Chelsea defeated Manchester United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening on a goal from Alvaro Morata.
So much of Sunday's result felt symbolic.
From United manager Jose Mourinho attempting to get into the head of Chelsea's Antonio Conte at the start of the match only for the Italian to turn to the main stand at the final whistle to rev up the crowd, on to Romelu Lukaku's one sight of goal getting saved while Morata, passed over by United in favor of Lukaku over the summer, struck the winner and Tiemoue Bakayoko, Chelsea's replacement for United's Nemanja Matic, manhandling the midfield, the symbolism was ripe throughout.
Tactics dictate game
Mourinho set his team up to negate Chelsea, looking for a similar performance to United's victory over the Blues last spring. Chris Smalling, Eric Bailly and Phil Jones made up a back three, with Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young on the wings. With Matic and Ander Herrera playing through the middle, United were prepared for the physical battle the game became.
As tackles flew in from both teams through the first half, each had chances to score, and it was surprising that neither could find a breakthrough. In particular, the Reds looked slightly lucky not to have conceded; Chelsea were dictating the pattern of the game, and despite chances for Marcus Rashford and Lukaku, United seemed second best.
Chelsea's superiority grew after the restart, and it became a question of when, rather than if, the Blues would take the lead. It came in the 56th minute when Phil Jones got sucked into midfield, leaving Morata wide open. A phenomenal ball into the box from Cesar Azpilicueta picked him out, and without a defender in sight, his header found the top corner.
Changes brought United back into the game
Soon after the goal, Mourinho changed the shape of his team, bringing Jones and Henrikh Mkhitaryan off for Marouane Fellaini and Anthony Martial. United shifted from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3, with Martial and Rashford flanking Lukaku up front. After the shift in formation, United started to come back into the game.
The game's final quarter was its most competitive, as United streamed forward in search of an equalizer and Chelsea looked like they might nick a goal on a counter attack. Rashford and Fellaini went close for United up one end while Morata and Bakayoko both had opportunities to put the result out of doubt. Despite the chances United created, it never felt like they would find the equalizer. Frankly, they were second best in almost every area of the pitch.
What has happened to Mkhitaryan?
There are two ways to view Mourinho's changes in the second period. The positive spin is that he diagnosed United's problems, and made smart changes that gave his side a chance to get a result. If Marcus Rashford's stoppage-time free kick does not clip the head of Morata on its way over the wall, we might now be talking about a different game. Unfortunately for United, Rashford's free kick was deflected just over the bar, and the Reds now sit eight points behind Manchester City, who defeated Arsenal earlier on Sunday.
Mourinho's team selection from the start did not get it done. Despite setting up to battle with Chelsea in midfield, without Paul Pogba United were overrun. No one could match Bakayoko, and while Nemanja Matic had a fine game for the Reds, he could not change the flow of play. Worst of all for United was the performance from Mkhitaryan, who was easy to miss on the field because he did so little.
Since his hot start to the season, Mkhitaryan has been anonymous of late, playing poorly for the last month. Considering how little United did going forward with him on the pitch, and how much better they looked after the shift in formation, Mourinho ought to be asked why Mkhitaryan started. He also should get asked why Martial only entered the game as a substitute.
Although the Frenchman missed his chance to get on the scoresheet against Benfica at the midweek, he was creative again, and besides Rashford always feels the most dangerous player on the field for United.
Martial's footwork has improved tremendously, leaving him with the ability to create and finish for himself, but also to provide scoring opportunities for teammates. As Mkhitaryan continues to scuffle, why hasn't Mourinho taken the chance on starting Lukaku, Rashford and Martial in the same team? While of course one of Rashford or Martial would need to play slightly out of position on the right wing, given Mkhitaryan's struggles it's time to see what those three could do together.
After the loss to Chelsea, the Reds find themselves eight points behind Manchester City, who remain unbeaten in the league. United will receive a boost in the next few weeks when talisman Pogba, who they have missed dearly, makes his return from injury. Yet, if the rest of the team does not raise their level, even his return might not be enough for them to keep City from running away with the title. The way that United are trending at the moment, they might be out of the title race once Christmas rolls around.