In an entertatining encounter at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho's Man United showed life against Chelsea, but it also demonstrated susceptibility when not in possession, showing that if the Red Devils are to move up the table, there's a need for more defensive balance.
Sift through the chaos of Manchester United's 2-2 draw at Chelsea, and a pattern begins to emerge. What, it was asked, would be the impact of that 3-2 win over Newcastle United two weeks ago? Was that an indication of a new, tougher United being forged in adversity? Was that an indication of the character within the squad? Or was it more a reflection of Newcastle's shortcomings? Here, as Jose Mourinho's side came from behind only to concede a 96th-minute equalizer, it became apparent that this is a Manchester United that is a much better side when it is behind.
In trouble, forced on the front foot, United hummed with the purpose of old. It had been limp in the first half and had fallen behind to Antonio Rudiger's header. In the second, its wide men began to win the battle and the influence of Eden Hazard began to wane. Anthony Martial, controlling a deflected Ashley Young cross superbly on his thigh, lashed an equalizer and then, with 17 minutes remaining, rounded off a flowing move that had begun with Juan Mata on the right and continued through Marcus Rashford.
Chelsea at that point seemed shocked by the ferocity of United's play, a little lacking in direction, over-reliant on Hazard. But then Mourinho took off Mata, Martial and Rashford for Ander Herrera, Andreas Pereira and Alexis Sanchez. Chelsea was able to recover, to begin to apply pressure and, eventually, to find an equalizer, Ross Barkley firing in after David Luiz had been denied by the post and Rudiger by David De Gea.
Mourinho is a difficult figure to read, both manipulative and emotional so it is never easy to know what is design and what is temper. Given his past record, though, it's impossible not to wonder whether Mourinho's reaction to an admittedly provocative celebration from Chelsea coach Marco Ianni was designed to deflect from the way his changes had altered the flow of the game.
It was, Mourinho said, an "awful result" for United given how his side had restricted Hazard and Jorginho. But for all Hazard's technical ability, and for all the problems he causes, the goal that put Chelsea ahead could hardly have been more rudimentary. And that is a major part of the issue at Old Trafford. For all the criticism of Mourinho for his inconsistency of selection, for the fact that his game is not, as that of most of his peers is, based on pressing, for the public politicking that so often seems to demoralize his players, there comes a point at which he has a right to expect his players to do the basics.
When Willian slung in a corner from the right after 21 minutes, Rudiger made a run from the top of the box, roughly level with the back post towards the penalty spot, passing Victor Lindelof and David Luiz as he did so. Paul Pogba didn't follow him. It's true he would have had to go the other side of Lindelof and Luiz, but that's the sort of thing that happens a dozen times in every game. Pogba's route was not blocked, he just switched off. His reaction, jumping in the air and falling to a squat, raving at the air and waving his arms vaguely at Lindelof suggested he knew he had made a major error; there as little conviction in his attempts to blame the Swede.
And yet, these mistakes showed they were part of a trend. United has now conceded 20 goals in the league under Mourinho, roughly one every four games. Even Pep Guardiola, who so often seems to regard corners as a necessary evil, highlighted it as a weakness last season and was rewarded with two goals from corners at Old Trafford. Set plays themselves are part of a wider trend. In Mourinho's first season in English football, his Chelsea conceded only 15 goals in 38 league games; Rudiger's goal was the 15th United has conceded in nine games this season. Something isn't working. The Chelsea equalizer, similarly, was the result of a set play that was never fully cleared.
What is clear is that there is still life in United. The players are still prepared to fight and have not given up on their manager, but that should not disguise the fact that Chelsea was the better side for two thirds of the game and the more fundamental point that Mourinho wants his side to defend when the squad is very clearly geared towards attack. That is not a situation that has a ready resolution and United, due to Manchester City and Liverpool winning yesterday, is now nine points off the top.