All that talk of this Manchester United team being the poorest champion of the Premier League era feels a little silly now. Almost surreptitiously United has become a very good side indeed. Talk of Chelsea being resurgent also seems a little misplaced: against United, particularly early on, it looked again aging and slow, stumbling around hopelessly like a grandfather trying to keep up with a hyperactive toddler. The difference in class was vast, and at halftime the fact that the two sides began the day only three points apart seemed incomprehensible.
Chelsea was very poor: Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz and Michael Essien all had shockers. Mikel John Obi and Frank Lampard, at least in the first half, weren't much better. Salomon Kalou and Florent Malouda were barely involved. This was an annihilation, and in the rigor of its pressing, the pace and directness of its attacking, the intelligence of its movement, particularly in the opening half-hour, United looked a team that might perhaps be able to challenge Barcelona in the Champions league final.
This was the third meeting of Chelsea and United in a month. In each game United played a 4-4-1-1; while Chelsea has tried three different shapes: a 4-4-2 in the home leg of the Champions League quarterfinal; a 4-3-2-1 in the second leg; and the familiar 4-3-3 on Sunday. Chelsea usually looks more comfortable in that shape, and the thought before kickoff was that its central midfield three might dominate possession as the Christmas tree had in the Champions League. Once again, though, the strange alchemy that allows Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs to control the game was enacted.
As a pairing, they shouldn't work. Neither is particularly quick. Neither is particularly noted for his tackling. They both seem, frankly, a little bit too nice. And yet somehow they manage not to be bullied, and their use of the ball when they do get it is so good that opponents struggle to regain it. Much of that is down to Wayne Rooney who, with the traumas of the past year apparently behind him, is playing as well as he ever has.
There are those who ask whether this United and its recent surge of form is proof that 4-4-2 is still a viable formation, but Rooney's role means this is nothing like an orthodox 4-4-2. At times he is so deep he appears behind Giggs and Carrick, tracking back, harrying for possession, weirdly combining the roles of playmaker and midfield terrier. By doing so he effectively gives United a third central midfielder, and so negated the numerical advantage Chelsea might have thought they'd have enjoyed there. Rooney had a clear brief to hassle Mikel, to prevent him becoming the metronome through whom Chelsea built attacks. He was so successful in doing so that Mikel was replaced at halftime, a clattering tackle just in front of the dugouts shortly before the first half ended the embodiment of his domination of the Nigerian.
With United dominating midfield, its wingers were the more involved, which in turn meant that Chelsea's fullbacks were unable to get forward to support the attack. Antonio Valencia, who seems to have returned form his broken leg quicker and more muscular than before, had the better of his battle with Ashley Cole, not just taking him on with the ball but also hounding him in possession -- which was what led to the 70th-minute Rooney chance that Alex cleared off the line. That energy, that constant harassing of Chelsea in possession, was surely a contributory factor in the away side's early shakiness: it wasn't given any opportunity to settle.
Park Ji-sung, meanwhile, destroyed Ivanovic. The South Korean can at times seem a little lacking in finesse, and his energy, which even United players talk about in awed tones, is probably his main asset. Ivanovic, though, seems to bring out the best in him. The fullback had to be taken off at halftime after being run ragged by Park in the Community Shield in 2009, and he was lucky to survive the hook at halftime on Sunday (and fortunate not to have been sent off for two panicky fouls on Rooney). That he survived is indicative of how many Chelsea players played poorly.
Luiz, in particular, was awful. His movement as Park slipped in Javier Hernandez in the first minute was bizarre, as he drifted to his right, away from goal, opening a space for the pass to be slipped through. He then couldn't recover, and his despairing lunge only diverted the ball into Hernandez's path for him to sweep in. Conceding such an early goal, presumably, only increased Chelsea's uneasiness, but it was still startling just how outclassed Carlo Ancelotti's side was for the following half-hour. And yet, for all the chances United created, with Rooney, Valencia and Park rampant, it was still sloppiness and individual errors that brought about the second goal.
First Ivanovic, at that stage playing as though mesmerized, allowed Park to cut inside him and unleash a swerving shot Petr Cech pushed wide for a corner. Park was then left untended from the corner, so he could exchange passes with Giggs, who then jinked by what was nothing more than a half challenge from Kalou, and crossed for Nemanja Vidic to get in front of a static Ivanovic to score.
It seemed then merely a matter of how many United would score, but its failure to take chances gave Chelsea a possible route back into the game. Ancelotti's side was much-improved in the second half, and with Ramires on for Mikel to add bite, the midfield battle was far more balanced. Even then, though, United had the bulk of the chances, and when Lampard pulled one back, it was a little freakish, a deflected cross falling fortuitously for Chelsea.
Was the domination of the first half because United was so good or because Chelsea was so bad? Perhaps a little of each, but United's energy, the desire to win the ball back high up the pitch, was a contributory factor in Chelsea's disintegration -- similar, in some ways, to United's breakdown against Barcelona in the Champions league final in 2009. This might not be the best United of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign, but it is still a side of considerable quality and character.