It’s only fitting that on Monday night, Jose Mourinho’s third match in charge and first test against the top-class opponents of the Premier League would come in the form of a trip to Old Trafford to face last year’s champions, Manchester United. It’s only fitting, as it was Mourinho’s last trip with his Real Madrid side that brought about new controversy and saw him walk out a winner against United in last season’s Champions League. This time, it’s not Sir Alex Ferguson that will be his opposite number, but rather David Moyes, the man replacing Ferguson who has also been well-acquainted with Chelsea and Mourinho as manager of Everton.
Outside of the battle of the managers, which has been well-documented, it’s the battle on the pitch that will be the most important, and there is no doubt that both sides will want to put a marker down early. For United, they’ll want to prove that even with a new manager, the squad is just as hungry and just as motivated to play under Moyes as they did for Sir Alex. For Chelsea, they finished 14 points behind United in the league last season and an early victory away at Old Trafford will go a long way to showing that they’re one of the favorites for the title.
Inter-mixed with all of this is Chelsea’s continued pursuit of Wayne Rooney. The United striker is clearly unsettled at United, but remains the consummate professional in his performances on the pitch, even if his body language doesn’t match. With the visit of his only suitor in this transfer window, it will be interesting to see if Rooney starts, is on the bench, or even is in the squad at all. The waiting bid makes sense, if only to see if United shows their hand with the squad selection.
Regardless, for Monday Night Football, this is a good matchup where both teams will be looking for a nice early season victory to possibly launch them into the season full force.
Moyes was the perfect man to inherit this squad, given how ingrained United have been to their 4-4-2 variations.
Ferguson has, outside of the Cristiano Ronaldo time, been an unabashed 4-4-2 master with all its variations throughout his career. His sides have always been built on two central midfield player and two wide men to stretch the play. Moyes, throughout his career, has played a very similar system, and that’s a good thing for United. The one thing about this United side is that they are built for 4-4-2. They’re built to play with two up front with one as the focal point and the other to drop off the line and make runs beyond the other.
It’s a system that Moyes has used to perfection during his time at Everton. In fact, his 4-4-2 over the last few years has caused Chelsea problems because of his use of his second striker. At Everton, he often used Marouane Fellaini in a more advanced role behind the striker because it gave him the flexibility to use him as a second striker or drop him back into midfield as a third midfielder depending on the situation.
Ferguson used a very similar system with Rooney and Robin van Persie last year, but because of his weaknesses in center midfield, Rooney often found himself needing to play deeper rather than being able to get forward more.
All that being said, I expect United to look very similar to how they did last season, as the general philosophies of Moyes and Ferguson are similar and the personnel is unchanged.
It’s time to unleash Eden Hazard again.
If there’s one player that tortured United last season, it was Hazard. At right back, United don’t have a defender that can defend his combination of pace, skill, and strength on the ball. The task to track Hazard will be left to Phil Jones, and that should be the one area where Chelsea can exploit. While Jones is a good defender, he’s not Cafu or Jorginho going forward and Hazard is capable of putting him on his heels. He did so quite effectively in the meetings against United last season, including the amazing curling strike coming back from 2 goals down in the FA Cup last season.
The fact will be that United’s defence and midfield will once again have to contend with the intelligence and movement of Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata, and they gave them nightmares in all their meetings last season. If United have one main weakness, is their central midfield, even going back to Jose’s first stint at Chelsea where his 4-3-3 gave them problems because of all the players between the lines.
What to do with Branislav Ivanovic?
This has been a question as of late against United, and it took us until last season to try and come up with a genuine solution. When Ivanovic played at right back against United in recent seasons, Ferguson has largely chosen to ignore his attacking game and focus instead on pushing Ashley Cole back. They’ve been perfectly willing to give Ivanovic all the space forward he wanted, taking advantage of his lack of pace in retreat, and countering behind him.
That was largely corrected late last season by Cesar Azpilicueta’s ability to come forward with a threat on the right side, but it does also cost you in terms of defending in the box. However, Ivanovic’s ability to act as a third defender in the box has been invaluable so far this season, especially given that Mourinho’s fullbacks have not been defending so wide when not in possession.
I do think, though, that we will see Azpilicueta against United, simply for the reason that Ivanovic is susceptible to being countered behind, especially if Danny Welbeck or Rooney are played on the left.
Who do you pick at center back?
This links right in with what do you do with Ivanovic, because I’m not convinced by John Terry and Gary Cahill as a partnership at center back, especially given how susceptible both have been to quickness in the box. With the threat of van Persie, I think you may see the first big call by Mourinho in terms of team selection. Leaving out John Terry might be the better option, but it calls into question, again, Terry’s place in the big matches.
That’s not to say that Ivanovic is necessarily a better fit than than Terry in this match, though I do think he might be better than Cahill in terms of his ability to read the game and the fact he has a bit more quickness at center back. It also takes out of the equation United’s ability to ignore having to track the right back, which as mentioned before, has been a problem.
For me, David Luiz can’t get fit soon enough.
Finally, the almighty question: Fernando Torres or Romelu Lukaku?
I’ve left out Demba Ba because, for me, his performance against Aston Villa highlighted his main weaknesses in this squad. He’s a very good finisher, but in terms of playing as a focal point of the attack where he’s asked to be an out ball, score goals, and contribute to the overall play, he’s lacking in those areas. He can still put the ball in the net, but when he doesn’t do that, he offers very little.
I’ve had this debate with a friend of mine since the start of the season and especially in the run up to this match. For me, it comes down to two questions: Do you want the ability to change a match by just swapping strikers, and are you convinced that Lukaku is ready for the big stage?
For me, the answers are simple. First off, while Lukaku may be in better form and has the skills to start from the off, but he’s not started at Old Trafford in his career. He played for West Brom in both matches against United, even scoring a hat trick against them on the last day of the season. However, he didn’t start in either match. You could argue that he changed the match in favor of West Brom both times, but that’s just my point. He changed the match.
Secondly, Lukaku’s ability to change a match is why I think you start Torres. It’s not a good reason, but I feel that Torres understands the movement of the intricate play that we’ve been trying to play, and while Lukaku’s getting the hang of it, one or two of his passes against Villa either missed his target by a mile or weren’t incisive enough. Say what you want about Torres’ first touch, but his ability to drag the spaces for the three behind him to flourish is why I start him. He’s willing to move as deep as the holding midfielders if the move dictates that’s where he needs to position himself, which is something I’ve not yet seen from Lukaku.
Lastly, I look back to two years ago when Daniel Sturridge made his first Old Trafford start and looked as if he was overawed by the moment. If your striker is overawed by Old Trafford, you’ll have to deal with that for 45 minutes or haul him off earlier. I don’t think it’s good squad management to give Lukaku his first Chelsea start in the throes of Old Trafford, but if Mourinho thinks he’s ready, he’ll do it.