It was very predictable in the end. Manchester United clinging on to avoid embarrassment at Stamford Bridge staring at the prospect of only their third defeat since late October – a result that would deny them a fifth trip to Wembley in under a year.
United fielded a back three for the second game in row – probably just the second time in Mourinho’s managerial career stretching roughly across 800 odd games in all competitions. With Rashford and Mkhitaryan playing up top in tandem to counter attack with pace, United were largely set up to limit the threat from Chelsea’s inside forwards Hazard and Willian, with their wing-backs Mateo Darmian and Antonio Valencia tucking in to compress the space between the lines.
The plan seemed to work until an individual error from Ander Herrera in the 35th minute – his second yellow card offence which resulted in a sending off, leaving United with a numerical disadvantage and a mountain to climb at a stadium they had not won in the earlier 11 occasions. The already cautious visitors were forced to resort to defending for the rest of the game and only prolonged the inevitability, primarily to avoid another huge defeat to Chelsea at this stage of the season and an ensuing morale collapse.
In some ways, it was a shame that another of United’s shrewd approaches under Mourinho against a top side was ruined by a combination of an individual error from a player and inept refereeing. But there were, as always the case, some positives for the Portuguese to take from his second inglorious return to West London as Manchester United manager.
Once again, Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones have shown they could be thrown at the deep end in an alien formation against the best side in the country and not come worse off. Rojo, in particular, continued his rich vein of form winning 6 out of 9 tackles (most on the pitch) on a day when the margin of error was very little. Phil Jones was tasked with marking Eden Hazard out of the game and the Belgian, despite flashes of brilliance, was never able to consistently torment the visitors like he does so often in the Premier League.
Antonio Valencia was at his usual best at Stamford Bridge winning 5 out of 5 tackles, and completing 2 dribbles, tackles and interceptions apiece. While he has been the most consistent outfield player at United in the past 18 months, United could do with the same level of consistency from their midfielder Paul Pogba, who had another game to forget on a big night, especially after the sending off of Ander Herrera, leaving him without a mobile partner in midfield to thrive on the ball.
Hence, Pogba’s influence going forward was very benign barring one crunching tackle on Hazard to reclaim possession, the 23-year old was anonymous, as he watched his international compatriot Kante reinforce why he was the best midfielder in the division with an all-round display capped off by crucial match-winning goal.
Mourinho was unsurprisingly bullish in his post-match conference but he had a point, unlike usual. United went toe-to-toe with Chelsea away from home until what was a perfectly avoidable red card incident, despite putting out a lesser side and with much less preparation time ahead of the fixture.
As always, it was he who dominated every post match narrative for reacting to a jibe from a small section of Chelsea fans who were constantly out-sung by their 5500-strong counterparts, thereby deflecting questions about the actual display which was by all means, disappointingly ordinary on the surface. He said,
“I don’t speak [about the red card]. I just want to say that I’m really proud of my players and Manchester United fans. Everybody can analyse from different perspectives but we all watch the match until the red card and after the red card. So we can compare the decisions of the two yellow cards, in this case with others which were not given.”
If this game was an audition to see how far United have come since their last defeat to the Blues, the overarching result is positive, although that could easily change between now and the end of the season.
Despite an early taste of silverware in Wembley, United’s inaugural campaign under Mourinho and Manchester United will be less defined by their success in the domestic cup competitions than whether they make it to the Champions League next season. Which is why, the holders need to move on from the defeat and instead direct their focus on the games ahead, in what promises to be a rather significant run-in.