In 2006, Chelsea’s march to their second league title culminated with a 3-0 win over Manchester United at Stamford Bridge in Jose Mourinho’s second season in charge. It seems rather fitting that in Jose Mourinho’s second spell in West London, the Blues could strike a hammer blow in the title race at Stamford Bridge with a win against Manchester United on Saturday.
Chelsea have led the Premier League from the start of the season until now and hold a 7-point lead over Arsenal, having played one fewer match. Manchester United sit in third place after an amazing run of form and are just 1 point behind Arsenal and 8 points behind the Blues, but they have played one more game. A win for either side would be huge. For Chelsea, any result, draw or win, would see them escape a dangerous fixture no worse for wear and simultaneously would basically put an end for United’s chance at the Premier League title. A draw won’t necessarily suit United, but win and that gap closes to just 5 points with Chelsea still having to travel to Arsenal and face Liverpool at home.
Suffice it to say, this is a match that Chelsea will be desperate not to lose and United will want to win if they’re to have an outside shot at winning the Premier League title
Jose Mourinho, the Pragmatist, returns.
If you pick up any paper and read through the columns, you’ll see a zillion articles speculating on why Chelsea’s form has dipped after the beginning of the year. Some reasons include fatigue from not rotating, the dislike of Oscar so he’s now sitting on the bench, Diego Costa spending more time winding up opponents and being injured, and such articles have been running for a month or two now. Personally, I think the answer is even more simple than any of those – Jose Mourinho returned to pragmatism over style.
Early on in the season, starting with the first match of the season against Burnley, everyone became seduced by the way we were playing. Chelsea were not “parking the bus” against opponents or being “boring Chelsea.” They were playing attractive football that would rival any team in the Premier League and were blitzing opponents. For me, that all changed on New Year’s Day with that fateful trip to White Hart Lane and the 5-3 defeat to Tottenham.
It wasn’t just the defeat itself, but it was the number of goals conceded and the manner in which they were conceded that I think prompted Mourinho to rethink his approach for the rest of the season. On that day, while Spurs played well and took their chances, Chelsea played far too wide open, more wide open than most Mourinho teams play. There were individual errors, but the fact is that once Diego Costa scored that first goal, the Blues never really settled down and continued to attack at the frenetic pace favored by the hosts.
It’s no surprise that Jose would look at that result, coupled with the number of chances conceded two weeks later to Newcastle at Stamford Bridge, to bring everyone back to a more reserved style for the run-in. He did it just last season. It was after a 4-3 against Sunderland and 3-2 defeat against Stoke City that prompted Mourinho to get back to basics, and it seems that a similar sequence of matches has prompted something similar. The difference is that this season, he hasn’t gone as completely defensive as he did last year.
Louis Van Gaal has made a remarkable change from the early part of the season, but those changes will be tested this weekend.
All credit to Louis Van Gaal for finally settling on a system that works for him and his players. The team he inherited at the start of the season was a collection of players that were assembled at great cost, but weren’t necessarily brought in with a clear purpose in mind. Because of that, Van Gaal decided to run the gamut of formations and modes of play in order to find one that actually suited the bulk of his players, and though it has taken some time, he found it against Spurs, and it’s been effective ever since.
However, the style of play that United have been playing over the past few weeks will be tested, not necessarily by Chelsea, but by injuries and suspensions. United will be missing Daley Blind, Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo, and Michael Carrick – three of whom have been vital to this resurgence – and will also be missing Jonny Evans who is still suspended.
With that injury list, the question isn’t, “how do you stop Manchester United?” It’s “what will Manchester United actually do?” That injury list takes out two of the components of their late revival in Carrick and Blind. It was the return of Carrick that offered that little bit of stability in midfield with his ability to play the correct pass regardless of distance, and the insertion of Daley Blind at left back stabilized a position that’s been a problem for United all season, plus he had developed a good rapport with Ashley Young on the left side, which has caused Liverpool, Spurs, and Manchester City all kinds of problems in recent weeks.
With the list of absentees, it will be interesting to see how Van Gaal alters his side’s style of play and if it changes dramatically. It might just happen given that there aren’t any natural replacements for any of United’s absentees, and the return of Robin Van Persie only complicates things further.
Without Carrick, you can sit deep against United.
For as important as Wayne Rooney is to the side and as important as Juan Mata has been in terms of creating chances lately, it was Michael Carrick who was one of the main reasons that this United side have looked a lot more solid. In the 4-3-3 that United were playing, Carrick was the one playing in front of the defenders, but his sole purpose was to distribute the ball from deep while the attackers stretched the lines of the opposition. No one will ever confuse Carrick with Andrea Pirlo, but it is a job that he can do, and when aided by Marouane Fellaini as a big strong aerial presence and an out ball and Ander Herrera who is willing to do the running, it worked quite well. Now without Carrick, questions must be asked as to who fills that role or if that role exists in midfield.
Earlier in the season, Van Gaal was playing variations of a three-man defence and all of them involved his center backs initiating the play. That failed rather miserably because none of United’s center backs are particularly comfortable with the ball at their feet, so teams would let them have the ball at the back and wait for a mistake to come from Phil Jones or Chris Smalling or whoever was back there. Between his center backs not being able to play passes and Carrick’s early-season injuries, that’s what prompted moving Rooney into midfield, another failed experiment.
It will be interesting to see how Van Gaal approaches this dilemma, especially against a team that is as solid through the spine as Chelsea and a team that’s as ruthless in punishing mistakes. No matter what he says in press conference, it will have not escaped the mind of Mourinho that United are missing their main distributor. I don’t think Chelsea were planning to play on the front foot and relentlessly attack United to start with, but now I think that a low-pressing game may certainly be in order.
Does Didier Drogba have one more big performance in him?
One major concern coming down the stretch is once again at center forward. The injuries to Loic Remy and Diego Costa mean that unless Remy recovers from his calf problem, Didier Drogba will walk out onto the pitch at Stamford Bridge with a chance to perform in a big match. Depending on Remy’s fitness, it could also mean that Drogba has to perform, because his potential replacements at center forward could be the likes of Izzy Brown or Dominic Solanke.
Against QPR, Drogba showed his heart and his determination by making himself a nuisance for the bulk of the game. However, by the end of the second half, it was clear that a lack of match time has caught up a bit with him in the match fitness department and that he’s not the Drogba that bullied defenders into submission in his previous time with Chelsea. It’s hard to imagine, though, that he would be the same player at the age of 37, but against United, he will need to show a bit more than he did a week ago at Loftus Road.
But, this is is Drogba after all, and the big stage suits him. He was the starting center forward the last time these two teams met at Old Trafford, and it was his goal that was cancelled out by Van Persie’s last-minute goal that led to the 1-1 draw. If Drogba can summon one more big performance on this occasion, he’ll only add to his legacy at Stamford Bridge by helping to bring a title win closer to reality.