It was a familiar story for Manchester United at Stamford Bridge. Although the scoreline was much closer than last season’s shredding, and their attitude was encouragingly positive, they were comfortably second best and an equaliser would have been an injustice. Perhaps Mourinho will be regretting his decision not to try to kill the game from the start.
Indeed, United’s uncharacteristic desire to entertain almost backfired in the opening minutes, after Phil Jones, under pressure from Alvaro Morata, somehow contrived to smash the ball past a static and presumably quite surprised David de Gea and into the top corner of United’s net. Luckily for fans of United, devastatingly for fans of own goals, the referee decided there had been a push involved somewhere.
Moments later, Marcus Rashford drifted away from Chelsea’s defence, closed his eyes, and sent a header past the onrushing Thibaut Courtois but onto the roof of the net. And though United didn’t have many other clear chances, and needed a couple of smart saves from De Gea to maintain their clean sheet, it was evident throughout the first half that Mourinho had decided to try and win the game, as opposed to just not lose it.
But it was Chelsea that came out quicker in the second period, pushing United deep and taking control of midfield. Jones and Ander Herrera both picked up bookings for crude tackles on Eden Hazard, and the goal, when it came, was alarmingly simple. Cesar Azpilicueta, under little pressure, was given time to swing a cross onto Morata’s forehead. His header was excellent; United’s marking was absent.
Hand forced, Mourinho gambled. On came Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial, off went Jones and the miserable Henrikh Mkhitaryan. United switched to a back four, and Ander Herrera started to follow Hazard around. Sure enough, it took Fellaini just ten minutes to pick up a yellow card for elbowing Morata in the face.
Other than that, the impact was minimal. Chelsea, now playing a little more on the break, were happy to soak up United’s hopeful forward punting, and Hazard and Morata looked menacing on the break. With the exception of a couple of bright moments from Marcus Rashford, and one smart Courtois save from Fellaini, United’s challenge petered out in a mess of niggling fouls, overhit crosses, and frustrated pointing.
Though not a terrible performance, the defeat leaves United eight points behind Manchester City, who beat Arsenal earlier in the day. More generally, it reinforced much of what we already knew about this strange United side: without Paul Pogba, they frequently lack the wit to break down the best opponents, and they don’t really have much of a midfield.