Last week’s ‘Red Monday’ didn’t live up to the billing, and as Jose Mourinho returns to Stamford Bridge, the battle between the Portuguese manager and his counterpart, Antonio Conte, may follow a similar pattern of caution over flair.
The backdrop is, of course, Mourinho’s return to the Bridge, but a more intriguing context is the fact that both of these teams are still looking to be in a title race later this season, yet neither team has looked capable of beating the best in the league.
Manchester United have endured a stuttering season, and were thoroughly outplayed for the first 40 minutes in their biggest game so far, at home to Manchester City.
Chelsea, meanwhile, haven’t looked convincing and defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool mean they too are yet to beat a top side this season.
This game – given the intrigue and emotion surrounding Jose Mourinho’s return to his former home and the form both teams have shown so far – means that this game could come down to the mental side of the game as much as the tactical. It may be a case of which manager can instil the most confidence in his players in the build-up to Sunday afternoon.
But it is, nonetheless, an interesting tactical battle.
Conte will be expected to start with a back three again on Sunday, whilst Manchester United will probably look to add an extra man to the midfield to help out Paul Pogba defensively. It looks likely we’ll see a 3-4-3 pitted against a 4-3-3.
For Chelsea, this will surely see Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante play in behind Pedro and Eden Hazard. As for United, they’ll probably line up with pace on the wings, either side of Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front.
That poses a dilemma for both managers.
For Conte, will a fit-again John Terry be included? His lack of pace could be critical should Mourinho play with pacey players. If he is isolated one-on-one, that could be dangerous and even moreso if they get in behind Chelsea’s wing backs, dragging Terry out of position.
One reason Conte might want to start his captain, however, is the physical ability he brings to the defence. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is perhaps the best player in the world at finding physical mismatches and players upon which to impose himself. Not playing John Terry probably means playing Cesar Azpilicueta at centre back, and whilst he has the pace that Terry doesn’t have, it presents Ibrahimovic with an opportunity to bully the Spanish international.
For Mourinho, it presents a different problem. Playing with one striker and two wingers to exploit space in behind Chelsea’s wing backs might tempt him to play with his pacier players and even give Henrikh Mkhitaryan a chance to use his scary pace on one of the flanks, but it means playing without a number 10.
In the previous two games, we saw United play a midfield three against Liverpool – allowing them to sit deep and soak up pressure – and a midfield two with a number 10 in the game against Fenerbahce.
But those tactical decisions surely rested on the opposition they faced. Against the Turkish side at home, Mourinho clearly felt he could dictate the game and play on the offensive, allowing Paul Pogba to run the game. Against Liverpool he clearly wasn’t so confident, though ironically, the midfield three stifled Paul Pogba’s impact on the game, proving that his impact on a game doesn’t depend on the midfield structure around him, but does depend on how adventurous his manager is feeling, and the instructions he’s given.
On Sunday, expect it to be more like the Liverpool game than the Fenerbahce one.
If Chelsea do see a lot of the ball, their wing backs will be very important. They’ll provide both attacking and defensive width. If Terry starts, they may have to be more defensive, especially Marcos Alonso if the Chelsea captain plays on the left-hand side of the three. If Terry doesn’t start, then they might be free to roam up the pitch a little bit more, and that could be crucial: if Alonso is able to provide an attacking overlap, Hazard can drift into central positions. The same can be said for Pedro and Victor Moses on the other side.
United’s full backs will have to be disciplined to deal with an overlap, but that means the holding midfielders – and yes, that means you too, Pogba – will have to be alert to deal with a roaming Eden Hazard.
Whatever the tactical set-up of both sides, this looks like a game that could come down to the brilliance of any number of world class players on the pitch for both sides. Ibrahimovic’s physical presence will be matched in equal and opposite fashion by Diego Costa for Chelsea, whilst the ability of Eden Hazard to create something for Chelsea is matched by Paul Pogba for United.
The differing formations, however, will ensure that both teams won’t simply cancel each other out. It may not be a classic, but it may be more entertaining than it sounds on paper.