Man Utd vs Chelsea produced maybe the best tactical performance yet from Jose Mourinho and it could be the defining moment in his tenure.
Mourinho should keep back three formation
The personnel was questionable but the formation wasn’t. Unlike Louis van Gaal’s dicey start, Jose Mourinho’s United have the players to make a back three formation a success and it was testament to their belief in their manager they beat Chelsea without their three most prolific players in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata.
United players’ focus was immaculate and it was patent from the first few moments, when Ander Herrera was onto his teammates, that the set-up was a perfect fit to counter the Premier League leaders. Every starter knew his cue and United were so comfortable in the system you might have thought they had played in it since August.
The arrangements were tailored to counter Chelsea but United were fluid and intense. Marcus Rashford played with Jesse Lingard and Paul Pogba when he was aged just 12 and the trio’s telepathy unnerved a Chelsea side who expected to handle Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s muscularity.
United might be better without Ibrahimovic
When the number 19 flashed up Mourinho turned to the south stand, raised his arms aloft, nodded his head emphatically and put his hands together as Rashford strolled towards the touchline.
United’s best performance of the season came without their player of the season. Ibrahimovic will doubtless plant the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year trophy onto his packed mantlepiece but he might have sat uncomfortably as his exuberant teammates flourished without him.
The attack was more energetic and more mobile without the Swedish figurehead. Rashford epitomised it with his willing running did not wane even after the excellent Lingard, a worthy foil, was withdrawn.
It is just one performance, of course, but United chose the best team in the league to prove they can thrive without their top scorer and Ibrahimovic should not be guaranteed a return to the line-up against Anderlecht on Thursday.
Darmian saves best for Conte
Rashford had the game of his life for United and so did Matteo Darmian. He was an unsung hero during Mourinho’s masterclass and the Italian’s performance might have flown under the radar had his manager not singled him out for praise during his press conference.
Darmian has performed consistently poorly this season but against his former Italy coach Antonio Conte he displayed a defensive nous United fans expect to see from a player nurtured on a diet of catenaccio at AC Milan.
The versatile full-back was unspectacular but disciplined as he helped maintain United’s balance even when Mourinho tweaked the formation in the second-half.
Pogba bosses Kante
The hysterical hype surrounding N’Golo Kante evidently piqued Paul Pogba. The United midfielder boasted before the game he had scored more goals than his compatriot and, unlike on previous occasions, that cocksure brashness was transferred onto the pitch.
Kante’s PFA Player of the Year recognition provoked Pogba into producing the kind of performance United supporters expected more regularly. His committed first-half tackle on Diego Costa set the tone for a bullish team performance.
Perhaps, like Darmian, Pogba was also spurred by his old mentor Conte’s presence in the dugout. Pogba was abysmal in both of United’s Stamford Bridge defeats and responded with verve and vibrancy to force Conte into a midfield change that did not disturb United.
Herrera has to be United’s next captain
Ashley Young was tremendous and tireless with the armband strapped to his bicep but, just like at Anfield in October, it was apparent Herrera is Mourinho’s on-pitch lieutenant.
He exemplified it best not through his incisive pass for Rashford’s opener or the second-half clincher, but by punting the ball into touch. Herrera followed up his clearance by sprinting as energetically as the Battery Bunny before hollering at Fellaini to push higher up.
Whatever the changes to United’s squad next season, the Basque will be staying.