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Chelsea vs. Manchester United, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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José Mourinho's first return to Stamford Bridge following his disastrous departure last year is incredibly tough to call.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

The Season Just Gone

Manchester United’s 2015-16 was a long, hard slog for fans, pundits, players, ex-players and basically the rest of the human race. Having dominated English football for a generation under Sir Alex Ferguson and spent unfathomable sums under David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal on several shiny new players, the media theory seemed to be that the Red Devils had a divine right to infinite success. However, reality works rather differently.

With an incredibly expensive squad of attacking players and an out-and-out maverick as manager, United somehow became a team of uniquely exasperating, utterly impotent mediocrity. While certain sections of the fanbase quickly became even more frustrating than the team – reacting to watching a merely ‘good’ side as though it were an affront to basic decency, or a denial of a human right – there was no denying that United punched below their weight.

How much of this was Louis Van Gaal’s fault – and let’s not forget that Van Gaal has committed the cardinal sin of Not Being Sir Alex Ferguson – is open to interpretation, but the gruff Dutchman ultimately lost his job anyway.

The Season Ahead

With José Mourinho now in charge at Old Trafford – yes, that still sounds weird to me too – expectations are somewhat higher than before. While last season seemed to debunk once and for all the idea that there’s more method than madness in Mourinho’s maniacal mithering – and apologies to all Chelsea fans for reminding them of last season – it remains to be seen whether the Portuguese has actually lost it, or whether his catastrophic bust-ups with his squads at Real Madrid and Chelsea were mere aberrations. The jury is still out. Nonetheless, the pressure is on Mourinho to deliver silverware to an Old Trafford crowd which very quickly grew impatient of watching title races from afar.

The additions of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba have added some much needed stardust to a squad of extremely costly nearly men, while Eric Bailly has been a solid addition at the back, and Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford should kick on and cement their places among the brightest young prospects in European football. At the same time, the painful and neverending decline of now-literally-useless captain and noted ex-footballer Wayne Rooney continues apace.

Tactics

Find a way to bench Rooney at any cost.

It seems somewhat redundant to tell Chelsea fans about José Mourinho’s tactics. Basically, nothing has changed. The 4-2-3-1 is as religiously favoured as ever, with one sitting midfielder primarily dictating play and another more combative one primarily breaking up the opposition’s attacks. The full-backs are defenders first and foremost, though Antonio Valencia is overlapping like a young Branislav Ivanović at the moment. The wide men are still usually fielded as inside forwards, cutting in from the touchline and looking to drive through the centre-back/full-back channel in front of them. A big, totemic striker holds the ball up, physically bullies the opposition centre-backs and scores goals.

Strengths

As ever with Mourinho’s teams, the most strikingly positive thing about Manchester United is their high level of organisation and their hard work off the ball. Always fully aware of their objectives, both individually and collectively, nothing has been left to chance and the players are always ready to their job, exactly as they’ve been told to do it.

Unsurprisingly, this manifests itself in good defensive figures: 19.5 tackles per game, 18.3 interceptions and 13 fouls are high for a team which almost always looks to have the lion’s share of the ball and play in the opposition half. There’s no nonsense in their own box, as they make 27.8 clearances per game, the 5th highest figure in the Premier League, while the midfield and defence block 10.1 passes per game – the division’s 3rd highest figure.

This strength in defence doesn’t mean they’re a defensive team, by any stretch of the imagination. In attack, they take 16 shots per game – the 6th highest average in the league – and they shoot extremely well, with 5.4 of those shots ending up on target – also among the highest averages.  Their attacking threat is varied: as the goal created and finished by Juan Mata (a single tear rolls down every Chelsea fan’s cheek) against Leicester proved, they’re capable of Total Footballing their way to goal, but they’re also unafraid of using their considerable height to their advantage.

Only two teams have bettered Man Utd’s aerial duel success ratio so far this season, while they’ve created 2.8 chances per game using crosses, resulting in 2.5 headed shots per game – the league’s 6th highest figures. Chelsea must be careful and very alert when United have the ball on the flanks.

They’re also very careful with the ball – not as horrendously careful as they were last season, mind, but careful nonetheless: 25.3 inaccurate long balls per game is the lowest figure in the league. Chelsea can’t expect to be handed the ball by senseless passing or poor touches (at least until Rooney is involved).

Weaknesses

While it’s worth stressing how likely it is that United will be unbelievably well organised without the ball – as any witnesses of Mourinho’s latest "let’s suck all the fun out of this game" masterclass away to Liverpool will attest – there have been plenty of times this season where they’ve been astoundingly open and easy to get at. 10.5 shots against per game is extremely high for a Mourinho team, with 3.7 of those shots per game working David De Gea. United are very lucky that De Gea seems basically unbeatable a lot of the time.

There are also problems in attack. Several of their outings this season have seen them look stodgy and a million miles away from clicking, with several key individuals far from being on the same wavelength. While their raw attacking numbers are good and appear threatening, it’s worth pointing out that they’ve only converted 30% of their shots on target so far this season – a figure that’s below the league average. If United are to take three points at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, they’ll need their best performance under Mourinho to date. That’s some requirement.

Likely XIs

Antonio Conte will presumably continue with the same three-man defence as in recent weeks, while Willian could return from compassionate leave. Cesc Fàbregas seems to have next to no chance of playing in the new 3-4-2-1, while Michy Batshuayi is presumably counting the days until January.

José Mourinho should preserve his back four and his midfield trio of Ander ‘How Much?!’ Herrera, Marouane ‘Elbows’ Fellaini and Paul ‘Instagram’ Pogba, while the pace and fearlessness of Marcus ‘Hype’ Rashford and Anthony ‘Pout’ Martial could see Juan ‘Blog’ Mata relegated to the bench. England’s Great White Hopes Wayne ‘2004’ Rooney and Luke ‘Tony Who?’ Shaw compare their expanding waistlines on the bench.

CHEMNU

Prediction

They’re both secretly really bad and this is going to be a draw to miss. 1-1 if things get out of hand, 0-0 if Conte and Mourinho get their way.