For the second week running, United faced a tough game against a top-six rival and needed a win to keep pace with Manchester City. Unfortunately, United were defeated in a hard-fought game, outnumbered in midfield and undone by a powerful Morata header. It was a narrow defeat but it might have killed any hopes of a Premier League title.
Mourinho stuck with the same team that played against Spurs in a 3-5-2 formation. De Gea in goal, with the solid looking back three of Bailly, Jones and Smalling. Young and Valencia were either side of Herrera, Matic and the slightly more advanced Mkhitaryan. Lukaku and Rashford were chosen as the front two. Chelsea welcomed back Kante but dropped David Luiz from the squad, going with a back five of Zappacosta, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill and Alonso.
The game started at a frantic pace, with both teams looking to attack at the earliest opportunity. Just after five minutes, Chelsea had the ball in the net when Phil Jones shanked a cross past a static De Gea. The referee blew immediately, Morata was adjudged to have pushed Jones in the back just before he got his foot to it. The push was light at best, Jones should consider himself very lucky.
United went up the other end and had a great chance of their own. After some beautiful football down the right, Lukaku spread the ball out to Young on the left. He cut back onto his right foot and swung a gorgeous cross into the back post. Rashford met it but headed it over the bar. The replay showed that he shut his eyes as he rose to make contact, had he kept them open the Reds may have been a goal up.
Bailly had started the game man marking Hazard as he approached the United box. The Belgian seemed to be wise to this and had started drifting deep and wide to pull the Ivorian out of the defensive line. Bakayoko was the beneficiary, steaming forward into the large hole in the United back line. But the Frenchman missed his big chance when he skewed Zappacosta’s cross high and wide.
The game was end to end and being played at an incredible speed. There were strong challenges, pushing, pulling, stomping sprints, players being pushed into microphones; it was an amazing spectacle. The crowd were pumped, the players were up for a battle and the referee was allowing little niggly challenges to go rather than pulling players up.
Lukaku then went close with a curled shot from the edge of the box. However, he didn’t hit it wide enough and Courtois got down easily and palmed it away from danger. Chelsea went right up the other end and had a shot themselves, Hazard cutting inside and smashing an attempt into the palms of De Gea. The Spaniard’s parry went straight up in the air, dropping to an offside Fabregas.
After the nonsense first half hour, Chelsea started to get a hold of the ball, Fabregas and Hazard controlling the game. United were lacking anyone with the vision and bravery to find their attackers. However, Chelsea were mainly limited to shots from the edge of the box, save a really dangerous header from Christensen off a corner. The Dane got the run on his marker Herrera but failed to get his head over the ball, clearing the header into the crowd.
The second half started how the first half ended, with Chelsea on top and controlling the ball through Fabregas and Hazard. United were solid at the back but being completely overrun in midfield, Mkhitaryan failing to drop back and help out Matic and Herrera when Chelsea poured forward. Mkhitaryan has been poor for a few weeks now and there’s really no reason for him still being selected, especially as we’ve seen Lingard play that same role so well against Swansea.
Chelsea then gave United a major warning of what was to come, a ball delivered in from deep on the left found an unmarked Hazard in the penalty area who volleyed straight at De Gea. It was a big miss, but a minute later, Chelsea scored. Azpilicueta bent a looping cross into the area from 35 yards out on the right-hand side. Morata, completely unmarked between the edge of the box and the penalty spot, nodded a beautiful looped header into the top corner. Replays revealed that Smalling had been dragged one way by Bakayoko while Bailly had been pulled the other by Hazard, leaving the Spaniards alone in the box. Perhaps it had been unwise to man-mark Hazard.
Soon after, Jose made his move, hooking Mkhitaryan and the booked Jones for Fellaini and Martial. United were now lined up in a 4-3-3, with Martial and Rashford either side of Lukaku and Fellaini, Matic and Herrera together in a middle three.
Fellaini’s half hour on the field was his United career in microcosm. Soon after coming on, his first touch laid the ball into the path of an onrushing Chelsea midfielder, Smalling having to come across and clean up his mess. He then managed to get booked for barging into Morata. Later, he was ponderous with the ball 30 yards from goal, Bakayoko dispossessing him and running through on goal. With United chasing the game in the dying moments, Bailly dropped the ball onto Fellaini’s chest, which he perfectly brought down but then scuffed his shot into the ground.
He is a big physical presence and he’s possibly the best in the world at controlling the ball with his chest. But that doesn’t make you a Manchester United player. When United needed someone to come on and make a difference they turned to Fellaini. Unfortunately, he somehow managed to make things worse. Couldn’t United have kept Pereira and Fosu-Mensah at the club, rather than play this giant tree?
Despite the changes, United were still unable to control the ball or find the three attackers, who remained high up the field at all times. There was no flow to United’s passing or control of the midfield, the three central players too workmanlike to assert their authority. The game then devolved into a series of fouls, with Chelsea happy to counter.
Hazard went close with fifteen minutes to go, but just after his chance Fabregas was taken off for Drinkwater and Chelsea dropped deeper. The new space allowed United to push forward but they were still unable to besiege the Chelsea back line. In the last ten minutes, United had a flurry of chances, Fellaini failing to meet a Rashford cross, Rashford himself snapping at a shot from the edge of the D and shaving the wall from a free kick. But in truth, other than the aforementioned Fellaini chance in the final five minutes, the Reds never looked like scoring.
This was a poor performance and a big defeat in the context of United’s title challenge. They’re now eight points behind a rampant Manchester City and although it is only the start of November, it looks like the chances of winning the league have gone. Still, this is a United team missing a host of first-team players and crucially, they went away to one of the big teams in the league and attempted to win the game. United enter the international break with dampened spirits, let’s hope they return ready for a fight and with a fit Paul Pogba. They’re going to need him.