Outfought and outrun, beaten, broken and humiliated. Manchester United were taken apart by a rampant Chelsea side as Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge ended in an embarrassing 4-0 defeat.
Mourinho made several changes again today, in part due to Thursday night’s exertions in the Europa League, but also to return United to the side that played at Anfield on Monday. The only change from the start of the week was Jesse Lingard’s inclusion at the expense of Ashley Young.
Unpicking this performance is difficult. United started in appalling fashion and conceded after just 30 seconds. Chris Smalling’s inability to take control of Marcos Alonso’s loose pass, coupled with Daley Blind’s complete lack of his surroundings, allowed Pedro to capitalise and score with ease.
So at that point whatever the plan was, whatever tactical masterstroke Mourinho was hoping to employ, that has to go out of the window. It’s 1-0, the state of the game has changed.
The problem being that Mourinho had selected players based on their ability to defend compactly, break quickly and work on the counter-attack. With Chelsea leading so early, defending in such a manner was only going to invite unnecessary pressure.
In the first half, United’s solution to Conte’s 3-4-3 system was to ask Rashford and Lingard to track Moses and Alonso, allowing Blind and Valencia to deal with Pedro and Hazard. As an opening gambit, it wasn’t terrible. Had United been more decisive in those first few moments then they may have been able to frustrate Chelsea in much the same way they did Liverpool, with the hope they could grow into the game and become an attacking presence.
Once they conceded though, being this defensive immediately became the wrong mindset. United were far too deep and far too ineffectual in possession of the ball. Once this team falls behind, certain tactical nuances become detrimental. For example, asking Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to play as wing-backs in a back six becomes counterproductive. Trying to transition Marouane Fellaini from a defensive screen to competent attacking threat was awkward at best and selecting a midfield combination that was never going to be able to control the match whilst in possession is fine (if undesired) so long as its true purpose of defending compactly had not been compromised so early on.
Once again United failed to get the best out of Paul Pogba. Playing the no.10 role he failed to create a single chance today and his ineffectiveness will no doubt grab the headlines. The issue for him was the stability of the midfield unit around him. Marouane Fellaini’s limited ability alongside him meant Pogba was isolated, unable to lean on the support of his teammates when Chelsea tried to double up on him or crowd him out.
Very few, if any, of Fellaini’s passes were expansive. Plenty of them were safe, horizontal passes. He rarely threatened Chelsea’s defensive organisation with vertical passes. Not once did he attempt to play between the lines either with the ball or with his movement and he operated between two modes when United were in possession; he was either so deep that he could not affect the move positively or he was so high that he was waiting for a long ball into the penalty area. As a central midfield player he should be constructing the move and controlling possession. His performance isolated Ander Herrera defensively and Paul Pogba offensively and he contributed absolutely nothing of note, except perhaps to burden his teammates with his presence.
In the second half, United were more positive. The introduction of Juan Mata in place of Fellaini gave United better ball players in the opposition half and they certainly made more of possession. In the first half, they rarely threatened the Chelsea goal and were unable to control the match in the opposition half. Too often they relied on fumbled counter-attacks or deep crosses to penetrate the Chelsea backline.
In the second half, they started to take more risks. Rashford partnered Ibrahimovic, Mata become the creative focal point and there was better interplay between United’s midfielders. Short, sharp passing that threatened to disorganise Chelsea became more commonplace and United were starting to grow in confidence and gain a foothold back in the game.
Unfortunately, defensive mistakes cost Manchester United again. Here is the thing about football; at the elite level every tactical plan can be perfect, which in turn makes none of them perfect. Manchester United showed they were capable of adhering to this kind of defensive plan on Monday night, so they should have been able to replicate that today. They also showed that, unlike at Anfield, they were prepared to go to Stamford Bridge and play football should the occasion require it. The only things that separated Manchester United from a positive result today were the individual mistakes. Daley Blind and Marouane Fellaini were guilty of a few, Chris Smalling guilty of many. Today was a reminder that United must improve. They must improve tactically, technically but most importantly they must improve mentally. Winning in the Premier League is a combination of all those things and more. Right now Manchester United are falling short.