What a difference a week makes. Before last Saturday’s Tottenham match, Manchester United looked a team adrift. The return from the international break brought with it a string of listless performances, leaving the club in danger of falling hopelessly behind Manchester City. United’s 1-0 win over Spurs (made all the more impressive after Tottenham dispatched Real Madrid midweek) put an end to that mini-slump and kept the men in red right on the heels of their crosstown rivals. On Sunday, Manchester United travels to London aiming for a fourth win on the bounce at the expense of Chelsea.
Stamford Bridge, though, has proven a bit of a bogey ground for United. With only one league win there in fifteen years and two losses just last term, no one should expect that three points will come easily. Thankfully, this is not the same Chelsea team that ran away with last season’s Premier League title. The Blues currently sit fourth in the table and limp into this weekend’s encounter fresh off an embarrassing Champions League loss to A.S. Roma.
Chelsea hopes that the long-awaited return of N’Golo Kanté will rejuvenate their title defense. He has missed the last six matches and, if anyone needed a reminder of his immense importance, the Chelsea defense has been a shell of itself without its French shield protecting the backline. That defense, so strong a year ago, needs a boost after shipping three goals in Rome midweek.
In Manchester United’s Champions League win over Benfica, the players barely got out of first gear — but that was still good enough for a 2-0 result over the toothless Portuguese champions. Anthony Martial followed up his game-winning turn against Spurs with another standout performance (that tamely-taken penalty notwithstanding) that will leave José Mourinho with a selection headache for this weekend.
The United attack hasn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders lately, but Romelu Lukaku and company should have opportunities against the surprisingly vulnerable Chelsea defense.
Barring a surprise return from injury by Marouane Fellaini, Manchester United will again be limited to a midfield duo of Nemanja Matić and Ander Herrera. Liverpool showed how a three-man midfield can overwhelm this United setup, so it will be interesting to see if Chelsea manager Antonio Conte opts for a similar approach. If so, could young Scott McTominay be thrust into the starting eleven to make up the numbers in the middle? Probably not, but that just shows that Fellaini and Paul Pogba cannot return soon enough.
After the defeat in Rome, Conte publicly challenged his players to regain the spirit that fueled them a year ago: “We have to find the hunger we showed all last season. If you are a great team, you must have stability. You must have consistency. At the moment, we are struggling a lot to find this type of balance.” After those tough words, United must plan for a strong reaction from the Blues.
As such, expect another pragmatic setup from Jose Mourinho. United will keep it tight, try to limit Chelsea to very few chances, and hope to nick a goal to claim all three points. That being said, for all the talk about Mourinho parking the bus against big teams, his tactics against Chelsea in 2016/17 belie that reputation.
In the first matchup between these two teams last season, Chelsea unceremoniously thrashed United 4-0 in Mourinho’s homecoming to Stamford Bridge. But the next two outings told a very different story. In both March’s FA Cup quarterfinal and the second league match, United pressed Chelsea high up the pitch and tasked Ander Herrera with shadowing the magnificent Eden Hazard.
This strategic tweak slowed down the Blues like no other team could last year. Chelsea narrowly won the FA Cup tie (after the controversial sending-off of Herrera), but United took the points at Old Trafford in an easy 2-0 victory. Herrera’s dogged man-marking of Hazard made all the difference, nullifying most of Chelsea’s creativity going forward. So successful a year ago, Mourinho will surely force his old team to prove they can beat this tactic before trying anything new.
There has rarely been a better time to play Chelsea. While not a club in crisis, there is an air of discontent around Stamford Bridge at the moment. Subpar results, injuries to key players, and the massive hole left by Nemanja Matić have combined to leave Chelsea much weaker than a year ago.
Álvaro Morata, so nearly a Manchester United player, has not looked the same since injuring his hamstring in September. Much like Lukaku, he got off to a hot start with his new team before rapidly cooling off in the last month. Whichever team’s wayward striker snaps out of it first could make all the difference on Sunday.
For José Mourinho and Manchester United’s ex-Chelsea contingent, matches at Stamford Bridge will always hold special meaning. Both Juan Mata and Lukaku have already played against their former club since leaving, but this will be Matić’s first appearance back at the Bridge after his £35 million move to Manchester this summer. It has proven the signing of the season, with Matić a revelation in red.
For his part, José Mourinho demurs at granting this match any special significance. “It’s a big match because they are the champions,” he explains. “But, by the emotional point of view, it’s just one more game.”
Between Mourinho’s famed pragmatism and Chelsea’s desire to avoid another lopsided defeat, this match has all the markings of being tight and defensive. When both managers would probably be satisfied with a 0-0 draw, supporters and neutrals should adjust their expectations accordingly. It might not make for scintillating football, but any points gained at Stamford Bridge would be a good return for Manchester United.