Jose Mourinho masterclass haunts Chelsea as Herrera stifles Hazard
Jose Mourinho produced a vintage defensive masterclass to guide Manchester United to a 2-0 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Shelving his new-found stylistic principles, Mourinho returned to his pragmatic old self against his former club, devising a reactive gameplan designed to nullify Chelsea's 3-4-3, and above all key player Eden Hazard.
The result was a 4-4-2 in which diligent wingers tracked Chelsea's wing-backs, while Ander Herrera man-marked Hazard. Up front, Marcus Rashford worked the right-hand channel, drawing out Gary Cahill and running in behind the defence.
That negated the visitors, while Rashford hit the opener and Herrera added a second. Antonio Conte later switched to 4-2-3-1, but Mourinho responded with defensive changes that helped United slash Chelsea's lead at the top to four points.
Cautious 4-4-2 stops Chelsea
This tactical battle was all about what Mourinho did to adapt to Chelsea. All season teams have struggled to figure out their 3-4-3. Mourinho felt he found a solution in their FA Cup quarterfinal clash at Stamford Bridge in March, where Herrera followed Hazard and the wingers tracked the Chelsea wing-backs. And although Herrera's 35th-minute dismissal ruined the plan on that occasion, Mourinho chose a similar approach here.
The personnel surprised many, however. Mourinho benched Zlatan Ibrahimovic in favour of Rashford and also dropped Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Up front with Rashford was Jesse Lingard, while Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young patrolled the flanks either side of Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini. That handed Herrera an unusual right-back role to focus on Hazard.
It was thus a 4-4-2 designed to prevent Chelsea from overloading key areas. The visitors tend to overwhelm teams by pushing their wing-backs up next to their forward trio, essentially attacking with five men, but Mourinho was prepared to play a back six in response. His back four handled the front three, the wide men played one-vs.-one, while Fellaini and Pogba faced N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic. Only up front did United have a numerical disadvantage. All aspects of the 3-4-3 were under control.
This shape remained until both managers changed systems in the second half. One of the keys was how Young and Valencia tracked back, though United were also helped by the illness of Marcos Alonso, which prompted Cesar Azpilicueta to play on the right flank and Victor Moses on the left. Weakened down the sides, Chelsea came to rely even more on Hazard, and the out-of-form Diego Costa, who was marshalled well and offered next to nothing.
Roaming Rashford targets Cahill
On the ball, United capitalised on the lively movement of Rashford. On six minutes, Lingard dispossessed David Luiz to release the 19-year-old, who dragged a shot wide. Just a minute later, Rashford sprinted in behind the Brazilian to convert a curled pass from Herrera, who had just made an interception with his hand without punishment.
Yet that would remain one of few moments in which Rashford ran in behind the defence. More often, he drifted out right, where he tried to trouble Cahill. Mourinho surely targeted Cahill deliberately, knowing the quicker Kurt Zouma played on the other side, and United kept attacking down the right, either via Valencia or goal kicks towards Fellaini.
Cahill did stand up well, winning all of his eight tackles, though Rashford still caused problems. At one point, he found Lingard who set up Young for a low shot wide. On another occasion, he skipped past Matic and passed to Pogba, whose cut-back prompted a wayward Young effort. Just before half-time, a slick one-two sent Rashford past Matic, before his cross was headed by Cahill, who will have been relieved to see the ball drop on the roof of the net.
Rashford retained a similar role in the second half, hitting the side netting with one effort and testing stand-in keeper Asmir Begovic with another, before coming off for Ibrahimovic to deserved applause seven minutes from time.
Herrera takes out Hazard
Apart from Rashford, the United hero was Herrera, who managed to set up one goal and score another despite carrying out an ultra-defensive man-marking job.
His was no ordinary full-back role. Positionally Herrera would mark Hazard near the flank, but also whenever the Belgian drifted inside or to the other side. Wherever he moved, Herrera followed suit to intercept, tackle and block passes.
Nor was this restricted to when Chelsea had the ball. Even when United attacked, Herrera watched Hazard. The reason was clear: Mourinho knew Hazard would stay high up the pitch, ready to lead counter-attacks, a strategy that often enables him to run directly at centre-backs, since the right-back usually pushes forward. Here, as Valencia advanced, Herrera was in place to cover.
The plan worked. With Hazard subdued, Chelsea lost sharpness and fluency. Even when both managers changed systems, Herrera stuck to his task, until an almost inevitable booking late on reduced his aggressiveness. By then United were 2-0 up, thanks to Herrera's own 49th-minute strike. By full-time, Hazard had not attempted a single shot nor a single dribble.
Mourinho negates Conte changes
As the second half progressed, Conte had to do something. On 54 minutes, he introduced Cesc Fabregas for Moses and switched to 4-2-3-1. The idea may have been to outnumber United in the centre and find Fabregas between the lines, but within four minutes, Mourinho had brought on Michael Carrick for Lingard and gone 4-3-3.
This enabled United to man-mark across the pitch and, inside two minutes, Carrick had tackled Fabregas. Conte soon put on Willian for Matic and moved Hazard inside, but United stayed solid and spent the final 30 minutes protecting their box. Chelsea mustered just five shots all game, their lowest in a league match under Conte, and did not hit the target once -- which has not happened to the London side in a league game since September 2007.
Conte later rued a lack of motivation, yet this was also a rare tactical defeat for him, and a reminder of Mourinho's ability to devise pragmatic, efficient gameplans when the stakes are high.
FourFourTwo Stats Zone provides live in-game data, scores, alerts and animated chalkboards. The award-winning app is free on iOS and Android.