into Chelsea when they moved the ball into the final third. Whenever Hazard or Willian got the ball they were immediately met with intense pressure and shut down. Acknowledging Hazard’s quality, the pressure was more intense and United gave away several fouls on the Belgian but crucially, apart from one shot which was saved well by De Gea, Hazard was not a goal threat.
The game plan was undone in the 35th minute. Another foul on Hazard, another foul by Herrera, a second yellow card and United were a man short. The defensive system was now a man light. United would be unable to reliably create the same advantages they had been able to when it was 11 vs 11.
In the second half, Conte’s side seized the opportunity to control the game and it became less about Manchester United and more about Chelsea. Given Mourinho’s insistence that United accommodate Chelsea man for man across the pitch, Chelsea knew that with the right patience, the right passes and the right discipline, they would eventually create a moment in which they had an advantage. As it turns out they created plenty of moments in the second half and should have had a much larger advantage.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 system is so elegant because it creates a shape that allows the players to cover for each other’s deficiencies as a team and excel through individual quality. All it took to break the resistance of a stubborn and organised defensive unit was the individual quality to create half a yard of space and capitalise. Willian fronted up against Fellaini and tried to create that half a yard. When he couldn’t, he shifted the ball to Kante who could. Moving the ball to his right away from Paul Pogba, Kante had the space and hit it true. 1-0. Almost game over.
From then on, United had very little left. With a system designed around not conceding (and certainly not equipped to handle going down to 10 men) they didn’t have the tools to push forward and create chances. The one big chance they had fell to Marcus Rashford. Despite twisting and turning and beating Gary Cahill, he couldn’t beat Thibaut Courtois.
Ultimately, history will show that the holders went out in the quarter final and Mourinho was beaten at Chelsea, again. What history won’t show is what could have been. For half an hour, Mourinho had the measure of the man who beat him four-nil in October. It was classic Mourinho. Depleted squad, weakened line-up, defensive approach. Approaching half-time, United were feeling confident and seemed able to handle the Premier League leaders. Had it not been for the naivety of the over eager Ander Herrera, Manchester United might be heading to Wembley. Instead, they are heading home.