Ryan: A difficult run of three fixtures in six days for Manchester United culminates at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as the Red Devils take on Chelsea.
A goalless draw against Liverpool at Anfield on Monday was followed up by a resounding 4-1 win over Fenerbahçe in the Europa League on Thursday night.
Against the Turkish visitors, United boss José Mourinho made seven changes to the side which started at Anfield.
The free-flowing, free-scoring display at Old Trafford may have brought several fringe players into contention for a starting berth this weekend.
But aside from team selection, the biggest talking point going into the game will be about Mourinho returning to Stamford Bridge for the first time since leaving Chelsea in December of last year.
So before we get into how United will set up and which players should start, let’s talk about what Mourinho would consider success on Sunday.
Would he be happy with a point, as appeared to be the case against Liverpool? Or will he feel he has something to prove against his former team and be extra-determined to come away with a victory?
Jack: It’s clear that Mourinho would love to show Roman Abramovich what he’s missing, but that’s probably as much a vindictive human trait rather than one unique to him.
Though a draw wouldn’t exactly be an exciting result, I think it would represent a more than adequate outcome away at one of the league’s most talented sides. Of course, it wouldn’t give United the momentum boost they’re looking for at the moment, but it would avoid triggering a crisis of confidence which — as we’ve seen so well over the last few seasons — can have disastrous consequences. Keeping spirits high seems very important at this early stage of the season.
Ryan: Yeah, I think Mourinho would love nothing more than to get one over on Abramovich after the way things ended in his second spell in charge of Chelsea. But, as we know, above anything else Mourinho is a results-driven pragmatist; I don’t see him allowing his personal feelings to compromise the potential for United to come away with a positive return.
I do think that he will view Chelsea as a slightly less dangerous proposition than Liverpool, and may therefore exercise a little less caution than we saw at Anfield.
However, I think another draw would be decent result. It might not look great to have drawn three successive Premier League games, but there’s a long-game at play here: when up against fellow would-be title contenders, drawing away and winning at home is a more than adequate return.
So how do you think José will set his side up on Sunday?
Jack: I think we can expect to see little change from the side that held Liverpool to a goalless draw on Monday. Obviously we’re the away side, and Chelsea will probably be expecting to see the lion’s share of possession; sitting back and hitting them on the break could well be Mourinho’s modus operandi once again.
Of course, there is the added complication of the fact that Chelsea have switched to Antonio Conte’s preferred back-three system with some success in the last couple of games, but it would be uncharacteristic of Mourinho to make such drastic changes in response to an opposition threat. Indeed, Chelsea’s shape could well play into the hands of United’s wingers, who are sure to be sniffing out pockets of space between Chelsea’s wing-backs and wide centre-halves.
However, with every tactical advantage comes a disadvantage, and United’s wingers may be tasked with tracking Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses in order that our full-backs don’t end up completely outnumbered. As it is, Antonio Valencia in particular is likely to have his hands full up against Eden Hazard, and so we may well have to settle for playing deep, allowing Chelsea to move into advanced positions, and trying to hit them with long diagonal passes out wide.
Ryan: I’ve enjoyed watching Chelsea since Conte has switched to 3-4-3. I think it’s a system that best suits their personnel. With Alonso and Moses providing the width, Hazard and Willian are allowed to tuck in, picking up a slightly more central position where they -- Hazard especially -- can do real damage. It also means they can get closer to Diego Costa, offering better support to the lone frontman.
But one of the limitations of 3-4-3 is that the two-man central midfield is not particularly conducive to dominating possession. The extra wide players give great counter-attacking potential and there will be a wealth of movement and options in high areas, but up against a three-man midfield, Chelsea’s central duo could spend more time chasing the ball than they do with it at their feet.
Which makes me wonder whether we could be set for a fascinating kind of Mexican stand-off, where both sides are happy to cede possession in favour of drawing the opposition in and launching counter-attacks into the space behind.
Also, one the main reasons that the back-three was almost obsolete a decade or so ago was the proliferation of single-striker systems, rendering a least one of the defensive trio redundant. And with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line, Chelsea’s central defenders may find themselves under-employed while the wide players become over-worked.
What would be your best guess at Mourinho’s starting XI?
Jack: I’d wager that the back eight will be unchanged from the Liverpool game (De Gea in goal; Blind, Smalling, Bailly and Valencia in defence; Fellaini, Herrera and Pogba in midfield). From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Knowing Mourinho, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he went for maximum energy against Chelsea’s wing-backs, with Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young flanking Ibrahimović.
The risk there is, of course, that United could be so focused on defending that Zlatan is left totally isolated; a more attacking selection, like Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial, could force Chelsea’s wing-backs into playing a little more conservatively anyway. Sometimes attack really is the best form of defence. And so, the short answer is: I don’t really know, but both variants (and all in between) have some justificatory logic. Who do you reckon will play?
Ryan: I completey agree re: the defence and midfield. As much as I’d like to see us start Michael Carrick and attempt to dominate the ball, I think Mourinho will value Marouane Fellaini’s physicality up against Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kanté.
I also believe Mourinho will have been thoroughly impressed by the defensive discipline shown by Rashford on Monday, and I think he’ll trust him to start again.
The one question mark for me would be who starts on the left. I think Young was picked against Liverpool to do a very specific defensive job — with both wingers tucking in alongide the defence to effectively create a back six when the home side had the ball.
Against Chelsea, as we mentioned, Mourinho might view the flanks as a potential avenue from which to exploit the wing-backs. With that in mind, he may decide to go with a more potent attacking force on the left than Young.
That could mean that Martial comes in. But I think Lingard, who represents a more equal balance between attacking ability and tactical discipline than either Young or Martial, will get the nod.
Shall we finish up with some predictions?
Jack: We shall indeed. I’m going for a cagey 1-1. Yourself?
Ryan: I’ll go heart over head and say we’ll snatch a 2-1 win.