Domination without incision gets you nothing on the pitch. United found out the hard way at the bridge, where Jose Mourinho set to soak pressure. It is a tactic the Portuguese coach might as well have patented. Set a wall of bodies in front of the goal, with willing runners in midfield to break when crumbs fall their way, and United gave Chelsea lots of crumbs on Saturday. It was obvious Mourinho had watched lots of Manchester United tape. He specifically targeted Fellaini, deploying the robust Zouma to shadow the Belgian around the pitch.
You can not fault Chelsea’s strategy, not because it gave them the win, but because it was not imperative to win on the day, and they were disciplined enough to stick with a plan that required lots of patience and running without the ball. Van Gaal’s men annexed the ball as United maintained possession for large parts of the contest – finishing with 71% of the total possession. Their 15 total shots attempted shows that United were not satisfied with just playing keep ball, but tried to get the ball in the net albeit with considerably poor accuracy, with only 2 of the shots finding the intended target.
Chelsea mirrored United’s shots on target tally which is indicative of the way Mourinho was able to grind the match to a halt, 4 total shots on target between both teams with Chelsea getting the one that mattered as the mercurial Eden Hazard tore through and was able nutmeg Dea Gea at his near post. Falcao’s feeble attempt to keep possession, against John Terry who had pressed up the pitch, sparked the Chelsea break away.
Louis Van Gaal’s recent discovery of his best starting XI was thrown in jeopardy after being hit with a, ill-timed, mini-injury crises of sorts. LVG had to reshuffle the squad, and tweak certain positions, which ultimately led to United conceding their areas of strength. The injuries to Jones, Rojo, Blind, and Carrick meant Van Gaal had to break up the very effective Mata/Herrera partnership. He also decided to pull Rooney away from goal to operate once again in midfield, and recall Falcao as the main forward. The Colombian loanee was disappointing on the day, a recurring theme for the Monaco striker.
Herrera dropped further back into the Carrick slot, so his deft and fluid one-two passes happened at a very safe distance. He could not ghost-in to the Chelsea box to be a goal threat, so he was essentially neutralized. So was Rooney, who is a decent passer. The United captain has an eye for passes towards the wing, but does not possess the aptitude for the short intricate passes that unlock defenses. Manchester United could have survived either Blind or Carrick missing out, but not both, as it meant too many changes, too many dynamics and effective relationships broken up. It is not a surprise United could not find a way to break down Chelsea’s staunch defense.
Luke Shaw provided the pace down the left wing, and on more than one occasion left Ivanovic for dead. However, he did not show the composure to provide the deft crosses or lay offs when it mattered, most likely due to lack of match practice. He was also not as effective as Blind in being the foil for both Young and Fellaini. This should not be misconstrued as a knock on the young Englishman as by all measures he had a splendid game, but high-pressure matchups are won at the margins and Blind makes United more effective on the left. Where United loses Shaw’s raw pace, they gain superior football intelligence with the Dutchman on the field.
Mourinho, post-match, was delighted the game unraveled the way he had planned, his captain was thankful Rooney got sucked back into the midfield battle, and Louis Van Gaal hailed the Red Devil performance as one of the best this campaign – you can’t find much fault with that. United have been masters of the big games, chiefly because the bigger games tend to be more open, and LVG’s suffocation by possession tactic abrades most open teams. Mourinho’s cast his eyes firmly on the league trophy. He was in no mood for an open contest.
It is easy to say the Chelsea manager has been clever there, but if Rooney tucks away his chance in the opening 3 minutes of the match, or Falcao does something useful with the ball, other than not scoring, then that would have surely thrown the cat amongst the pigeons.