Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge is the main storyline in the Premier League this weekend. Sacked less than a year ago, Mourinho will face Antonio Conte for the first time and attempt to overpass his former employers in the league table.
It will be United’s second consecutive away match against the traditional top four and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Mourinho’s men play on the counter-attack once again. United added power to the midfield by moving to a 4-3-3, with Marouane Fellaini joining Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to frustrate Liverpool at Anfield, and it’s likely he’ll adopt a similar approach here.
‘I knew that, working in England and staying in the Premier League, sooner or later I had to play against Chelsea and go to Stamford Bridge,’ Mourinho said. ‘The computer has decided it is to go now. And here we go.’
‘I don’t have to analyze their start to the season,’ he added. ‘But you look to the table and you see where they are. They are in a good position. So the start of the season cannot be bad if they are where they are.’
Although Chelsea pose a considerably different threat going forward, it would be surprising to see Mourinho revert back to a 4-2-3-1. Ander Herrera has performed excellent in a deeper role in recent weeks, but with Paul Pogba likely given the license to push forward in a midfield duo, the former would be forced to cover too much space in central areas.
It’s likely Fellaini will retain his place in the midfield trio, but Mourinho’s main decision is where he’ll position the personnel. At Anfield, Pogba operated closest to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and though he rarely influenced the match, the Frenchman did create the best chance for his Swedish teammate.
Herrera is unlikely to feature as the no.10 despite his goal threat around the box, and Mourinho could opt to utilize Fellaini’s aerial presence to fluster Chelsea’s back-line. Gary Cahill has struggled against Ibrahimovic in the past, and Mourinho could instruct the Swede or Fellaini to isolate the out-of-form England international or target David Luiz.
The other major decision involves the wide positions – Mourinho’s traditional no.10’s have operated in wider positions this season, and assuming he doesn’t utilize a 4-2-3-1, this may be his preference against Chelsea. Ashley Young’s efficient performance in a defensive winger role should merit another start on the left, but the big question is whether Mourinho opts for Juan Mata’s guile, Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s creativity and transitional threat, or Marcus Rashford’s direct dribbling on the opposite flank.
United’s back four, on the other hand, should remain unchanged. Daley Blind and Antonio Valencia have performed well at the full-back position, while Eric Baily and Chris Smalling’s physical stature will provide a stern test against the league’s leading goal-scorer Diego Costa.
Chelsea’s mini-resurgence following two embarrassing defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal involved Conte shifting his side’s shape to a 3-4-2-1. However, Manchester United’s visit to Stamford Bridge will display whether the system is a long-term solution for the Blues.
The return of John Terry could see Cesar Azpilicueta move to a right wing-back role, with Gary Cahill moving to the right of David Luiz. This would provide interesting battles in wide areas with Ashley Young responsible for Azpilicueta, whereas United must be wary of Marcos Alonso’s positioning on the left.
Nonetheless, Chelsea’s centre-backs should cope with Ibrahimovic’s threat in a 3v1 situation, as the Swede lacks natural pace to get behind Conte’s defence. However, the threat of Martial and Rashford breaking into wide areas beyond the wing-backs or into the channels to isolate exterior centre-backs could prove costly.
N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic are expected to continue in midfield, and the former has gradually improved playing slightly ahead of the latter. Chelsea’s midfield possesses tenacity, strength, ball-winning skills, and the willingness to press the opposing midfielders which is why Mourinho may be tempted to summon Fellaini.
Conte will have Oscar and Willian available for selection, but Victor Moses’ positive performance last weekend may merit a start alongside Eden Hazard. Hazard remains the key player, here, though, and may be the reason Mourinho sticks with a 4-3-3 due to his new positional freedom to roam between the lines or break beyond the centre-backs. Once an individual battle between Hazard and Valencia will now require an additional midfielder or centre-back to negate the Belgian.
This also is another opportunity for Costa to provide a big-game moment, following disappointing performances against Laurent Koscielny and Joel Matip in previous weeks. Mourinho may replicate the successful approach of man-marking the Spaniard tightly and encouraging his centre-backs to sacrifice fouls away from the box. Smalling and Bailly have developed a suitable partnership with the latter sweeping danger when required, but against an excellent all-rounder in Costa, this will be no easy task for the United duo.
“I think that it arrives at the right moment for us,” said Conte.
“It’s important to continue this way. The last game we beat a good team that last season won the title and this was important. On Sunday we face another great team. I want to see progress compared to Liverpool and Arsenal. I am confident about this. I saw fantastic commitment this week.”
Chelsea will likely intend to dominate possession and peg United into their own half, but that’s not an issue for Mourinho who will aim to l avoid defeat on his return to Stamford Bridge. Traditionally, United have leant towards width in bigger matches, and here, this appears to be a clear outlet to success.
But limiting Costa and Hazard’s threat will be Mourinho’s main priority against a Chelsea side that’s fairly average in terms of creating chances from open-play. Therefore, Mourinho’s caution and intent to disrupt may lead to another drab encounter involving two sides that will focus on defensive structure, as neither manager can afford to lose another game.