Follow Fergus: @fergusrockhard
1. A Good Point Feels Like a Defeat
With one win from their last 17 visits to Stamford Bridge, a point represents a decent outing for a struggling Manchester United. In context, however, to surrender the lead after five and a half of the six allocated minutes of injury time is immensely hard to take. Six minutes felt like a generous helping hand from referee Mike Dean, but in any case, United actually looked comfortable in the closing stages of the game. The explosion of temper from Mourinho in reaction to the goading from Chelsea’s second Assistant Coach Marco Ianni was understandable, borne out of deep frustration having so narrowly missed out on achieving a significant and needed victory.
Statistically, United cannot complain at Chelsea getting at least a draw. The home side had 61% of the possession, and 21 efforts on goal compared to just 7 from United. Chelsea completely dominated the first half, whilst Mourinho’s side barely threatened. The second half, though, brought a far better level of performance, as United played to their strengths hitting Chelsea on the break. Width was offered on both sides by the excellent full backs, Shaw and Young; Pogba was getting forward; Mata linked play well; and the front three began to vary their play more, run in behind and generally provide a threat.
Fortunate to be ahead though they were, they then looked in control right up until the very rudimentary last-ditch Barkley equaliser. Maurizio Sarri conceded as much in his post-match comments: “We have played very well in the first hour but then we have played the match of United – a physical match, and United are much better than us in a physical match”. It was disappointing that it took an aimless lob into the United area that undid the away side’s resolve, as the United defence were out-fought and looking static as Chelsea gleefully earned a late, late point.
2. The Mourinho Tombola Continues
It is virtually impossible to predict a Mourinho starting XI these days. In years gone by, there have been some key components to him building his hugely successful teams. Consistency of selection was a major one, and for whatever reason he has, at no stage, had any continuity in either his defensive or attacking combinations at United.
At Stamford Bridge, we saw Victor Lindelöf restored to a starting berth alongside Chris Smalling, having been overlooked against Newcastle in favour of Eric Bailly in the heart of the defence.
Juan Mata was selected in the number 10 berth against his former side, which was probably the most uncharacteristic selection from Mourinho, in addition to the seldom seen together Rashford and Martial.
It has been said many times before, mainly because it’s true: this Manchester United side has no identity. We don’t know what sort of team they are. Tactics vary from game to game, players go in and out of fashion, and approach literally changed half way through this game. It would be fascinating to see what messages are given on the training ground or in the changing room from the management, because there is no defined style and nothing rigidly definable about Mourinho’s latest football incarnation.
However, this was a positive team selection that will have received few grumbles from fans. In terms of the individuals selected, it was atypical of the sort of stifling tactics we have become accustomed to seeing at the bigger away grounds in the country. Chelsea still looked by far the more assured and polished of the two sides, but once United gained some belief in the second half they showed that they can be an extremely dangerous attacking unit. They have become too willing to surrender the initiative in recent seasons which seems to have made it more difficult for them to creatively express themselves and take risks as opposed to predicable and slow play.
Maurizio Sarri actually stated during the week “Maybe player by player they have the best team in the Premier League. At the moment, I think City are better as a team but player by player they really are very strong”. Some will scoff, but the talent of the United players is undeniable. They showed in the second half at Stamford Bridge what they are capable of, but it took for them to go behind to start to play with urgency and genuine attacking threat. It is baffling trying to analyse the state of this team at present, and to what extent the players are carrying out their manager’s instructions. This represented a decent platform to build on, but on Tuesday against Juventus, it is likely Mourinho will re-spin the tombola and it really is anyone’s guess what comes out.
The lack of continuity undoubtably causes issues in attacking cohesion and familiarity, and defensive responsibility. The opening goal from Rudiger led to an extended inquest between Pogba and Lindelöf as to who had lost their man. This is surely symptomatic of players who are not drilled and familiar playing alongside each other. Post-match Mourinho claimed “Everybody knows with closed eyes which man is their man and which zone is their zone”. The evidence would show they do not, and the constant changes cannot help.
3. The Manager Has Not Lost the Dressing Room
We were told following the woeful performance at West Ham that the players had downed tools. To any casual observer it looked like they had. The second half fightbacks, first to rescue the game against Newcastle, and then to come within seconds of victory against this hugely impressive Chelsea, show that Mourinho is getting a response from his players.
The questions of whether he is the right man to take the club forward, or if he is getting the best out of this talented and expensively assembled squad are different and more than valid. It is evident, though, that this squad have been displaying pride, passion, and a desire to fight, particularly in moments of adversity. In an era of lessened expectations, this is refreshing for supporters, and has led to, at the very least, some entertaining football from the last pair of fixtures which have been in relatively short supply in the Mourinho, and post-Fergie era.
4. Mata makes United Better
As Juan Mata made his way from the pitch ten minutes from time, both sets of supporters in Stamford Bridge rose to their feet and applauded the lovable Spaniard. Not only is he one of the most likable men in football, but he is a tremendously talented and criminally under-rated player. He lacks the eye-catching pace and power of Hazard or De Bruyne, but he plays with intelligence and near-perfect technique. For reasons of physicality, he has never been a Mourinho favourite, and very rarely gets to play centrally as there is a strict minimum height requirement in this team. The fact is, when Mata plays, Manchester United are better.
He offers something different to anyone else in the squad. He offers variety in his play, and is always available and in search of the ball. With pace playing on either side of him, it gives him options to pick out, whilst he made life difficult for the Chelsea defenders playing between the lines. In addition to all his tidy and incisive play, he has always produced healthy numbers of goals and assists when he is in the side.
He showed he is also able to perform specific taskings as instructed. He was clearly told to pay attention to Jorginho when Chelsea were in possession and carried out his job with good success. Jorginho has become known as the ‘regista’ in the Sarri’s midfield, the man whom everything goes through. He has already broken the record for most passes in a single game after only 9 games playing in England. Mata limited his touches on the ball, whilst sparking into life when United had possession. On a day where there were periods his side struggled to keep possession, the subtlety and guile of Mata was crucial to United achieving a result in this game.
5. Martial gave a reminder
After a largely ineffective first 45 minutes, Anthony Martial reminded everyone why United made him the world’s most expensive teenager when he arrived at Old Trafford in January 2015. He scored his 39th and 40th goals for the club and turned a game that looked like it was lost on its head. After a tremendous first 18 months under Louis Van Gaal, there is no doubt that he has endured a difficult time under Mourinho, with his confidence no doubt effected with him being in and out of the side. His ability has never been in doubt and he demonstrated on Saturday that he is capable of being an elite player if he can add consistency to his game. He took his two chances emphatically when they came, showed good movement to find the positions, and as the game wore on he visibly grew in stature as Cesar Azpilicueta struggled to contain him.
After the game, Gary Neville expressed some of the frustrations around both Martial and Rashford. “I thought in the first half there was an absolute gulf in the quality of the wide players – between Eden Hazard and Willian and Rashford and Martial – their understanding of the position and their adapting of their position on the pitch when the team were in possession, there were no runs in behind with intent, there was a lack of quality on the ball. But in the second half, Martial gives you a glimpse, he shows you what he can do. They’ve got to perform consistently”.
Manchester United fans are terrified of Martial leaving the club, particularly with his contract due to expire. There is almost limitless potential within him if it can be unlocked like it was in the second half of this game. Performances in big games such as this can provide a platform to build from. He is capable of being a player that can lead this team to a higher level, and the run of upcoming fixtures offer him an opportunity to show that he can deliver this level of quality and ruthlessness on a regular basis.