As Chelsea’s technical staff contemplated the Premier League table at Old Trafford yesterday evening the sense of concern was palpable. In the space of a month, Antonio Conte’s once all-conquering side had allowed a 13-point advantage to wither away to a mere four. Worse still, a vivid tactical weakness had been exposed.
When a team that free-wheeled through the majority of its League fixtures, appearing to have the title tied down by January, is as out-thought and outplayed as Chelsea were on Sunday (not a single shot on target in 97 minutes of football) people take notice.
In the 21st century Premier League, every club employs a team of technical analysts to deliver detailed assessments of an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. When a coach comes up with a plan that so clearly emasculates the apparent champions-elect it rarely goes to waste.
Jose Mourinho’s solution to Chelsea’s defend in numbers, break fast and intelligently 5-4-1 had been spotted, adapted and reapplied long before Sunday’s 2-0 victory. Conceived and implemented for last month’s contentious FA Cup quarter-final loss at Stamford Bridge, his unorthodox formation was immediately aped by Stoke City in a March 18 League fixture from which Chelsea barely escaped with a win.
Though Crystal Palace did not adopt Mourinho’s tactics in full, Sam Allardyce introduced elements of them into his defensive set up a fortnight later and came away from Stamford Bridge with a 2-1 victory that offered Tottenham Hotspur a first scent of a title turnaround.
Pep Guardiola, as is his wont, ignored the lessons of these three matches in losing to Chelsea four days later, and Bournemouth were overpowered early on before Mourinho was allowed a second bite at the Conte cherry. “The same tactics,” explained the Manchester United manager post-match. “And the game was totally controlled with 11 players. We knew that playing this way would be very difficult for them.”
Mourinho’s system was so unconventional several professional observers failed to pick out the formation. A 3-5-2? A 5-2-2-1? No, what the Portuguese deployed was a narrow back four comprised of Ander Herrera, Eric Bailly, Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian. In front and to the sides of this first defensive line were two wing backs, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young. To further shield the back four, the Portuguese deployed Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. The forwards were a fast and fluid combination of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.
Herrera and Darmian were given very specific roles, being instructed to jump out of the defensive line and play tight to Chelsea wingers Eden Hazard and Pedro as soon as the opposition gained possession of the ball. On United’s flanks, Valencia and Young had the job of blocking off Conte’s two wing-backs, important auxiliary attackers in the Italian’s counter-attacking system.
As at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup tie, Chelsea were bemused, their normal passing channels blocked, and their key creative players starved of possession. Unlike at Stamford Bridge, there was to be no questionable early red card for a United player, and the bemusement continued until Mourinho’s men were two goals to the good and smiling from their box seats.
“I want to say that I was convinced even before the cup [tie] that controlling the two players that played behind Diego [Costa] – sometimes Hazard-Willian, sometimes Hazard-Pedro – controlling the position of these two players, and controlling the full backs – because they go really deep – with two wide men would create them lots of problems,” explained Mourinho.
“And I repeat the same: They are phenomenal in counter-attack; when they have the ball is more difficult for them. When they had the ball we were compact, and when they tried to play counter-attack we were always in control of these ‘link positions’. Diego is very dangerous, but the two link positions are the two positions that we have to control.
“We did that at Stamford Bridge when we played with 11; with 10 it was more difficult. And today we control and win.”
There were further subtle elements to United’s mastery. Mourinho not only had Herrera and Darmian look after Chelsea’s link men, he instructed his other players on where they were to press their opponents in possession, and which of the visiting footballers were to be allowed to hit forward passes – essentially the least skilled of Conte’s cohort.
His team knew “how to run defensively, how to press, how to give the ball to one of their defenders that is more difficult for him to build. We gave the ball exactly to the space where we want to press them. We press them, we recovered balls, we were dangerous in counter-attack. We know also how to run behind.
“The performance was tremendous. And it’s really hard to play against a very dangerous team like Chelsea and on the top of that a fresh team – a team that plays one match a week – and we did this amazingly well.”
Mourinho talked openly of his personal satisfaction at devising and implementing such a comprehensive victory. Conte took public blame upon himself “because I wasn’t able to transfer the right desire, the right motivation, to play this type of game”.
The Italian’s talk of failures of mentality and spirit was perhaps deliberate, designed to distract from the strategic antidote to the counter-attacking poison with which Chelsea eliminated so many Premier League teams this season. The worry in west London is that if enough of the club’s final six opponents emulate United’s Easter Sunday methods, a charging Tottenham could rush in through the division’s back door.
For all the season-long talk of his strategic brilliance, Conte appears to have no answer to Sunday’s tactics. At Old Trafford, he first switched to a familiar plan B of inserting Cesc Fabregas’ creativity into the centre of his midfield. When that didn’t work he had a go with a conventional 4-4-2 to no real effect.
Analysing the match for Premier League TV, Phil Neville commented that “we were looking at the Chelsea manager and at one point we thought, he actually doesn’t know what to do here”. Amongst United’s technical staff it did not go unnoticed that Conte had now seen Mourinho’s system twice yet come up with no effective response. “He didn’t know what to do,” said one coach. “But he is ‘The Master of Tactics’…”
For Conte the title run-in has suddenly become a game of dangerously high stakes. With an FA Cup semi-final against Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham to come this weekend, his first campaign in English football still offers the prospect of a glorious double. Yet, it also presents the prospect of humbling failure at a time when the Italian has elected to play a game of grand brinkmanship with Roman Abramovich’s board.
Chelsea have been trying to secure Conte to a new contract. Conte responded by making huge investment in the creation of a squad capable of competing for the European Cup a condition of renewing his deal. Around the edges of that negotiation has been a threat to exit stage left should the Russian’s executives not grant his wishes.
Such power plays rarely bode well for the long-term survival of a Chelsea manager. Should enough of his last six opponents successfully take on the tricks Mourinho has taught them over the last month, Conte might end up experiencing the pain of his Stamford Bridge predecessor a lot earlier than predicted.