Louis van Gaal declared that his team’s performance in their 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge on Saturday was Manchester United’s best of the season. “I see that we are improving every week and when you can play in Chelsea like this, as the dominant team, then I am very happy with that,” he said, before expressing his disappointment at the result.
Wayne Rooney echoed his manager (“We dominated the game”), and the raw statistics would appear to back up their view. United had 67 percent possession, 15 shots to Chelsea’s seven, won more balls in the air, had more corners and throw-ins — indeed, the only statistical categories Chelsea led in were tackles and fouls. Well, apart from the rather important one that actually decided the game.
http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=intl:2407034Rooney and Van Gaal may think their team dominated the 90 minutes, but that very much depends on your definition of domination. If it means having the majority of the ball and some nice stats, then the United men can take comfort. If it means whose plan did the game most resemble, then Jose Mourinho takes home the moral victory as well as the actual one. United may have controlled possession of the ball, but it was Chelsea who controlled the game.
This was the textbook Mourinho performance, an approach from which not losing was the aim and winning an added bonus, which is by no means an insult. Nobody does this sort of thing better than Mourinho, placing the emphasis on nullifying the opposition and trusting the creative talents in his side to conjure something, which they did when Oscar’s smart back-heel and Eden Hazard’s cool finish provided the only goal. Kurt Zouma was detailed to keep an eye on Marouane Fellaini, leaving Nemanja Matic to perform his normal role and Cesc Fabregas to break further forward and help Hazard with the creative burden.
The game was also a testament to how Mourinho has either drilled or worn down his players, depending on your point of view. Men like Oscar and Fabregas were largely creative talents, but Mourinho has converted them to his more workmanlike church, as is the case with players such as Willian and indeed Zouma, a youngster still learning his trade as a centre-back but willing and able to play where the team demands.
Critics might use this game as further evidence that Mourinho is a negative manager, but really it displays his ability to get his charges dancing to whatever tune he decides to play, and what an adaptable manager he is. For this is not a vintage Chelsea side, as their travails in Europe have shown, but through the manager’s organisation and flashes of brilliance from Hazard, Fabregas and Diego Costa, they’ve basically wrapped up the Premier League title by April.
Yet even with this goal all but achieved, you get the impression that the Portuguese will be vaguely annoyed that they have “only” won the league and Capital One Cup this season.
There won’t be a drastic change in approach — if at all — from Mourinho for next season, but there is no question his team has room for improvement. For a start, the team has shown something of an over-reliance on Hazard. On Saturday he was their most important player not only because of his particular skills, but because without him there was no “out ball,” no escape from the anticipated pressure. And given the second half of Fabregas’ season being nowhere near as good as the first, and the absence of Costa, Hazard’s importance to Chelsea has only increased.
Which quite possibly explains Mourinho’s conversation with Hazard, recounted on Saturday: “The day before the United game I told him: ‘This game we will never lose. Never.’ But we needed to win. He understands clearly that, especially in a moment where the team doesn’t have all its power, when the game becomes strategic, his talent is fundamental for the team. He copes better with the responsibility.”