A promising first half performance gave way to a far less promising second, as Chelsea faded and failed to capitalize on the first-goal advantage for the first-time all season. A second-half goal from Jesse Lingard was enough for the hosts and Chelsea faded. Alvaro Morata did have the ball in the back of the net for an equalizer, but it was (harshly) ruled out. The Blues thus drop out of the top four, with further pain on the horizon as another trip back up to Manchester looms next weekend, this time to play the champions elect.
With both teams coming off of midweek European draws, the starting lineups featured a little bit of rotation but still plenty of quality.
The hosts set out in a classic Mourinho 4-3-3, with former blue Matic anchoring the midfield, Pogba shuttling, and young Scott McTominay assinged the Zouma-esque/Herrera-esque role of just following Hazard around and kicking him a lot. In fairness, they were a bit more zonal than that, so Hazard got his fair share of kicks from others like Matic. Their back-four had veterans on the wings in Ashley Young and captain Antonio Valencia, but weakness in centre with Chris Smalling and Victor Lindelöf, while up front, Mourinho chose all the most expensive names in Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, and Anthony Martial.
Conte stuck with the 3-4-3 from Tuesday’s draw against Barcelona, but with a proper center forward this time — Alvaro Morata making his first start in ten games, with Pedro dropping to the bench — and with former Manchester United trainee Danny Drinkwater preferred to the ostensibly knackered Cesc Fabregas.
That left either side without a true “creator” — the likes of Juan Mata and Cesc Fàbregas only making the bench — so Chelsea were hoping to rely on the brilliance of Eden, the hustle of Willian and the never-stopping engine that is N’Golo Kanté in midfield. United were a bit more confused, with Mourinho, as usual, trusting his attackers to invent something out of thin air.
In defence, both teams looked to clog up the middle of the pitch, trying to force either side to play the flanks and take the ball away from proper goalscoring positions. But United’s lines sat deeper than Chelsea’s, which allowed the Blues to roam forward and pass the ball around with an ease. Thanks to strong play from both Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses, Chelsea could repeatedly threaten from these positions, including a chance in the 4th minute that really should’ve seen the game’s first goal — Alvaro Morata’s first-time finish on Alonso’s fantastic driven cross only found the crossbar, making it three shots off the woodwork in the last two games for the Blues.
Hazard spreads the ball out wide and Alonso hits an impressive volleyed cross for Morata who slams his effort off of the crossbar before Hazard's try from the rebound is tipped over by De Gea. Great move. 0-0. #CFC pic.twitter.com/XFkMK2pxnv— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) February 25, 2018
United were slower in their build-up and thus much less effective, especially as Lukaku was a surprisingly more static option up front for them, who received very little support from his own midfielders.
Chelsea’s own midfielders were having a pretty good time of it early as well, with the partnership forged in the fires of the King Power Stadium during Leicester City’s Premier League-winning season controlling the middle against their bigger and stronger counterparts.
Despite Chelsea having the upper hand in all phases, United’s defensive effort was good enough. Chelsea needed to score to break the pattern that was starting to play into Mourinho’s hand, and for a few minutes, it looked Willian would indeed do just that. Chelsea’s most in-form player started and finished the move, collecting a return pass from Hazard to smash past and through David De Gea with Morata making a far post run to distract United’s goalkeeper just enough to leave an opening. It was Willian’s fourth goal in three games and his twelfth on the season, matching his career high.
The normally impenetrable David De Gea certainly looked beatable today despite being credited with six saves. He barely kept out a bouncing Danny Drinkwater shot that almost squirmed underneath him and then almost palmed a Willian free kick into his own net in the second half. Alas, the bounces did not go Chelsea’s way today, as was evident on United’s equalizer, which had plenty of misfortune about it.
Even if we ignore the foul by Lukaku on Christensen, just as referee Martin Atkinson did (it was a bit of a theme for him), the play still should've been stopped due to the head injury for the Chelsea defender. Christensen initially went to ground, but gamely got back up once it was obvious that Atkinson was going to ignore Premier League rules and let play go on. But by that time, the youngster was well out of position and Chelsea’s defensive structure had broken down. Martial held the ball up well, squared to an unmarked Lukaku, who made no mistake for his first goal against top-six opposition this season.
It was United’s one and only meaningful foray forward all half, and would be one of two meaningful forays forward all game. Needless to say, that second foray would result in their second goal.
But first, the half-time break.
One of the things that’s defined Chelsea’s 2017-18 has been inconsistency, not just from game to game, but within games themselves, from half to half or even minute to minute. On Sunday, it was the half-to-half variety that popped up, with Chelsea looking a much-changed side after the break, but not for the better.
Gone was the first-half’s impetus and drive going forward — and surely this was not a tactical instruction with Chelsea in desperate need of three points and Conte more than willing to go for it as evidenced by his eventual substitutions — Chelsea instead sat back and allowed United to slowly but surely grow into the game and start asserting themselves. As the highest paid team in the world, they would always have the quality to do so, but Chelsea letting them get to that point so easily was very frustrating.
Of course, had Chelsea taken advantage of a couple early counters, the story would’ve unfolded differently. Morata and Alonso both had shots blocked, although on the latter, Eden Hazard would’ve been much better served creating for himself rather than a teammate. For Hazard, this was a constant issue in this game, strangely reluctant to take on his man 1-v-1 and choosing to pass instead of shoot almost every single time. These aren’t new issues/qualities for Hazard’s game, but today they popped up at the worst possible time. For a player looking to make that final step in his development, his performances this week against Barcelona and Manchester United show that there is some ways to go yet.
And then, disaster. Just one breakdown, as against Barcelona, paid for dearly.
As Lukaku drifted wide, Jesse Lingard, who had been introduced in place of Martial a few minutes earlier, drifted in. His previous marker, Drinkwater warned Christensen of the upcoming danger, but the centre-back was apparently too busy watching the play unfold. Lingard ghosted behind him and as allowed to freely attack Lukaku’s cross. Unlocking Lingard has been one of Mourinho’s more obvious successes at Manchester United, and the local kid repaid the faith once again. United had completed the comeback slowly, methodologically but almost unerringly, and now all they had to do was see out a one-goal advantage, which is Mourinho’s specialty. Or at least used to be.
Conte range the changes and tried something new. Hazard, having disappeared shortly after the whistle to start the second-half had already made way for Pedro, and he was soon joined by both Olivier Giroud and Cesc Fàbregas, with Victor Moses and Danny Drinkwater, respectively, making way. Chelsea was back in a 4-2-4 for the first time since the start of Conte’s tenure to chase the equalizer.
Mourinho responded by putting on another center back (Bailly for Alexis) and was more than happen to let the game devolve into a attack-vs-defence exercise. As it often happens in mid-game tactical switches, Chelsea did not look coherent in their new setup while United were defending with their lives, loads of “tactical” fouls (Martin Atkinson continuing to sleep on the job), and plenty of time wasting.
And yet, Chelsea still found the equalizer, and it came off the boot of the much-maligned Alvaro Morata, who simply couldn’t buy a goal that wasn’t with his head. Except the linesman was flagging and there was no VAR to overturn the very harsh call. And so the game ended without a point for Chelsea.
For the first time since Matchday 8, Chelsea find themselves out of the top four and looking up with widening eyes as the gap is likely to grow even large next weekend with a trip to the Etihad to get schooled by Manchester City looming.
Chelsea have 10 matches remaining this season to get back into the top four. This will not be easy. Today’s result may have been expected — not many teams win at Old Trafford, not even Chelsea — but the manner of it was still very disappointing, even more so than Barcelona’s comeback on Tuesday.
Chelsea have now taken just 8 points from the 7 league games played since the turn of the year. We’re going to have to snap out of this bad moment, and snap out of it quickly if we are to meeting minimum expectations for the season and finish in the top four.
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