Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge was not a happy occasion for the manager who was sacked by the club almost a year ago. His Man United side, looking tired and jaded from games on Monday and Thursday, were put to the sword by Antonio Conte’s ruthless Chelsea.
The Italian manager set up his Blues side in exactly the same way he did against Leicester, where they won 3-0 against the current champions. It wasn’t broken, so he didn’t try to fix it, and as such stuck with the same 11, playing Courtois in goal, with a defensive trio of Azpilicueta, Luiz and stand-in captain Cahill; Moses, Kante, Matic and Alonso lined up in midfield behind an attacking three of Pedro, Hazard and Costa. The Manchester club lined up with De Gea in goal; a back four of Valencia, Smalling, Bailly and Blind; Herrera and Fellaini sat in midfield behind Rashford, Pogba and Lingard; Ibrahimovc started up front.
In the media, much of the build up to the game focused on it being Mourinho’s first game back at Stamford Bridge after being sacked last year, having set Chelsea on the road to their worst season in recent memory. Away from the drama, however, a lot of Chelsea’s build up rightly focussed on commemorating the 20th anniversary of Matthew Harding’s tragic death, and even the club’s official matchday programme paid a wonderful tribute on the front cover to the former vice-chairman.
In terms of tactical preparations by the managers, whatever Mourinho’s game plan was went out the window thirty seconds after the kick off.
Conte, sensing that United may have been sluggish having played two games since Chelsea last played, would have instructed the Blues to start quickly and get on the front foot as soon as possible. Even he though would have been surprised to see Pedro get the opener so early on. A ball over the top by Alonso caused confusion between the United central defenders and their goalkeeper, who had inexplicably come off his line and left an empty net. Pedro, who was impressive against Leicester, rounded De Gea and slotted home for an easy finish to mark his 50th appearance for Chelsea. Referee Martin Atkinson mystifyingly felt that Pedro’s celebrations were slightly excessive, and opted to give the Spaniard a yellow card.
United could have equalised fairly soon after, but Ibrahimovic headed over from close range having easily out-jumped Azpilicueta. Both sides then traded attacks and counter-attacks, with United dominating the approach play but Chelsea looking far more dangerous and more likely to get a second. And so it was when a corner, again bemusing the United defenders, fell to Cahill, who smashed home Chelsea’s second from a few yards out.
It was a deserved lead for a Chelsea side who have looked a different team since deploying Conte’s 3-4-3 system. United were not out of the game though, and it took a double-save from Courtois shortly after to keep the score at 2-0. Man United kept putting passes together and, although ponderous, they kept a good deal of possession. It clearly wasn’t good enough for Mourinho, however, who replaced the ineffective and awkward Fellaini at half time, the Belgian having been on the receiving end of a painful kick from Luiz. Some hinted that Chelsea’s Brazilian defender was lucky not to receive a red card, but the referee rightly saw no malice in the challenge; it was just badly timed, and a yellow card was fair.
In place of Fellaini came on Mata, who most will remember was sold by Mourinho to Man United when he was Chelsea’s manager. The diminutive Spaniard did not manage to swing the game back in United’s favour though, and in fact was probably the most culpable for Chelsea’s third goal.
Before that the two teams continued to trade blows, with Chelsea looking to hit United quickly and directly on the break. At this point it was the team in red that were looking more ascendant, and Courtois did well when called upon – parrying away a fierce Lingard strike. For all their approach play, however, United never really looked like breaking Chelsea’s resolve.
Just after the clock struck one hour, Eden Hazard killed the game with a fine finish following a smart interchange between him, Kante and Matic. Hazard fed Kante and his marker, Mata, wandered too far toward the ball; when Kante passed to Matic, the tall Serb could easily see the gap Hazard had run into. Hazard took one small touch to move the ball away from the nearest defender and drilled it low past De Gea.
The icing on Chelsea’s cake came nine minutes later when N’Golo Kante, who had been superb all afternoon, ghosted into United’s box with the ball and dropped his shoulder to evade Smalling, after which he smashed the ball low and true into the bottom corner. It was the French midfielder’s first goal for the Blues.
With the game well wrapped up, it was down to Chelsea to make sure United’s fans weren’t able to celebrate a consolation. And so they did when Courtois again produced a good save to keep out Ibrahimovic’s turn-and-shot.
Like the game against Leicester last Saturday, there was not a single weak performance from a Chelsea player, whilst it could be said that there was not a single strong performance from a Man United player. Diego Costa had a relatively quiet game but he hassled the United defenders well and in the right way, whereas Kante, Hazard, Azpilicueta and Alonso were all outstanding. Although Hazard was awarded Man of the Match by the Sky commentary, for me the standout performance was from Victor Moses.
The winger seems to have benefited more than anyone in the Chelsea squad in the switch to 3-4-3; both him and Alonso as wingers-come-fullbacks appear to completely understand their roles and the importance they have to the team, and both are relishing it. It was the Nigerian though who was tirelessly patrolling the right wing, as well as many other areas. In fact, a few stand out moments arose when Moses drifted into his own box to intercept or to head clear, and he was crucial in setting Chelsea off on counter-attacks and driving United’s left side backwards.
As a Chelsea fan, there was no extra joy or ‘schadenfreude’ at the fact that this heavy win was against Jose Mourinho’s Man United. No, instead today was all about Chelsea and their ruthless efficiency in executing a game plan. It could be noted though that, rather ironically, it was against Mourinho where Chelsea finally looked like a different team to the one he built over so many years, both in terms of style and personnel. Instead, this was Conte’s new-look Chelsea, and they were looking good.
Match Report from Joe Campbell