Antonio Conte made a mockery of Jose Mourinho’s defensive approach in Chelsea’s 4-0 victory over Manchester United, writes Rob Conlon.
“The problem will be if they go two down,” remarked Martin Tyler as Eden Hazard prepared to take a corner.
Jose Mourinho had clearly shown no desire to waver from his normal plan in big games away from home. Just as they did against Liverpool at Anfield, Manchester United had 10 men behind the ball, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic cut an extremely lonely figure up front.
In theory, Pedro’s opening goal for Chelsea after only 30 seconds should have changed this, but still Mourinho stubbornly refused to to change his ways. Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford remained auxiliary full-backs in what was essentially a back six whenever the Blues were in possession.
As suggested in commentary, perhaps Mourinho was waiting until half-time before he started tinkering with his tried and tested game plan. United were shaken by conceding such an early goal, if they could just make it to the break with the score still 1-0, they could regroup and plot a new plan of attack.
“The problem will be if they go two down.”
And just as those words were uttered, Gary Cahill became the second Chelsea player to benefit from shambolic defending to fire past David de Gea. Mourinho suddenly had a problem.
— TEAMtalk (@TEAMtalk) October 23, 2016
What will gall United supporters is that it was a problem which was avoidable. This is a Chelsea side which has shown plenty of fragility this term, especially early on in big games.
The Blues were blown away in the early stages at Arsenal and found themselves 3-0 behind at half-time. Liverpool, meanwhile, dominated the first half at Stamford Bridge in September, opening up a two-goal lead before a timid Chelsea even had the chance to know what had hit them.
United could have attempted to recreate such anxiety at Stamford Bridge – no longer the fortress it was for so long when Mourinho patrolled the touchline – but it was those in red shirts who were left feeling dazed.
Mourinho can take little blame for the first goal. De Gea, Daley Blind and especially Chris Smalling were all guilty for criminally sleepy defending – a startling reminder that the Red Devils’ lack a leader at the back.
For many onlookers, an early Chelsea goal was exactly what this fixture needed. The Portuguese would surely have to deviate from his usual gameplan. Well, erm, not quite.
Of course there was no need to throw caution to the wind. Having conceded the fastest goal in the Premier League all season, United had plenty of time to claw things back.
But to continue with Rashford and Lingard so shackled, the duo often sitting at the edge of their own box, completely negated any threat United might have provided on the counter-attack.
Meanwhile, United’s midfield continues to appear extremely muddled. Marouane Fellaini was substituted at the interval and, while the big Belgian has his uses, he does not possess the quality to thrive in the big games. In truth, it could quite as easily have been Paul Pogba, whose world-record signing is dangerously close to appearing an elaborate vanity project.
4-0 – This is Mourinho’s heaviest PL defeat. Only against Barcelona in 2010 did he lose by a greater margin in all comps (5-0). Blue. pic.twitter.com/wjuhuPjIFH
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 23, 2016
While Mourinho, whose days in charge of a dominant Chelsea now feel so long ago, deserves plenty of criticism, his opposite number Antonio Conte demands huge plaudits.
The Italian has often moved to temper expectations in west London this season, pleading for time and patience to turn around a squad of players which finished 10th in the Premier League this season, while he was obviously unhappy with the apparent failure to land his primary transfer targets in the summer.
But after a stuttering September, Conte has masterminded an impressive transformation since switching to a 3-4-3 formation which gets the best out of his team.
Chelsea have played with a 3-4-3 formation in 3 consecutive Premier League games.
They’ve won all 3 and haven’t conceded a single goal. pic.twitter.com/lmAhnU0HTj
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 23, 2016
Unlike Lingard and Rashford, Hazard and Pedro were freed of any defensive responsibility, instead allowed to buzz around Diego Costa in the final third and rewarding their manager with a goal apiece.
Cesar Azpilicueta, outstanding throughout, was given the freedom to often maraud forward, despite playing as a centre-back in the Blues’ new-look three-man defence.
Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses’ qualities are optimised as wing-backs, while the irrepresible energy of N’Golo Kante allows Nemanja Matic to keep things simple in sitting in front – or often alongside – the defence.
Under Mourinho, Chelsea would have shut up shop with a 2-0 lead at home against traditional title rivals; under Conte, the Blues instead went for the jugular and were rewarded with a further two goals.
After defeats to Manchester City and Chelsea, plus an uninspiring draw at Liverpool, the pressure is now on Mourinho to produce a big result and make a statement with this United team. Conte has just made his.