In the late kickoff on Sunday, Chelsea continued their good run of form by defeating Manchester United at Stamford Bridge by the score of 4-0.
United have had a woeful record at Stamford Bridge as of late, but no one could have predicted this score line, and United will be left wondering what exactly went wrong.
Pedro’s goal after just 30 seconds gave the Blues a flying start, and United never seemed to regain their footing.
At a ground that has given him so much joy in the past as Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho left the Bridge with questions to answer about his tactics and his team.
On the other hand, current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte will be pleased with Chelsea’s performance and the efficiency with which they dispatched their foe.
With Mourinho sitting in the away dugout, it felt as if the last vestiges of the Mourinho era have started to slip away.
It felt different this time. It just did. Last time Jose Mourinho sat in the away dugout, it was as manager of Inter Milan, and despite his new job, it still felt like his Chelsea team.
By and large, it was. The title-winning spine that he built in Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba were all still a key part of that Chelsea squad back in 2010, and the spirit instilled in them by Mourinho would continue to be woven into the fabric of the squad by the spine of those teams.
After the final whistle on Sunday, it felt like the curtain was slowly coming down on that past era. Witnessing the Blues’ performance was like witnessing Antonio Conte’s Chelsea for the first time this season. It wasn’t just the 3-4-3 formation. It wasn’t just the 4-0 victory. It was the demeanor of the side and the way in which the team went about their business, and it very much mirrored that of their manager Antonio Conte.
For 90 minutes, Chelsea outplayed Manchester United in every phase of the match. They were sharper with their passing and movement, they were quicker to every second ball, and showed the hunger and the desire that is very much a trademark of Antonio Conte himself.
On Sunday, despite Mourinho sitting in the away dugout, you didn’t feel like the spectre of Mourinho lingered over the squad as it had with every manager after Mourinho’s first departure. This time, you felt like you were watching Antonio Conte’s Chelsea, and that is a good thing.
Antonio Conte’s tactical nous is proving dividends, especially without Europe.
Finishing out of the European places last season could actually be a blessing for Chelsea this season. A change as radical as moving from a back four to a back three isn’t an easy one, and only playing one match a week, possibly two on domestic cup weeks, gives the manager more time to train the new formation and get the players prepared to play.
Against Manchester United, it seemed to pay dividends. The match against Chelsea was the Red Devils’ third match in just six days, and even though players were rested against Fenerbahce at Old Trafford in midweek, it does leave a team with a new manager short on training time.
Conte’s developed a reputation as a great tactician, and against United, it was clear that he had put his week of training to good use. Chelsea’s new-look back three looked increasingly more comfortable in their roles, but more importantly, the Blues took advantage of Mourinho still trying to find the right balance within his United squad.
In matches this season, United’s midfield, especially, looks a bit out of sorts. With Mourinho favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, the pieces just don’t seem to fit. Outside of Michael Carrick and the out-of-favour Morgan Schneiderlin, United don’t have a true holding midfielder, and on Sunday, it showed.
Chelsea isolated Ander Herrera, who’s been playing recently in that holding role, by simply playing around him and denying him the ball. Towards the latter stages of the match, Herrera started wandering around looking for the ball, and with Juan Mata on for Marouane Fellaini, it meant that United lost some of the steel from their midfield.
It’s no surprise then that the third and fourth goals were a result of United’s midfield being played through in some way, and it felt like that was something that the Blues had been preparing for.
With John Terry now ready to play, where does he fit in this system?
This might be the biggest conundrum in the head of Antonio Conte at the moment. Terry has been out with an ankle injury as Chelsea were transitioning to a back three, and the side has played well in his absence. With him back in training, where does he slot in?
The answer to the question is complicated because at the moment, he doesn’t really fit. Terry’s ideal position in a back three is in the centre of the three because he reads the game well, and he’s not the quickest, especially defending in one-on-one situations.
The problem for Terry is that David Luiz has played well in that position, and if you move him to accommodate Terry, you might cause other problems.
If Terry comes back in the side and plays centrally, it likely means that Luiz goes to the left-sided position. It also means that Luiz now has to do more one v. one defending, and that’s something that Luiz tends to lead to mistakes. Consequently, you also can’t move Terry to the left-sided position because he also isn’t great one v. one with the added problem of his diminished pace in a role that has to act like a fullback, in some instances.
We’ll see on Wednesday night against West Ham in the EFL Cup as to where Terry plays, since he’s likely to start, and that might give us a clue as to how Conte intends to use his captain. But for now, it doesn’t seem like he’s a natural fit, at least as long as Chelsea are playing well.