- Jose Mourinho's tactical decisions led to a satisying win over his old club. Is Chelsea still the best club in England? And can United crash the Champions League party?
Easter Sunday proved a special day, on every level, for the Special One.
Every tactical trick José Mourinho tried paid off as Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-0. He took revenge on the fans who called him "Judas" at Stamford Bridge earlier this season and on the Chelsea players who failed to perform for him last season. He also managed to rest players for the Europa League match against Anderlecht on Thursday. Indeed, when Mourinho picked a team with Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the bench, it seemed he was making Europe a priority.
“We didn’t rest we just choose the team we thought was the best team,” Mourinho told Sky Sport after the game.
Mourinho repeated the tactics he tried in an FA Cup quarterfinal on March 13, when Zlatan was suspended, Ander Herrera man-marked Eden Hazard and Marcus Rashford started. In that game, Herrera was sent off in the first half and Rashford missed a golden chance.
“We knew that playing this way would be very difficult for them,” Mourinho said.
This time the approach worked. Herrera stayed on. Rashford took his best opportunity. Both delivered.
Herrera marked Hazard out of existence. Matteo Darmian did a similar job on Pedro. Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo, exploiting the tolerance of referee Bobby Madley, took turns kicking Diego Costa until the Chelsea striker lost his focus. Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini bullied N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matic.
In attack, Rashford and Jesse Lingard terrorized the Chelsea defense. They were too quick. Rashford was also too strong, often overpowering David Luiz or Kanté in the tackle.
Herrera and Rashford set the tone in the seventh minute. The Spaniard gained possession in his own half when a Chelsea pass hit his hand and bounced at his feet. Rashford was on the move. When the pass arrived, Rashford drilled it through Asmir Begovic’s legs.
“He looked up and we made eye contact and put the ball exactly where I wanted it,” said Rashford, before making the telling addition: “I think it’s something that’s needed in this team, especially at home, because we’ve been lacking understanding.”
Herrera, himself, scored later in the second half. Ashley Young caught the normally faultless Kanté dallying in his own penalty area and played the ball to Herrera. His shot deflected past Begovic.
Rashford and Young wasted chances to increase the lead, but as Chelsea made changes, United settled into a defense-first approach. Never can the Old Trafford fans have been so happy to see their team park the bus. United had not beaten Chelsea in 11 matches, not since October 2012. As Mourinho no doubt knows, Alex Ferguson was still manager.
“I think it was almost perfect,” Herrera told Sky. “Defensively it was perfect. They are top of the table and they didn’t create any chances. On the counter-attack we hurt them, we have played football as well, controlled the game, moved the ball. I think we can be very happy.”
United regained fifth place, still four points behind Manchester City in the last Champions League place.
“Not yet can I give up on the Premier League,” Mourinho said.
A BLIP OR A WOBBLE? Chelsea faced personnel and tactical problems. Sunday. The question is why the league leader was unable to overcome them.
For starters, it was without regular goalie, Thibaut Courtois, injured performing basketball drills for a promotional video for the NBA. Maybe Courtois would have stayed on his feet longer and saved both goals. But top teams need good backups.
Chelsea was also without Marcos Alonso who was ill. Maybe that upset the team’s delicate balance, but the absence of the right wingback should not have destroyed Chelsea as an attacking threat.
United may have surprised Chelsea—nobody marks man to man anymore—yet the question is why the players were unable to find a solution, until Antonio Conte switched to a four-man defense just after his team went two goals down.
The Chelsea central defense has long lacked pace. Under Conte and, before him, Mourinho, the team has been set up to hide that weakness. On Sunday the system failed, badly and repeatedly.
After the game, Conte was more concerned with the way his team had been outfought rather than outthought.
Manchester United, he said, “showed more desire than us. And more motivation.”
That is a serious accusation but he tried to turn it away from his players and onto himself.
"The fault is mine,” he said. “I wasn’t able to transfer the right desire.”
Suddenly the FA Cup semifinal against Tottenham next Saturday becomes not just a sideshow but an opportunity to make a statement. Defeat for Chelsea might confirm suspicions that, as the season nears its end, it is no longer the best team in England.
“We are still in a great position but Tottenham is in good form is playing very well and with great enthusiasm and we must do the same,” Conte said.
Even though Spurs have taken six points out of Chelsea’s lead in 15 days, the gap is still four points. Chelsea can afford to lose one more match. Four of Chelsea’s six remaining games are at home, against Southampton, Middlesbrough, Watford and Sunderland. The two away games are a little tricky, at Everton and West Brom. Spurs, on the other hand, have four awkward away trips: to Palace, West Ham, Leicester and Hull. Its two home games are against Arsenal and Manchester United. Mourinho could still have the last word in Chelsea’s title chase.
Chelsea is better placed, the question, after Sunday, is whether its players believe that.
STANDING TALL: When James Milner looked up as he prepared to take a free kick in the dying seconds of the first half against the Hawthorns on Sunday, he saw a forest of navy and white. The massed ranks of a West Brom team built and drilled to dominate at set pieces. Maybe that’s why the Liverpool player shanked his kick.
Instead of floating the ball to one of Liverpool’s few big men, Dejan Lovren, positioned, unconventionally, beyond the far post, Milner sliced the ball to the edge of the box. Lucas, a shade under six foot, was first to react. Leaning back, he contrived to lob a header goalwards. It drifted over the tall trees. Only Roberto Firmino, who is 5'10", responded. He stopped pushing the nearest West Brom defender, stepped forward and nodded the ball into the net.
It was the only goal Liverpool would need to win a scruffy match, 1-0, and climb back to third in the Premier League.
Liverpool created little. West Brom threatened even less. It is a team designed to exploit set pieces. Liverpool succeeded in denying the Baggies such opportunities. Until a frenzied final assault in added time, the home team won only one corner. Over the whole game, Liverpool only committed nine fouls, most of them well away from its own goal. It made West Brom pay for one of the 15 free kicks it gave away. Liverpool did not sparkle, but it showed it is smart enough to outpunch bigger guys.
THE GOOD DOCTOR: Even though there were still seven rounds of matches still to play, the English Professional Football Association announced its annual award nominations last week. The tradition of voting before players can show their mettle at the business end of the season dates to the time when the PFA members would send their votes in by snail mail.
No sooner had the awards been announced, former pros who are now working as pundits began to queue up to praise a player who, as usual, did not make the list: Mousa Dembélé of Tottenham, who gave another sumptuous display on Saturday in a 4-0 victory over Bournemouth.
Ryan Giggs, the former Manchester United star, named the Belgian midfielder as his team of the year. Two England internationals, Jamie Redknapp and Paul Merson, a former Arsenal player, quickly joined in to praise the man who his club manager, Mauricio Pochettino, recently called a “genius.”
The criticism of Dembélé usually focuses on his failure to score. In his younger days, at AZ Alkmaar, he struck roughly once every five games, including one against Willem II in 2009 (below), that even Eden Hazard would envy. That would translate to seven or eight goals over a Premier League season, a satisfactory return for a midfielder.
Yet when Dembélé slashed in Tottenham’s opening goal against Bournemouth, it was his first in more than a year. It came on his second shot on target of the game and only his third this season. That is an astonishingly low numbers.
Some of his other numbers are equally eye-popping, but in a better way.
Dembélé, who is 29, is the keystone for a team that has the best defense and, by one goal, the second-best attack in the Premier League. He is part of the highly mobile, hard-working defensive roadblock Pochettino deploys in central midfield. The Belgian intercepts passes, industriously and intelligently plugs gaps when opponents penetrate the penalty area and, immensely powerful but elegantly quick and serenely balanced, devours loose balls. He is even more impressive in possession.
When he was at Fulham, team-mates nicknamed him “The Doctor”. Because, depending on the version, when they gave him the ball either he would take care of it or he would make things better.
On Saturday, Dembélé completed 64 of 65 passes for an unheard of 98.6% success rate. A lot of those passes were sideways. Dembélé, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen form a Belgian backline that lays down a mesmerizing rhythm for Spurs, switching the ball from side to side, like a cobra waiting to strike. Yet it is often Dembélé who suddenly steps up the pace with a more risky, creative pass or a sudden, darting, run followed by a quick pass as he exploits the space created by the threat from Tottenham’s wing backs and the tireless movement of Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Son Heung-min.
Dembélé’s brute strength means would-be tacklers need to be properly set to stand a chance. His quickness makes that difficult. He has a ballet dancer’s feet—fast, precise and with a chronic metatarsal injury. When he dribbles, he beats his man almost 90% per cent of the time, the highest percentage of any of those players who take on opponents regularly in the Premier League. He makes it look easy. He is an elegant joy to watch. He should score more.
THE HONEST GERMAN: When Manchester City dispatched Southampton, 3-0, later Saturday it emulated Tottenham by allowing a dangerous opponent only one, tame, shot on target in 90 minutes.
Yet with the game still goalless at half time, the TV pundits, including former referee Graham Poll, rounded on the referee, Neil Swarbrick, for giving only a corner after Fraser Forster dived at the feet of Leroy Sané in the area and brought the City striker down. Replays suggested the Saints goalie did not touch the ball.
On the sideline, Pep Guardiola raged. Clearly the City manager was looking forward to a little therapeutic ref-bashing after the match. Then he talked to Sané.
When the question came up at the press conference, Guardiola smiled ruefully.
"If I am honest, I thought penalty,” he said. "But Leroy is a German guy and German guys are always correct. He said no penalty so it was no penalty.
"They don't use tricks. The rules are the rules and if Sane says that, I believe him."
No wonder Guardiola looked bemused. In a sport where players dispute every decision, from throw ins up, even when they must know the referee is right, honesty is an affront to the core competitive values. Perhaps, as he tries to help Sané fulfil his potential, Guardiola will have another conversation with the youngster.