It will have been one of the first games Jose Mourinho checked for when the Premier League’s fixture list was announced in the summer. Chelsea are not only one of the Premier League’s top teams and current reigning champions, but also the Portuguese’s famous former employers – who axed him in 2015 just a matter of months after winning the title as the dressing room appeared to turn on him.
The Manchester United boss will know how big a win over the Blues at Stamford Bridge would be for both him personally and the Red Devils’ title ambitions this Sunday. In order to do that, though, he must find the right answers to these four key questions…
Mourinho selected his first three-man defence of the season in the Premier League against Tottenham last weekend, bucking the flat-back-four mantra that he’s stuck with for the vast majority of his managerial career.
Matching up with Mauricio Pochettino’s 3-4-3, albeit using a slight variation with two up top, certainly had the desired effect as United cancelled out the visitors before taking the late chance that came their way.
The question Mourinho now faces is whether the same game-plan can work again, Chelsea becoming synonymous with 3-4-3 since Antonio Conte’s switch to the system at the start of last season. Tactically speaking, it seems like the right call – but the fact United will be on the road rather than at Old Trafford does change the dynamics of the match somewhat.
Mourinho has used Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial almost exclusively on an either/or basis this season, with one coming on from the bench to reap the benefits of the other’s hard work.
The ploy has certainly produced the right results thus far; while the Frenchman is the Premier League’s top-scoring substitute, the England international’s pace and power has caused relentless problems for opposition defences.
Rashford has been Mourinho’s preferred starter on the most-part this season but Martial made a very strong case to reverse those roles when he bagged the winner against Tottenham last time out in the top flight and considering how porous Chelsea’s defence is at the moment, it may make more sense to get a more natural goalscorer on the pitch. Either way it’s a big decision for Mourinho.
At this point, we all know Mourinho’s mentality for away games against divisional rivals – don’t concede at all costs and hope a moment of either magic or madness comes their way at the other end.
There’s nothing wrong with that – Mourinho has made a career out of it – but this isn’t a case of United visiting a rival at full health. Chelsea have conceded 13 times in their last seven games and haven’t produced a truly convincing performance since beating Atletico Madrid back in September.
In short, the Blues are there for the taking and should United exploit those problems to humiliate them on their own patch, the ramifications could be huge for the home side – likely knocked out of the title race and potentially even feeling compelled to part with Antonio Conte.
Drawing without scoring or beating them 1-0 will in some senses cover up the cracks at Stamford Bridge, but a two or three-goal victory for United could have an impact that far outweighs the three points.
Inherently linked to how Man United can go about beating Chelsea, much can be learned from how Roma destroyed the Blues 3-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday night.
No doubt, Chelsea will have put extra work into improving the defensive side of that game after such a disappointing performance and could well line up with alternative personnel at the back. But two of Roma’s goals stemmed from diagonal balls into central areas, while all three were a case of at least one centre-back stepping into midfield at the wrong time.
United have the players to create chances in a similar way by exploiting the same mistakes – but that’s a matter of Mourinho putting the work in on the training pitch to set up and instruct his attacking players accordingly.