BY MATTHEW GALEA
The highs of a 4-1 win in the Europa League over Fenerbache gave Manchester United little indication of what was to come next.
United travelled to Stamford Bridge for what had been dubbed something of a homecoming for Jose Mourinho – Chelsea’s most successful coach – returning to his former stomping ground as United manager for the first time.
And if revenge was on his mind, after the club he served so brilliantly unceremoniously sacked him for the second time in his career, then Mourinho’s best-laid plans came unstuck not even 30 seconds into the contest when Pedro put Chelsea 1-0 up before United had even managed to touch the ball.
Not even seven days after a brilliant defensive job against Liverpool at Anfield, United put in one of the worst defensive performances of the last decade – much less this season.
Still, United finished the game with more possession and more shots – something Mourinho’s United has been criticised for previously (last week, even) – leaving one to wonder what to make of the result.
Was it a one-off abomination? Is it the product of larger issues at play? Has Mourinho already lost the dressing room? We try and cut through the hype of the result and the reaction below.
HAS MOURINHO LOST HIS AURA?
Before the final whistle had even been blown, the critics were already digging the knife into Mourinho, with the same old claims that the Portuguese manager had lost the dressing room rearing their head.
It is true that United’s defending went beyond being lazy in the last 30 minutes and the goals scored by Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante could only have been easier if United’s defenders had taken the ball and put it bast David De Gea themselves, but suggesting that Mourinho has lost the dressing room is a stretch.
Anyone who watched United’s sterling defensive effort against Liverpool the week prior would never have contemplated such a conclusion, such was the fight and desperation showed by United. The truth is, this was an average performance exacerbated by horrendous individual mistakes that a manager can hardly account or prepare for.
What exactly is Mourinho to do when Chris Smalling decides to let a routine ball bounce and leave it for De Gea to collect outside of the box, allowing Pedro to race through and score the simplest of tap-ins before the game is even 30 seconds old?
That mistake is completely out of character for Smalling, a player who had – until Sunday at least – seemingly made such errors a thing of the past. Winning at Stamford Bridge is hard enough when the game starts at 0-0. Sunday night’s game started at 1-0 in favour of the home side.
If the referee had done his job and sent of David Luiz for planting his studs into the flesh of Marouane Fellaini, the game’s complexion may have also changed.
At the end of the day, a goal that early completely changed the face of the game and United, despite having more of the ball and more shots on goal, were not good enough to rectify it. Does that mean Mourinho has lost his aura and the dressing room? Hardly. That just stinks of a knee-jerk reaction to a terrible day at the office.
Having touched on what Mourinho cannot control, we should probably look at what he can control and that is the continued selection of Fellaini in big games.
Errors from Smalling and Eric Bailly are perhaps less predictable, as both have played relatively well this season. A poor performance from Fellaini is somewhat less surprising.
Credit where it is due, Fellaini contributed exceptionally well to United’s bore draw at Anfield. Most would be more than happy to file that performance under “job done” and move on. But the problem with relying on Fellaini to consistently deliver in big games is that he is not very good at football and when he is bad he brings down everyone in the team.
Fellaini made three tackles and did not complete a single interception against Chelsea. His direct opponent, Kante, scored a goal, recovered possession from loose ball scenarios eight times and made five interceptions.
Despite United finishing with more possession, Fellaini completed 29 out of just 34 pass attempts, compared to Kante who completed 57 of his 65 attempted passes, more than doubling the Belgium international’s output in that respect as well. If there were two players on the pitch that summed up the 4-0 gap on the scoreline on the pitch, it was those two.
If the argument for Fellaini in big games is that his big, physical, disruptive presence will unsettle opponents, then he failed to deliver once again. On the ball, United may as well have played with 10 men given his lack of involvement – which makes the fact that Mourinho’s team managed to have more of the ball even more impressive.
Most would now mark Fellaini as having played one decent game out of three when picked for big occasions. A pass mark for the away trip to Anfield and an ‘F’ for his efforts in the derby against Manchester City and now against Chelsea.
Surely, the penny has to drop for Mourinho now, particularly with as classy a passer as Michael Carrick in the squad.
IBRA MISSING THE MARK
Zlatan Ibrahimovic might very well be a world class talent, but he is failing to deliver at the moment.
After a classy start to the season, Ibrahimovic’s potency in front of goal has well and truly deserted him on current form. One can only hope it returns soon, because United simply cannot afford to continue throwing away the sort of chances he is missing.
It was concerning against Stoke, worrying against Liverpool but now against Chelsea, perhaps the alarms should be sounding. He failed to hit the target with another good headed chance which a player of his size and talent should really be doing better with.
Equally concerning has been his lack to effectively link with the United midfield.
At the end of the game his shot tally read four shots taken, one on target, two off target and one blocked. The harsh reality of the Premier League is that chances will be at a premium – unlike in Ligue 1 – and Ibrahimovic needs to rediscover the clinical form that saw him start his United career with a flourish of goals.
DEFENCE HITS CRISIS POINT
If the 0-0 draw at Liverpool was a much-needed big win for United’s defence, the 4-0 drubbing from Chelsea was the complete opposite.
It is hard to remember a match in which United defended as badly as they did at Stamford Bridge.
The opening goal calamity was compounded by non-existent marking at a set-piece which allowed Chelsea to win an easy flick-on header at the near post to find an unmarked Gary Cahill to score.
United held Chelsea off for a little while, but the floodgates opened again in the second half when players completely neglected their defensive responsibilities, perhaps sensing that the game was lost.
Mourinho must now surely be questioning the overall state of his defence. The contrasting performances between at Anfield and then at Stamford Bridge says a lot for the unreliable nature of the current defence.
Bailly has shown potential but is still raw – and will be missing later in the season due to the African Cup of Nations – while Smalling looks a shadow of his former self. Daley Blind is a good reader of the game and our best defender on the ball but his lack of pace and general mobility means he is risky at centre-back and not adventurous enough at full back. Antonio Valencia has likeable qualities as an attacking wing-back, but he still defends like the winger he is. Luke Shaw is the most complete of United’s full-back options but his fitness levels are cause for concern.
Alarmingly, the next tier of United’s defence means Mourinho really has no other option but to stick with his current rotation of six players.
Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones and Matteo Darmian do not inspire confidence in the depth of United’s defensive stocks and with the first-string defenders performing so poorly that is cause for concern and surely Mourinho’s first port of call in the January transfer window.
There is no doubting that United are in a tough spot.
United’s form is average at best and while the good performances have been exciting glimpses of the potential in this team, the bad ones have been atrocious reminders of how far this team has to go.
But despite all of that, United are two games off top spot and the teams above them teams are dropping points left, right and centre.
In many ways, that makes United’s failure to capitalise on the faltering of other teams even more frustrating, but it also offers hope, no matter how fleeting.
If United could just somehow find a consistent middle ground between their absolute best and their horrific worst, there is no reason to think Mourinho and Co. could not challenge for the title.
That will prove particularly important with Premier League fixtures against Burnley, Swansea City, Arsenal, West Ham and Everton coming up, punctuated by an EFL cup game against Manchester City and Europa League fixtures against Fenerbache and Feyenoord.