It’s the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge on Sunday as Manchester United face Chelsea in what is already a must-win game for United. Nearly a year after being sacked by the London club, Mourinho returns to Chelsea with his United side looking to close the gap on the other title chasers by picking up three points on the road. United go into the game with a powerful performance under their belt after hammering Fenerbahce 4-1 in the Europa League on Thursday where United hit back at critics who were quick to write off United after their tactical display against Liverpool, which ended 0-0. Chelsea will be looking to continue their good performance against reigning champions Leicester where they dominated the game and ended up 3-0 winners.
Starting off with Antonio Conte’s side as they have struggled to find their identity this season just like United have. They’ve rotated from playing 4-2-3-1 to almost a 4-4-2 to now settle on what is clearly Conte’s favourite formation in 3-5-2 which he adopted during his time at Juventus and for the Italian national team. However, Chelsea does not have the defenders who are comfortable playing three at the back, nor are they the caliber of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli who played for Conte under both Juve and Italy. In their win over Leicester, they played Gary Cahill as the left-sided centre-back, David Luiz in the middle and Cesar Azpilicueta as the right-sided centre-back. Individually there are flaws in each one of these defenders, Luiz is incredibly erratic, Cahill is error prone and Azpilicueta prefers to get forward and is naturally a right-back, throw them into a formation they aren’t used to and there are bound to be more problems created. United will be looking to expose this on Sunday with the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Anthony Martial, and Marcus Rashford all serious threats. Gary Cahill was awful against Arsenal and Chelsea were exposed massively, Arsenal have a strong attacking line-up with the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil but Gary Cahill made numerous mistakes, David Luiz was often caught out of position and Cesar Azpilicueta, who played as a left back, was rarely back to defend and Arsenal capitalised.
However, for all it seems defensively frail for Chelsea, going forward is a completely different story. Diego Costa, who is rarely out of the headlines has had a very good season scoring seven goals but as is the case with his aggressive style of play, has amassed yellow cards leaving him a card away from a suspension. He has an ability not seen in many players where he manages to wind everyone up with dirty tactics and when he is at his best, he does it to intimidate defenders in order to gain a goalscoring chance. Like any tactic it has its downside and pretty much the entirety of last season he was winding himself up instead of the opposition and it was blocking his goalscoring capabilities. If United are going to succeed in keeping Costa quiet then Eric Bailly and either Chris Smalling (who is a potential doubt for the game with a muscular injury) or Daley Blind will have to keep calm and not allow the Spaniard to wind them up into making a mistake or getting sent off.
The 3-5-2 formation has also provided a second chance for Victor Moses, who was loaned out to West Ham for the 2015/16 season, playing as one of the wing-backs in Conte’s new set up. Moses has always been on the fringe of the Chelsea team in the past and in an attempt to gain more playing time he has been loaned out to Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham in the last three seasons. This season, however, Moses has been somewhat of a surprise package but a reliable one for Conte. He is small in stature but physically strong and has the explosive pace to get him up and down the pitch all game long. In turn, this has freed up Eden Hazard to play in the number 10 role like he does for Belgium too. This provides a more potent attack and one that will certainly create chances against United.
On to United! The big question on everyone’s mind is how will Jose Mourinho set up against Chelsea after the defensive showing against Liverpool, will it be another tactical display looking to steal a win/hold out for a draw or will it be more like the attacking display we saw against Fenerbahce midweek? Personally, I think it is going to have to be more attacking than Liverpool but I am 100% confident that United will not throw everything into an attack as they did in the Europa League. United have a terrible record against Chelsea in the last decade (apart from Moscow) having only won once in the last eight games, with United drawing both games against Chelsea last season.
This game obviously has added pressure for Jose against his former side, he won’t want to lose and will do everything possible to make sure of that. United will play 4-2-3-1 like they have done all season with Ander Herrera sitting allowing Paul Pogba to get forward and support Juan Mata in creating chances for Ibrahimovic, Martial, and Rashford. Against Liverpool, we saw Ashley Young come in for Martial who was injured pre-game and it became more of a 4-5-1 as Young and Rashford tucked in as almost wing-backs rather than wingers which obviously helped the defensive aspect of the game but hindered the attacking play.
In his press conference, Mourinho confirmed that Smalling is a doubt but could well feature and Henrikh Mkhitaryan is again working hard behind the scenes to get himself into better shape and like Chris Smalling could feature. So it is likely that Martial, who played 90 minutes against Fenerbahce, will come back into the side either forcing Rashford to the right or Jesse Lingard comes in after a strong performance against Fenerbahce with a great goal, to play from the right. Ibrahimovic will play up front unless injured as has been the trend this season, his ariel ability and hold up play will be key in breaking down the three centre-backs Chelsea plays with. It’s actually rather strange to not mention Wayne Rooney in a pre-match article but he will more than likely retain his place on the bench with Mata playing as the number 10 after a great start to the season. In terms of style, we’ll see a more attacking side than we did against Liverpool but United will attempt to dominate the game, whether that means sacrificing possession to make sure they can penetrate the Chelsea defence more and create chances. This will be a more open game and fingers crossed we can see a more traditional United team with a Mourinho masterclass thrown in!
Diego Costa v Eric Bailly
Manchester United’s newest defender will be under pressure from the feisty Diego Costa as he is new to the league and will be a target to be wound up. We’ve seen multiple defenders get wound up by Costa from Laurent Koscielny and Gabriel Paulista from Arsenal, Winston Reid at West Ham United and even his potential partner Chris Smalling, if Bailly can not get wound up and plays the way he has done all season, Costa will be quiet and United will have a strong advantage in the game.
Juan Mata v N’Golo Kante
I haven’t mentioned either of these much previously but this is battle could well decide the game. Mata has been a massively influential player this season for United having been involved in the majority of their created chances but he will face a tough task doing that on Sunday as he comes up against Kante. The former Leicester midfielder is one of the most disciplined players in the league and proved last season that he is key within any successful team. If Kante does what he does best in shutting down attacks, intercepting the ball and covering for the wandering defence, then it’ll be very tough for Mata to create chances.
Ander Herrera v Eden Hazard
Ander Herrera has been one of United’s players of the season sitting in a deeper role in midfield. He has provided a calm head in the middle of the park with his passing range providing impetus going forward. Eden Hazard has been likened with some of the best players in the world but has struggled to find the consistency needed to be world-class. If he gets it right he is a phenomenal player and can beat any team almost single-handedly. Herrera put in a Man of the Match performance against Liverpool and kept Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino quiet all game. He will need to do the same thing on Sunday if he is going to outshine Eden Hazard and shut down the game for United.