After Manchester United’s impressive and important win against Tottenham, there was a sense of renewed optimism around the Red Devils’ fans. There was a sense that, even though they rarely win at Stamford Bridge, this was going to be the day that cements them as Manchester City’s direct rivals for the Premier League title.
Yet it was not meant to be. Man United were a defensive disaster and had no composure on the ball to dictate the game in their favour. José Mourinho decided to opt for a three-man midfield, which was really only a two-man one given Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s anonymity throughout the game.
Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera are not two of the most versatile, nor dynamic, players in midfield. While the Serbian does an excellent job of mopping up the mess around him before it gets to his defence, Herrera’s main asset was to man-mark dangerous opposition and create an all-round nuisance of himself.
But the former Athletic Bilbao player’s form has dropped dramatically. Herrera was a dependable and trustworthy right-hand man for Mourinho last season, yet he has been a shadow of his former self this year. The Spaniard’s performances have been lacklustre and unimaginative. It is as if he has gone stale.
Since Paul Pogba’s injury over a month ago, Manchester United have not had anyone step up and take the role of the Frenchman. Herrera came into the team with the hope that he could bring something creative, but he has disappointed hugely and has been a passenger in most, if not all, of the games he has played in.
Man United continue to lack control in their midfield battles and was once again overrun by Chelsea’s enigmatic midfield. At no point did Mourinho’s men try and slow down the game and maintain possession – their first thought was to hoof it up to Romelu Lukaku in the hope that he could create something out of nothing.
It seems baffling that you sign a striker for an initial £75m and not even play to his strengths. Granted Pogba, who was fantastic in linking up with the Belgian, is injured, but it is bemusing that no one else in the United squad could successfully partner with him and create attacking passages of play.
Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, United’s three centre backs against Chelsea in their 3-5-2 system, were continuously launching the ball long to find Lukaku. While it might have partially worked against Tottenham, the Blues had it covered all game and Andreas Christensen did a superb job in keeping the former Chelsea centre forward quiet.
Mourinho has a major problem. For some reason or another, he just cannot score or win away from home against the ‘big six’. He also has lost all three visits to Stamford Bridge as Manchester United boss. It is all very one step forward, two steps back at the moment for the Red Devils.
The fans want to see pulsating, swashbuckling football, but that is just not going to be achievable if Man United are to win, or at least properly challenge for, the Premier League. They do not possess the depth in squad that Manchester City have. Plain and simple. The best way for United to contest for the title is allow Mourinho to get on with his job and play a more defensive approach against rivals.
It might not be the best football you have ever seen, but it does produce results. It should also not be underestimated how much of a miss Pogba is and how influential he is for the team. The Frenchman is the beating heart and is the only player capable of having a domineering presence in midfield and go and attack the opposition’s defence. He is absolutely crucial in getting United on the front foot.
The title race is not over, but an eight point margin is one hell of a mountain to climb given how well Pep Guardiola has his team playing. Manchester City will slip up at some point, and when they do, Mourinho must be ready to pounce bit by bit for every result that is up for grabs.