Manchester United came from a goal down to win 2-1 against Chelsea at Old Trafford on Sunday, repeating last season’s result to reclaim second place from Liverpool, while going six points clear of Chelsea themselves. Willian had put the Blues in front just after the half-hour mark, after Alvaro Morata had hit the bar in the opening exchanges, but United roared back. Romelu Lukaku equalized within seven minutes, exhibiting immense strength to withstand pressure from two Chelsea defenders and slide home, and the Belgian turned provider later, sending in an inch-perfect cross for substitute Jesse Lingard to place a header into the corner, sparking wild celebrations all across Old Trafford.
Here are three of the major takeaways from the game
Lukaku the winner in the battle of the #9s
Back in November, Alvaro Morata had scored a brilliant header at Stamford Bridge to give Chelsea the win over United. The well-documented summer transfer saga that enveloped these two clubs regarding Morata and Lukaku needs no repetition here; suffice it to say that both strikers would be judged against each other’s numbers for the whole season, and perhaps for the entirety of their careers on these shores. At that point in the season, Morata looked like the better buy; he was dynamic, aggressive and a potent finisher, while the goals had started to dry up for Lukaku after a blistering start to his Old Trafford career. Fast forward three months and the roles have been reversed; Lukaku has looked reinvigorated in recent months, finding his scoring touch as well as improving his general involvement and contribution to build-up play by leaps and bounds. Morata, on the other hand, has been blighted by injuries and personal issues, all of which have ensured that his form has gone off a cliff. Here too, the Spaniard could only hit the bar early on, when a goal may have changed the course of the game, while his late “goal” was chalked off for a marginal offside goal. Lukaku, on the other hand, showed great desire and persistence to hold off Marcos Alonso and finish past Thibaut Courtois, while also exhibiting his new-found skills as a provider when setting up Lingard for the winner. The goal and his overall performance also served to silence doubts about Lukaku’s big-game record, having not scored a single goal in six games against the other members of the Premier League’s “big six” before this game. He will need to repeat the trick when Liverpool visit in two weeks, in order for those doubts to be fully banished. Nevertheless, Lukaku now has 22 goals this season, while Morata has 12; an emphatic verdict for anyone still looking to compare the two strikers.
Hazard kept under wraps by McTominay
The corresponding fixture last season had seen something of a tactical masterclass from Jose Mourinho, as he reminded the footballing world that his ability to win a one-off football match remains unparalleled. Ander Herrera was instrumental to that performance, as he performed a “job” on Eden Hazard, while setting up United’s first goal and scoring the second with a deflected effort. He was not available to Mourinho for this game, so Scott McTominay was detailed with keeping Hazard quiet. The 21-year old has enjoyed a run in the side of late, as he seems to have earned Mourinho’s trust with his work-rate and willingness to get stuck in. The academy lad was impressive on Saturday as well, as he shackled Hazard, not allowing the Belgian time or space to conjure anything. Hazard had only 67 touches of the ball; Willian, in comparison, had 91. McTominay’s brief to spoil is illustrated by the fact that he had only 49 touches of the ball, the lowest of any of United’s outfield players. While McTominay did fail to track Willian for Chelsea’s goal, and it was Hazard who got credited with the assist, overall the Belgian did little to hurt United, as reinforced by the fact that he was substituted with 20 minutes to go, and a lot of credit for that goes to United’s newest academy star.
Mourinho’s changes solve problem of his own making
United’s lineup looked like a standard 4-3-3 when the team sheets were announced; however, within minutes of kickoff, it was evident that Mourinho was attempting another tactical hoodwink on Antonio Conte, as it seemed as if United’s midfield had lined up in a square; a sort of 4-2-2-2, designed to deny Chelsea space in the middle and match their midfield system, with Drinkwater, Kante, Hazard and Willian all playing centrally. There was a chronic lack of width to United’s play, as Matic and McTominay shadowed Willian and Hazard respectively, while Sanchez and Pogba tracked Kante and Drinkwater; only Martial’s sporadic bursts to the left provided a wide option at times. This set-up stifled United’s attacking output, and they were only shaken into a response after Willian’s opener. The aforementioned lack of width did play its part in United’s equaliser, as Martial, Lukaku, Matic and Sanchez were all involved in the intricate move on the edge of the Chelsea box. Mourinho’s introduction of Lingard for Martial was to prove a catalyst, as it prompted greater interchanging and movement between United’s front three. Lukaku’s cross for Lingard’s winner came from the right, which was nominally where the substitute was playing. This ability to influence the game through his introductions from the bench is one of Mourinho’s hallmarks, and he employed this to maximum effect again on Saturday.