Manchester United face arguably their toughest test yet in the 2018/19 season as they pay a visit to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea. The Red Devils haven’t won a game at Stamford Bridge since October 2012, and José Mourinho has failed to even get a goal out of his United side in each visit under his tenure (4-0, 1-0, and 1-0 losses). The odds are certainly stacked against United, but with so much at stake for both the manager and the season perhaps the contest will exceed expectations.
With his job possibly on the line over the next few weeks Mourinho will certainly want all three points against his former side, but his side’s form has been wildly inconsistent. Chelsea, on the other hand, have been ruthless this season, only recently experiencing road bumps in the form of consecutive draws against West Ham and Liverpool. Chelsea’s players have fervidly bought into Maurizio Sarri’s free flowing attacking style with Eden Hazard thriving, providing 8 goals and 3 assists in all competitions. Bringing in Sarri was an audacious switch from the defensive tactics of both Antonio Conte and José Mourinho, and so far this season it appears to have paid off for Roman Abramovich.
That being said, their dropped points against West Ham and Liverpool could’ve provided Mourinho with some ideas on how to prepare for the fixture. Fans will not like the sound of this, but Chelsea’s failure to capitalize on goalscoring opportunities in the aforementioned draws could see United sit back a bit.
A few weeks ago Arsenal nearly broke Chelsea’s unbeaten run before it really began in a thrilling 3-2 loss at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea established a 2-0 lead in the first half through quick and precise counterattacking movements. The Gunners were able to keep the ball for the rest of the second half and draw level at 2-2, but late in the game Chelsea secured the winning goal after dominating for most of the second half. Unai Emery’s Arsenal haven’t been afraid of going at teams, but they paid the price for it against Chelsea.
Liverpool similarly fell behind at Stamford Bridge, going 1-0 down to a swift attacking move that saw the ball travel from the Chelsea back line through the midfield to a surging Eden Hazard in a matter of seconds. They spent most of the match down 1-0 and holding off more Chelsea counterattacks as they tried to possess and wrestle away the momentum. It took a breathtaking Daniel Sturridge goal just minutes before the final whistle to steal a point. Like Arsenal, Liverpool were nearly undone by Chelsea’s punishing counterattacks. Both sides pressed high up the field trying to play their attacking style and dominate possession, but found out the hard way that Chelsea play that to their advantage.
Mourinho Ball has hardly earned José a positive reputation at Old Trafford, but it has its uses. The 2-0 victory over Conte’s champions-elect Chelsea in 2017 is an excellent example. United did spend some time absorbing Chelsea’s pressure, but it was actually United who had the most meaningful chances and it turned into goals. The 2-1 win over Liverpool last season nearly backfired, but Marcus Rashford’s first half brace was enough to see off Liverpool as they held onto the lead throughout the second half. The best “Parked Bus” displays are actually rather productive, the problems arise for the parked team when they don’t capitalize on their own opportunities in possession. United’s best performances under Mourinho have come when they are focused on finding those moments and can execute their chances meticulously. It may not seem like a task this team is up for given their record in the league this season, but it seems clear from the Newcastle win that everyone in the team realizes what is at stake.
This is not an article meant to advocate for parking the bus, but the reality of the situation is José Mourinho is still Manchester United manager. There’s no Zinedine Zidane dream team in the works at Carrington. There is no massive spending spree to save United before Saturday. Any combination of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Victor Lindelöf will be trusted to hold off Eden Hazard and co. at Stamford Bridge. It’s not ideal, it’s reality. Playing defense for 70-80 out of 90+ minutes can work with this team, and even if they fall behind early at least that means Mourinho will have to press to get a result.