When Manchester United were knocked out of the FA Cup by Chelsea in March it was Ander Herrera’s sending-off which had tilted the Stamford Bridge clash in the home side’s favour. Jose Mourinho’s reshaped formation which had until then both kept Chelsea at bay and caused a few problems was quickly undermined once the Spaniard had been shown a 30th-minute red card.
So the reaction was somewhat curious on Sunday when Mourinho was widely slated on social media upon the release of a similar-looking teamsheet for the league clash with Antonio Conte’s side at Old Trafford. Despite this time having 28-goal Zlatan Ibrahimovic available for selection, the Portuguese again went for a back three and counted on the pace of Marcus Rashford in attack.
But his most crucial decision was employing Herrera as a man-marker on Eden Hazard, and the midfielder delivered his most telling contribution of the season in leading United to a 2-0 victory over the league leaders.
It was a Mourinho masterclass of the highest order, and while many had considered his selection to be an admission that their top-four assault was all-but over the reality was that the Portuguese was actually handing the remainder of the Premier League a timely blueprint on how to stifle the previously-imperious Chelsea attack.
In shutting off Hazard, United controlled the supply line to Diego Costa and killed much of Chelsea’s effectiveness. Herrera rarely ventured more than a couple of yards out of Hazard’s shadow and it left Conte’s side with few clues as to how to breach Mourinho’s reinforced defence.
With no Marcos Alonso on the left Chelsea had little in the way of energy in support of Hazard, while there were few alternatives in terms of opening up the United back three on the ball with Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante offering nothing as passing outlets.
Knowing how reliant his old club are on the Belgian, Mourinho believed that by pinning Herrera to Hazard for the duration his side could close off all avenues to their own goal and look to hit Chelsea on the break. His plan worked to perfection, and it just so happened that Herrera was at the heart of United’s goals too.
First the Spaniard made the most of a favourable handball decision to burst past a static opposition and fire a ball into the path of Rashford, who tucked the ball across Asmir Begovic. Then he drilled home a shot himself with the aid of a deflection off Kurt Zouma as a complacent Chelsea back line failed to respond when Ashley Young’s cross wasn’t fully cleared.
Herrera is a big favourite on the Old Trafford terraces for his constant shows of commitment, yet it is arguable that United have never really found the very best of him until his performance on Sunday. Before Chelsea came to town there had been the odd excellent offensive showing coupled with occasional energetic defensive displays, but this was Herrera in all-rounder mode and he could hardly have been more influential.
And in doing so he and Mourinho have provided the key to unsettling what had previously appeared to be an unstoppable title juggernaut. Chelsea were neutered in attack, having their first shot in first-half stoppage time, constantly stretched at the back and also bullied for long stretches as Marcos Rojo, Eric Bailly, Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba went toe-to-toe with Chelsea’s imposing forces.
Mourinho hasn’t got everything right since arriving at Old Trafford – far from it. He has looked like a man still getting to know his squad to some extent at times as United have been left playing catch-up in the race for fourth place. But on Sunday he showed that nobody knows Chelsea better than he does, and when his plans are followed to the letter he can still be the Premier League’s master tactician.