Credit where it is due: José Mourinho’s sometimes dour tactics do occasionally produce results. This was a big one for Manchester United, who had to come from behind after being not only outplayed but outdazzled in the first half by a Chelsea side who looked as if they had come to Old Trafford to hand out a lesson in entertaining football.
When Eden Hazard and Willian were taking it in turns to cut elegant swaths through United’s defence in the first half the script seemed familiar. The Antonio Conte team would attempt to create, the Mourinho one would do its best to stifle. This was precisely what was happening until United pulled a goal back, at which point Chelsea seemed to lose their sense of certainty. They ended up withdrawing Hazard in the second half in an indication they would settle for a point, only to be trumped by Romelu Lukaku creating a winning goal for Jesse Lingard.
That sums up Chelsea’s season, by turns brilliant and mundane, and it is no wonder Conte finds managing this team frustrating. Chelsea began with all the class and confidence, only to leave empty-handed after sitting back and inviting United to grow into the game. Mourinho’s players did not need asking twice. Though they began timidly, apparently in awe of Chelsea’s ability to launch devastating breaks from almost anywhere on the pitch, they ended up the stronger and Lukaku might have finished with more than a goal and an assist as he finally managed to prove himself against top-six opponents.
None of this appeared likely when Chelsea were bossing United around in the first half. Mourinho did not send out his players to park the bus but they were clearly under instructions to stay compact and mostly behind the ball. Every time Chelsea fancied a breather Antonio Rüdiger or Danny Drinkwater would dally on the ball near the halfway line, challenging United to break out of their confines, and the action would be effectively paused until the home side sent a token runner forward.
Chelsea held the initiative early on, in other words. Conte’s side deserved to take the lead on the half-hour because they had shown far more enterprise in attack by that point. They could have gone in front after four minutes but Álvaro Morata hit the bar instead of claiming the goal of the season from Marcos Alonso’s outrageously good volleyed cross. It was clear by that stage that Chelsea would be providing the exhibition football, United the collar work in the form of disciplined defending and occasional counters, yet despite the excellence of Willian’s opening goal the home defence held firm for the rest of the afternoon.
Few would have put much money on that after watching Willian win the ball in his own penalty area, set Hazard free from the centre circle then advance into the box to rifle the return past David de Gea. But the truth was that Chelsea created several similarly promising situations without managing to take the game decisively beyond United.
Hazard had a chance right at the end of the first half, for instance, another good opportunity at the start of the second, and between those a wonderful run and pass from Willian created an opening that Morata was unable to accept. United were nothing like as incisive, yet there were signs, albeit small ones, of a growing understanding between Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez even before they combined for the equaliser.
Once back in the game the pair began to enjoy themselves; it was a Sánchez cross that brought the acrobatic volley from Lukaku that Thibaut Courtois had to tip over the bar. Mourinho could also claim credit for making an effective substitution when sending on Lingard but chose afterwards to dwell on the team performance rather than picking out individuals.
“I wasn’t expecting us to create a lot of chances but you could see we were organised and we worked hard,” he said. It might not be the swashbuckling style United followers have come to expect, but it was enough to see off Chelsea and leave Conte complaining his side need to be more clinical. Lukaku’s shift was workmanlike rather than exceptional though, had he been playing in blue, as Conte hoped last summer, the journey back to London might have been a happier one.