Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United yesterday was one of the most important results of the season, not just because it put them one step closer to winning the Premier League title, but also due to the manner of the win.
The game showed how Chelsea could potentially go onto more success in the near future, should Jose Mourinho find ways to fix the few flaws in the side. Namely, a lack of width going forward and a tendency to lose concentration at the back at crucial moments, both of which were evident at Stamford Bridge yesterday evening and both appear to be problems Mourinho is keen to fix once the transfer window opens for the summer.
In the first half, Chelsea were far too narrow and Fabregas found it difficult to make the defence-splitting passes that we came to enjoy and expect in the first half of the season.
It wasn’t until later on, as United pushed further and further up the pitch, that Chelsea threatened as an attacking unit when they were able to break away from defence. At the back, although Chelsea defended brilliantly for the most part, there moments of danger which were wholly avoidable. One such incident was the header from Wayne Rooney which went over the bar- the England captain being left with a yard of space on all sides after he his run wasn’t tracked.
Had that resulted in an equaliser, it would have been reminiscent of the goal from David Luiz that cost Chelsea further progression in the Champions League. As it is, it highlighted Chelsea’s at times defensive frailties against the very best opposition which comes as a surprise if one thinks back to Mourinho’s first spell as Chelsea manager when the team conceded just 12 goals in the 2004/05 season. Conceding soft goals has, as well as progress in Europe, cost Chelsea points away at Man Utd, Spurs and Southampton, and home and away to Man City to name just a few, so this is bound to be something to be addressed once the season is over.
Saying that, however, yesterday’s performance showed once again Chelsea’s potential to shut out the very best, should these errors be rectified for good. The Reds, despite having 70% of possession, created very little. The closest the away side came had David de Gea celebrating – only for him to realise that Rooney had put his effort wide. That was practically it in the first half, and the biggest fright of all for Chelsea was in stoppage time when Herrera threw himself to the ground and referee Dean’s whistle blew – only to give a free kick the other way as he got the call spot on.
There were periods in the game where one could not help but think back to 2012 and those three unforgettable but unbelievably stressful evenings in the Champions League in London, Barcelona and Munich when a vastly inferior Chelsea side sat back for much of the game only to launch a decisive blow to their opponent when it was least expected. The differences in individual quality between Chelsea and their opponent were not quite the same yesterday, and Mourinho’s readiness to adopt such pragmatic tactics is, was and will continue to be the source of some frustration to Chelsea fans who wish to see the team play with an abandon worthy of Premiership champions.
They should remember that this year, as it has been in the past, Mourinho’s tactical brain has been perhaps the club’s biggest asset, even among the footballing skill of Hazard, Fabregas, Costa etc. Going forward, it is likely to remain that way, and yesterday was evidence of that as the Portuguese outsmarted his one time tutor, Louis van Gaal. Mourinho has revitalised the career of John Terry and made a star out of Kurt Zouma, superb yesterday as the second holding midfielder alongside Nemanja Matic, and given balance to a team that only two years ago resembled a poor impression of a random team from Spain.
He will pit his talent against another old foe next week in the shape of Arsene Wenger, against whom he has never lost, and against whose team Chelsea will probably have to spend most of the time without the ball once again and will rely on the midfield trio of Hazard, Oscar and Arsenal old boy Fabgregas to score when they have the space, it being unlikely that Didier Drogba will return to the form that made him Arsenal’s most feared opponent in the recent past.
The Ivorian, who can’t be questioned for his work rate, is waning faster than most expected after returning in the summer. As it is unlikely that either Remy or Costa will be fit to face the Gunners, it is likely that he will slip back into a deeper position to mark Sanchez and co. out of the game, the way he did with Rooney for the majority of yesterday.
It is probable and almost certain that Chelsea will win the league this season. They have been assisted by the collapse of Manchester City and the slow rebuilding going on at Old Trafford and the Emirates, but yesterday’s match showed once again how Chelsea are perhaps the most balanced team in England, the one that combines work rate and skill better than anyone else, and also this country’s best hope of European success in the near future. The bulk of the credit for that should go to one man.