After a couple of years of harum-scarum goalfests between the big sides, Monday's meeting between Manchester United and Chelsea was a return to attrition. It's dangerous always to read too much into one game, but the indications are that defending is back at the top level of the English game -- and it may be that that leads to improved performances in the Champions League. Many will suggest that is the influence of the return of Jose Mourinho, and it is true that he has no qualms about playing reactive football, but the stalemate at Old Trafford was just as much to do with the approach of David Moyes.
It was Mourinho's team selection that was the more striking as he opted to deploy Andre Schurrle at center-forward, ahead of Oscar and flanked by Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. The creative line of three had been very fluent in Chelsea's first two league games of the season and the addition of Schurrle seemed to offer even more flexibility -- a fourth number 10. Before the game Mourinho spoke of the "mobility" Schurrle offered -- which seemed a fairly damning indication of his opinion of Fernando Torres and, given his predilection for politicking, perhaps contained a message to Roman Abramovich about the need to bring in another forward.
But Schurrle didn't drop deep and interchange with the line of three; rather he pushed up against United's two central defenders, looking to use his pace to attack the space behind them. It was a midfielder playing as a center-forward rather than as a false nine as Lionel Messi does. Given how often Frank Lampard and Ramires looked to hit that area with early passes that was clearly a deliberate policy, but it seemed bafflingly unsophisticated. Perhaps it might have worked had United been more adventurous, but David Moyes, understandably in his first home game in charge of United, opted for a relatively conservative approach himself, the back four staying deep.
Schurrle touched the ball only 11 times in the first half -- fewer than any other player -- but just before Chelsea changed approach on the hour, there was a hint of what Schurrle might have been looking to achieve. He pulled right, into the space behind Patrice Evra, and was slipped in by Eden Hazard, but was fractionally offside. Perhaps that had been the intention all along, to use the attacking intentions of United's full-backs against them.
The flanks had always looked like being key: Luis Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones against Ashley Cole and Hazard on one side and Evra and Danny Welbeck against Branislav Ivanovic and De Bruyne. As it was, though, the pairings ended up canceling each other out. It was indicative that Valencia made six tackles in the 66 minutes he was on the pitch -- more than anyone else in the whole game.
What was perhaps most telling was that Chelsea did not enjoy the same domination of central midfield that they did in the three meetings with United when Rafa Benitez was manager last season. Then the games fell into a clear pattern: Chelsea controlling possession because of their extra power and dynamism in the middle, but United looking dangerous when they got the ball wide. This time, Chelsea seemed more intent on looking to counter-attack, and the result was that Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley were never placed under the same pressure they might have been last season; it was perhaps telling in that regard that Mikel John Obi, so key in the two FA Cup ties last season, only came on in the final minutes.
Both sides, in fact, seemed content to allow the other team's defense possession, and then closed down rapidly as soon the ball was moved forward. The problem was that both teams were a little careless, a little imprecise, in their use of the ball. "Our passing for the counter-attack, for moving the ball from the back to the front was not the best," Mourinho admitted. "The ball possession was not the best, we made lots of mistakes." As he noted, United's passing was not much better and while Cleverley excelled from a defensive point of view, it was at the expense of creativity. "There was a lack of cutting edge," said Moyes. "Just the final cross."
Both sides had a couple of long-range efforts that drew saves but the only consistent source of chances was Wayne Rooney finding occasional pockets of space just outside the penalty area. That was a reminder of what a valuable player he can be, but there was a strange lack of understanding -- almost a froideur - with Robin van Persie. One flick from a Michael Carrick pass just before halftime threatened to set Van Persie clear, but the ball ended up spinning away from the forward.
Chelsea did switch to an orthodox center-forward after an hour, Torres replacing De Bruyne as Schurrle going to the left, but it made little difference to the flow of the game. This was two disciplined, conservative teams, neither with any motivation to risk defeat by stretching for a win, whose diligence in midfield resulted in mutual negation.