There wasn’t much Conte got wrong on Sunday. Certainly not without the benefit of hindsight.
He started almost the exact lineup that the majority of fans preferred. The only difference was Drinkwater getting the surprise nod after Fàbregas played the full 90 against Barcelona on Tuesday. The Blues came out flying from the blocks, and had more possession, more shots, more and better chances for the game. Chelsea should’ve scored inside of the first five minutes, took the lead on thirty minutes, and conceded only through an unlucky combination of refereeing incompetence (head injuries should result in automatic stoppages) and a lucky bounce or two. It was United’s only serious chance the entire first-half. Their second goal was their only other serious chance of the game, mind — and did actually involve an unfortunate defensive breakdown. And then Chelsea’s late equalizer, after Conte tried the Giroud-Morata combination for the first time and brought on Fàbregas in the classic move of last season, was harshly chalked off by the linesman’s flag.
Manchester United vs Chelsea Running xG.— Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab) February 25, 2018
Chelsea had chances to get the second but just couldn't beat De Gea again. pic.twitter.com/mPnoGGpe2d
Despite all those explanations, excuses, and external factors, the decision that Conte’s getting the most questions about (and anger thrown his way because we dared to lose at Old Trafford like most teams) was the decision to withdraw Eden Hazard in 73rd minute.
It’s hardly an uncommon sight, to see Hazard departing early. Last year, he lasted 90 minutes in just 11 of his 36 league starts. He’s actually doing a little better in that regard this season, having completed 13 full matches already (24 starts). But he’s not an Azpilicueta to never miss a minute — as an attacking player, in a sense, that is expected.
Trouble was on Sunday that immediately after the substitution, United scored their second goal, and Chelsea were unable to equalize — or, to be more precise, equalized but it was ruled out. And even though Hazard hadn’t done anything in the second-half, and was more frustrating than effective in the first — finished the with just 4 take-ons and 1 shot, opting to pass up good opportunities for silly layoffs and passes, like the one for Alonso at the top of the box or not taking on McTominay when isolated 1-v-1 in the area.
In short, when Conte says the decision was tactical, it’s not an outrageous choice.
“It was a tactical decision.
“We have to keep the same performance for 90 minutes, and we didn’t have a great balance. Every single player has to work with the ball and without the ball.
“I think he had finished his energy. In the first half he ran a lot, second in the same way but when I see that a player is tired you have to change the situation.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Metro
As manager, any decision made when the team loses will come under criticism of course, and so is the case here. But while one could argue that he should’ve kept Hazard on as he’s always someone who’s capable of winning the game single-handedly with a moment of magic, that moment didn’t look like coming today. Conte’s decision to ‘balance’ the team (similar to how he talked about the Barcelona tactics) and get fresh legs on is solid enough. It didn’t have the desirable effect, so it will be criticized, but at the time it was understandable.