Tactical Snippets: How Mourinho can keep pressuring Conte

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Manchester United’s 2016/17 campaign was full of highlights and a few lowlights as well. There were the two cups we won, the play of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, along with the double-figure draws at home. However, my favorite moment from last season was United’s 2-0 win against Chelsea towards the end of the season. Why? Because it was the first time I really felt the impact of having Jose Mourinho as our manager.

With Chelsea flying towards a title, Mourinho set up United to mirror their three at the back formation and marked their best players out of the game. Playing without Ibrahimovic wasn’t a problem because Marcus Rashford put in a brilliant performance. Ander Herrera also stood out, contributing in every phase of the game.

Flash forward to today and both teams are in very different positions. United are second in the league trying to keep close to Manchester City, while Chelsea are tied with Arsenal in fourth place and appear to be imploding behind the scenes. In spite of these difficulties, manager Antonio Conte has done little to tweak their system, and Mourinho will always be who he is. So, can United do it again? Here are three tactical keys to achieving another victory.

Pressuring Chelsea’s back three

Last year’s Chelsea team were excellent when building out of the back. David Luiz is a good passer of the ball, however, under Antonio Conte Chelsea have struggled when they are forced to play the ball long.

In last season’s win, United played with Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard as a pair up front. While Mourinho clearly wanted to exploit their pace on the counter, he also relied on the two-academy products energy in pressing Chelsea’s backline. Chelsea defends narrowly, but when they are building out of the back their defenders are slightly wider. If the ball went out to the left, where the unspectacular Gary Cahill was playing, Rashford would press Cahill while Lingard cut off his options laterally. Forcing Chelsea to play it quickly up the field and right into United’s man marking system. It wasn’t just Cahill though. Luiz also struggled and had one of his worst passing games of the season.

While Chelsea have changed a good deal of players, the system has remains the same. Romelu Lukaku will start, which is a problem for United because his defensive contribution is poor. However, if United attempt to mirror Chelsea’s formation by playing a 3-4-2-1, it would allow them to have another player up the field ready to press. In this matchup, Jesse Lingard could prove incredibly valuable. While he doesn’t have the creativity of Henrikh Mkhitaryan. His effort and link up play with Rashford could allow United to recreate their victory from last year.

Getting the midfield balance right

The benefits in pressing in a 3-4-2-1 are obvious, however, they do have some drawbacks. United excelled in last year’s matchup playing a three-man midfield against Chelsea’s two-man midfield. This allowed Ander Herrera the freedom to man-mark Eden Hazard all over the pitch without losing their numerical advantage. In fact, Jesse Lingard often dropped deep to help make up the numbers if Herrera was pulled wide by Hazard’s movement.

If United go with a two-man midfield, it limits their ability to devout a marker to dangerous players like Hazard. If they play with a three-man midfield, they will struggle to press the backline aggressively as last year. This is why it is so important for Mourinho to get the midfield balance right.

When United play with three at the back, none of Phil Jones, Eric Bailly, and Chris Smalling are particularly adept at stepping into midfield, like a David Luiz or Eric Dier might do. Both Conte and Pochettino use these players to make up for a numerical disadvantage in midfield. So Mourinho will have to careful in how he attempts to counteract this problem. However, if he can strike the right balance, United will have a great chance to recreate last season’s magic.

Fluid movement up front

Against Roma, Chelsea’s back three was pulled all over the place. One second Gary Cahill was on the left and the next he was on the right. The positional discipline that resulted in their title last seasons is all but gone. Expect Mourinho to try and exploit this tactical indiscipline.

One way the Portuguese could attack is to deploy a fluid attacking three. As stated before, a combination of Lingard, Rashford, and Lukaku could do the trick. The Belgium striker loves to pull to the right and isolate one on one on a defender. This would give Lingard and Rashford space to link up in the middle of the pitch. Likewise, Rashford likes to pull to the left, giving space for Lukaku. Lingard can float throughout the center of the pitch and drive at Chelsea’s struggling backline.

Playing a fluid front three would also allow United to play with pace on the counter. Rashford and Lukaku are two of the top three fastest players in the Premier League and Lingard is no slouch either. In last season’s matchup, a turnover in midfield resulted in a direct through ball to Rashford for the opening goal. United’s fluid movement could help pull the opposing centre-backs out of position and allow their fellow attackers to break the backline. The key will be the quality of pass from midfield. Last season, Herrera played an incredible through ball for Rashford, with Pogba likely still out, the Spaniard will need to demonstrate his creativity from midfield once again.

Much has been made about the rivalry between Conte and Mourinho. Both managers have been successful in multiple countries and both have recorded home wins in the head to head matchups. If Mourinho can go back to London and come away with a win, it will be more than just three points. But yet another top-class manager who Mourinho has taken down.

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