After a disastrous trip to the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on Tuesday night, Chelsea return to Stamford Bridge to take on their next challenge, an in-form Manchester United side managed by Jose Mourinho.
It may only be the start of November, but this match between Chelsea and United could prove to be a pivotal point in the season for both sides.
For Manchester United, it’s simply a matter of matching points with their Manchester neighbors in order to stay in the title picture ahead of the Manchester Derby next month. A defeat to Chelsea could see an 8-point gap open up between City and United, and if City maintain their current form, United’s ability to overhaul their rivals for the title could take a serious hit.
For Chelsea, it could prove to be the start of this season’s resurgence under Antonio Conte or the end of the line. Losing to AS Roma in Rome isn’t a devastating result, unless you lose in the manner that the Blues lost on Tuesday night. Conceding a goal in less than a minute and three goals overall is bad enough, but what will really irk Conte and supporters alike is how the team seemingly crumbled in the second half.
The team seemed bereft of any confidence and any leadership, and at times, Chelsea looked like a team that had completely given up and were probably lucky to not concede far more than 3. Conte was understandably angry at his team and reportedly read them the riot act during the week. Their reaction against United will say a lot about Conte’s position and Chelsea’s position going forward this season.
Manchester United are a typical Jose Mourinho team in big matches.
For years, Jose Mourinho’s tactical philosophy for big matches has been akin to “don’t make it easy for the opponent to beat you.” It doesn’t always lead to great spectacles between two big teams, but it’s often effective in getting a point or snatching a win that makes the difference by the end of the season, or even at the end of a two-legged knockout cup tie. This year, though, that approach has come under a bit of fire.
At the start of the October, United took on Liverpool at Anfield and in true Mourinho fashion, the United boss set up his side to expose one of Liverpool’s weaknesses, which is breaking down teams that stay compact and don’t give them space to play in transition. However, Liverpool’s other weakness is defending, so after the 0-0 draw at Anfield, Mourinho faced criticism for not taking more chances against Liverpool defence that had looked shaky in the weeks prior.
He shrugged off the criticism against Liverpool and repeated the same approach last week against Tottenham at Old Trafford where his United side looked to stop Spurs from creating chances through the midfield with Harry Kane absent due to injury. This time, his side nicked a second-half goal and won 1-0, though again questions were asked about whether United should be playing that defensively at home.
On Sunday, it’s likely he will adopt a similar pragmatic approach, despite Chelsea’s current defensive deficiencies, especially with the possibility that defeat could deal a significant blow to their title hopes.
Romelu Lukaku is a danger for United, but the bigger danger is the Marcus Rashford/Anthony Martial combination.
Romelu Lukaku’s big-money move to Manchester United grabbed all the headlines, and his 11 goals in 16 appearances for United this season leads the team. However, for Chelsea, it’s not only Lukaku that’s a big concern, but it’s the play of the duo of Rashford and Martial on the left.
Rashford and Martial have very rarely been on the pitch at the same time, but their ability to affect a game from that inside-left position is crucial to United’s success. The pair have combined to score 13 goals in all competitions, with one of the two starting and the other coming on as a substitute between 60 and 70 minutes.
It’s a tandem that’s worked well. Mourinho has been deploying them from the left, and because both players are also capable of playing as a striker, they often try and make diagonal runs from wide left to try and get in behind the defence in support of Lukaku. The difference between the two is that Rashford is also willing to take the ball wide play in the cross, while Martial is a bit more direct towards the goal. That may account for why Rashford has more starts this season.
From a Chelsea perspective, without Victor Moses, that’s been an area of trouble for Chelsea, exposed brutally by Roma in both fixtures. In both matches against Roma, Chelsea had a lot of trouble dealing with players on that side of the pitch. In the first match at Stamford Bridge, Davide Zappacosta and Cesar Azpilicueta had trouble dealing with Aleksandar Kolarov and Diego Perotti on that side, and in the second match, Perotti and Kolarov gave Azpilicueta and Cahill issues on that side.
It’s a hole that Chelsea will likely try and plug again with Azpilicueta likely playing at wing back with Antonio Rudiger as the right-sided centre back. That combination had better success in the second half of the Roma match at Stamford Bridge, and they’ll have to deal with Ashley Young and Rashford/Martial in a similar fashion.
Who will be the designated marker for Eden Hazard?
It’s highly likely that United will employ a similar tactic to last season in order to stop Chelsea. It’s rather simplistic to say, but at the moment, stopping Eden Hazard stops much of the potency of Chelsea’s attack.
Last season, Mourinho first tried man marking Hazard with one player in Chelsea’s FA Cup match against United at Stamford Bridge. On that day, he first tried having Phil Jones marking Hazard, which didn’t work as Hazard kept either dribbling past Jones or luring him into fouls. Mourinho made a switch in that match and had Ander Herrera pay more attention to Hazard, but that experiment was short-lived when the Spaniard picked up two quick bookings and was sent off. Consequently, Chelsea went on to win 1-0.
A month later when United faced Chelsea at Old Trafford, Mourinho sent his United side out in a 3-5-2 and had Herrera man marking Hazard for the duration of the match. This time, Herrera put in a much more disciplined performance and basically frustrated Hazard completely out of the match.
It’s likely that Mourinho will deploy the same tactic again, though maybe not in the same way. With Paul Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, and Michael Carrick out due to injury, it leaves Mourinho with just Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera as recognised central midfielders. Unless Mourinho opts to pull a surprise and play someone like Daley Blind as a holding midfielder, it’s likely that he’ll have to play either Juan Mata or Mkhitaryan, neither of whom would be mistaken for a central midfielder.
How Mourinho tries to stop Hazard will go a long way to determining the outcome of this match, but with only two central midfielders, he may not be able to go the man-marking route.
Chelsea Predicted Lineup: (3-4-3)
Courtois; Rudiger, David Luiz, Cahill; Azpilicueta, Bakayoko, Fabregas, Alonso; Pedro, Morata, Hazard.