Ten is now four. And frankly, if you didn’t see this coming, you’re blind. Jose Mourinho, humiliated at Stamford Bridge and nursing the mother of all grudges, playing a weakened squad while ‘focusing on other competitions’ and capable of putting us under severe pressure in the run-in? Of course his team was going to win. We’ve seen this script before.
And we’ve seen this Chelsea side wither under pressure before too. Back to back wins against Manchester City and Bournemouth have not quite washed away the flailing ineptitude of that risible second-half display against Sam Allardyce’s Crystal Palace, where the Blues looked broadly clueless in search of an equaliser. That lacklustre display was, depressingly, merely an appetiser for what got served up at Old Trafford. The defence and midfield were woefully inept. The attack might as well have not existed. The only players who come out of today’s 2-0 loss to Manchester United without damage to their reputations are the ones who missed it through injury.
Not that the absence of Marcos Alonso and Thibaut Courtois is an excuse. Hell, not even the ridiculous missed handball call in the buildup to the opener is an excuse. Chelsea were played off the pitch by a United side that, on paper would struggle to finish in the top half of the table, and never looked even remotely capable of smuggling a win back home.
They were disorganised when we’re used to effortless stability, possibly thanks to Kurt Zouma, whose introduction to any defence seems to render the entire concept of ‘organisation’ invalid. Not even N’Golo Kante could cover up the long list of sins — he had his hands full trying to tackle Maroune Fellaini, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, often at once. Diego Costa, meanwhile, appeared to have taken offence to being passed to, flinging possession back to his hosts as quickly as he received it.
And then there’s David Luiz, ostensibly reborn as a brilliant defender. In reality, he’s been coasting on the back of a few months of great performances in autumn, his form of late slipping into something more error prone and dangerous. Even before Rashford scored in the eighth minute, Luiz had made a woeful mistake, gifting possession to Jesse Lingard in the final third only for his strike partner to scuff a shot well wide; when the opener arrived it involved Luiz hopelessly misjudging a pass from Ander Herrera and watching his man drift by him like a particularly speedy ghost.
No, that goal should never have stood. A botched clearance led to Nemanja Matic driving forward in midfield, and for a split second the United defence looked open and vulnerable. Then Herrera, who’d spent the opening minutes even closer to Hazard than I currently am to a delicious and much-necessary bottle of whiskey, detached himself from his man and drifted ball-wards. Spotting this, Matic passed to Hazard, only to see his ball swatted out of mid-air by an arm and then fizzed up the pitch to Rashford.
Bobby Madley waved off the Blues’ complaints, marking the third time in four games that a referee has hurt Chelsea by blowing a key handball decision. The goal seemed to invigorate United, who played with more focus, purpose and speed after going 1-0 up. As such, it’s reasonable to wonder what might have been had the score remained 0-0 for a little longer, but I suspect that the cold, hard truth is that we were crap and it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which we come away from this match with one point, let alone three.
Normally, in a match report, even a loss, we could discuss chances at both ends, laying out the ebb and flow of the match as Chelsea tried to get back into it. This time, there was no ebb and flow. It was ebb all the way, a dismal first-half showing that was only matched by the trips to Arsenal and Manchester City. The inclusion of that second game might have given reason for hope — after all, the Blues ended up winning 3-1 at the Etihad — but any such hope was put to bed shortly after the break.
It all started with a foul throw-in. United had put pressure on early, and Chelsea had finally cleared their lines and won a throw when Victor Moses, swapping between right and left wing-back for some reason, botched a simple toss back to David Luiz. It’s not the first time that that’s happened this season, but it was definitely the most damaging. The hosts had momentum back, and after a bizarre scramble in the box which saw Gary Cahill stop defending to gently fondle the downed Lingard’s arms, Herrera made his second contribution to the match by smashing a deflected shot past the unsighted and unfortunate Asmir Begovic.
It would be nice to paint a picture of an energetic, changed Chelsea forcing their way back into the match, but although they looked more dangerous after going down 2-0 (and United were perfectly happy playing on the counterattack at this point), perhaps thanks to the introductions of Cesc Fabregas and Willian, they never really troubled David de Gea. Or Eric Bailly. Or Marcos Rojo. It was pathetic, and there are only so many words you can wring out of a display like that.
This Chelsea side has done a magnificent job over the course of the season, which is why they’re still favourites for the title. The players have done their jobs very well. But today, they embarrassed themselves and embarrassed the club, setting themselves up for the chance of total ruin at the end of the season. There are six games left, and it would be totally unacceptable for this form to continue.