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Manchester United traveled to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon knowing that defeat would leave them 8 points adrift of Manchester City at the summit and dragged back into a fight for a top 4 spot.
West London has not been a happy hunting ground in recent years and so it proved once more. The Reds started brightly and looked dangerous with Marcus Rashford nearly giving Mourinho’s men the lead. Nevertheless, Chelsea soon began to control proceedings and early in the second half the pressure told as Alvaro Morata rose well to head past a helpless David de Gea.
Mourinho’s men had a few half chances towards the end but, in truth, Chelsea were deserved winners on the day; here are five things we learned from Sunday’s defeat to Antonio Conte’s men.
1. Mkhitaryan Mystery
The Armenian started this season well, statistically speaking if nothing else, but in recent weeks and again at Stamford Bridge the playmaker was anonymous.
Mkhitaryan couldn’t keep the ball let alone influence the game offensively and it is becoming a worrying trend. With two pacy forwards ahead of him, Mkhitaryan should have the space and the options to really hurt teams, but that has not been the case.
Playing as strikers, both Lukaku and Rashford are reliant on good service with neither famed for their intricate link play or ability to hold up the ball. It is vital then, that whoever is deployed in attacking midfield for United provides that vital link between midfield and attack; unfortunately, Mkhitaryan was and has been woefully short.
Given Mkhitaryan’s struggles the omission of Juan Mata continues to be even more perplexing. The Spaniard has rarely let the club down on the big occasion and it may be time for Mkhitaryan to have spell out of the side to freshen things up.
2. No Bus In Sight
Whether he felt that the fans/media wouldn’t accept another defensive display, or whether there was a feeling that getting at Chelsea would be the best way to go, Jose Mourinho certainly sent the side out with more attacking intent.
For the first 20 minutes United were good and looked threatening before Chelsea really took control. The manager has perhaps been harshly criticised for his approach in the bigger games away from home and, in truth, the result at Stamford Bridge largely justified his recent approach.
Manchester United were outplayed and didn’t have the quality or composure to cope with a Chelsea side who dominated midfield and could well have won more comfortably had they not spurned a number of clear chances.
It’s one thing to call for attacking intent, but quite another to deliver away from home against a side who boast greater quality. It is likely that, as disappointing as it may be to accept, Jose Mourinho recognises at present that his side aren’t quite if the quality required.
3. Midfield Miss
Before the season got underway, and with Andreas Pereira being allowed to leave on loan, it always felt as though losing Paul Pogba for a sustained period would be seriously detrimental to United’s chances in the league.
At Stamford Bridge the absence of the Frenchman was once more lamentably exposed. Chelsea were in complete control of midfield, and in complete control of the game. Pogba offers so much presence and, importantly, creativity and control.
Whilst Nemanja Matic has performed well, the Serbian’s role is to break up play and not necessarily to cut teams open with his passing. With no attacking or creative option alongside him, United look one-dimensional and easy to defend against.
At Stamford Bridge United never had controlled possession for long enough periods to build any sustained pressure. The sad truth is that against the better sides, the likes of Ander Herrera don’t have the requisite quality, and the sooner Paul Pogba is back the better for Manchester United.
4. Lukaku Link
Romelu Lukaku is a very good goal scorer and if you create chances for him he will put them away; but that is part of the problem right now.
You could argue he has been feeding on scraps of late, but it was clear again against Chelsea that the Belgian’s link and hold-up play is simply not good enough. Away from home and against the better sides the ball has to stick, and for a man of his stature Lukaku does not protect the ball well enough and does not win enough in the air.
In Lukaku, United have a player who should be ultra-aggressive, throwing his weight around and bullying defenders. In the big games, big players need to step up and make the difference. Unfortunately, it was another underwhelming performance from the striker at Stamford Bridge. Goals are not always going to come, but Lukaku’s overall play needs to improve.
5. Long Way To Go
It’s only early November and there is a long way to go in the league, but every bad result puts pressure on the fixtures to come. The blue half of Manchester look incredibly strong and thus far their run has been almost unrelenting, but all teams go through bad patches and United need to keep picking up results to stay in touch before Christmas.
United’s record I’m away games against the bigger sides of late does not make good reading, but 4 points from games away at Liverpool and Chelsea and at home to Tottenham Hotspur is far from a disaster; it’s probably just below par.
With Paul Pogba hopefully to return, the international break has arguably come at a good time for the Old Trafford outfit who will need to improve and put a run together if they are to have a say in this year’s Premier League.