Jose Mourinho must stop Eden Hazard if he is to get his revenge vs. Chelsea
Jose Mourinho's career is defined by him seeking revenge over adversaries and settling old scores. And while Mourinho surely looks back upon his two periods at Chelsea with some degree of fondness, he'll recall his bitter departure much more strongly. This weekend, he has his third chance to inflict defeat upon his former players -- broadly the same group who won him a third Premier League title, but also those who downed tools last season.
His previous two reunions with Chelsea have ended in defeats at Stamford Bridge. There was a 4-0 thrashing when Chelsea took the lead inside the opening minute, when Manchester United seemed entirely unsure about how to play against Antonio Conte's then-new 3-4-3 formation. Last month, there was a 1-0 defeat in the FA Cup quarterfinal, when Mourinho had a more obvious plan for blunting Chelsea's attack. Will Mourinho try and replicate that approach this weekend?
Chelsea's 3-4-3 has proved so effective going forward because opponents have found it impossible to cope with the running of the two wing-backs, Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses. With N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic remaining deep and protecting the three centre-backs, Alonso and Moses have license to fly forward, effectively forming a front five. Notably, they've repeatedly provided goal threats at the far post, often when the opposition's back four is dragged across to cope with four of the "front five", leaving one man spare at the far post.
Mourinho, though, was determined not to suffer in this way against Chelsea, and therefore for that FA Cup trip to Chelsea he played an extremely unusual formation.
On paper it was a 4-5-1, but the two full-backs, Phil Jones and Matteo Darmian, man-marked Eden Hazard and Willian when they drifted inside into central positions, and the two wide players, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, tracked Alonso and Moses when they sprinted into the gaps down the flanks. It meant United's full-back positions weren't really being covered by the full-backs, but instead by the wingers, and therefore when Chelsea had long spells of possession it often appeared that Manchester United were playing a six-man defence. In a sense it's the logical approach against this Chelsea side, but it's hardly "the United way".
The plan worked reasonably well in the opening stages, until Ander Herrera was dismissed before half-time for a foul on Hazard. That meant United were overrun, and eventually lost 1-0. But the plan did work reasonably well, and it wouldn't be a shock to see United recreate it this weekend.
The complication, though, is that Chelsea might not use that 3-4-3 system. In recent weeks Conte has often shifted to a 3-5-2 system midway through matches, beefing up the midfield with an extra man, dropping a forward -- or moving Pedro to wing-back -- and playing Hazard just off Diego Costa.
That might be a decent bet this weekend considering Chelsea's position in the league table -- they know a draw here, in their last remaining match against a genuinely big side, would be a fine result. They can afford to be defensive, and the system would also allow Conte to use Cesc Fabregas, without his defensive weaknesses being exposed, as was the case against Manchester City recently.
Either way, Mourinho will surely attempt to stop Hazard, who has already run riot twice against United this season. It's widely assumed that Hazard was the ringleader in Chelsea players' backlash against Mourinho, particularly after the Belgian's unwitting part in the incident on the opening day of last season involving Eva Carneiro that seemed the catalyst for Mourinho's decline. Again, this is a manager determined to settle old scores.
More crucially, though, Hazard is simply the man who makes things happen for Chelsea. A gloriously talented player capable of running games from the top of midfield, creating chances for teammates and finishing moves himself, stopping Hazard is the most important part of stopping Chelsea. While the smart money is on N'Golo Kante to win the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year award, Hazard is seemingly favoured by most match-going Chelsea supporters who have watched him wreak havoc against opposition defences all season, and Mourinho will be determined to nullify him as effectively as possible.
But Mourinho must also have an attacking strategy. This is Old Trafford, not Stamford Bridge, and United supporters will expect more ambition from Mourinho's players. It's notable that the right of Chelsea's defence has often been vulnerable to aerial attacks over the past couple of months, and Mourinho might look to play Marouane Fellaini as a support striker here, making runs to the far post when Manchester United break down the right, and overpowering right-sided centre-back Cesar Azpilicueta.
Again, however, Conte might proactively guard against this threat by deploying Kurt Zouma on the right of Chelsea's back three, pushing Azpilicueta into the wing-back role he's played a couple of times in recent weeks. Again, it would be a defensive shift.
It looks set to be a fascinating battle of wits between two fine tacticians, with both looking primarily to stop the opposition's likely route of attack. This could, however, produce something of a defensive-minded game.
This game matters hugely to Mourinho, who has fared poorly against the top sides this season, and has also repeatedly seen United fall to disappointing draws at Old Trafford. Amazingly, Burnley and West Brom have won more points at home than United, which is the main reason why they've played no part in this season's title race.
This is probably Mourinho's last chance to put on a real show at home against major opposition, to prove he's capable of producing an exciting, attack-minded side who can produce controlled big-game performances. In all likelihood, however, Mourinho will focus primarily on stopping Hazard. He remains a defensive manager when it comes to big games, and, of course, a manager determined to spite old rivals.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.