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EPL 2016/17: Antonio Conte's Chelsea sound title warning with 4-0 drubbing of Manchester United

991   //    26 Oct 2016, 09:27 IST
Chelsea players
The Chelsea players celebrate a goal scored against the Red Devils

“This game was very important for our ambitions. After two defeats against two great teams like Liverpool and Arsenal, today it was very important to offer a good answer and win against a very strong team like United.

“For this reason, we took three points but we won against a strong team. After this type of win, usually it increases your confidence.”, said Antonio Conte after the crunch tie on Sunday night that they won 4-0. This was Manchester United’s heaviest defeat at Stamford Bridge in 17 years.

If there was any moment that echoed his statement, then it probably would have been when Eden Hazard walked on the pitch with the ball at his feet almost stopping for a few seconds facing three Manchester United players, who stood off him.

That moment, when the game seemingly slowed down for a few seconds and there was just Hazard and the ball at his feet, typified Chelsea’s flowing confidence. Hazard then turned to find N’Golo Kante; the former Leicester City man then found Nemanja Matic who slid a first-time ball through to the Belgian, who had made a run inside the box and found himself 1 v 1 with Chris Smalling. Hazard jinked inside on his right foot and slotted the ball passed a bemused David De Gea in goal. That made it 3-0 and sank any hopes of a Manchester United come back. 

A phenomenal performance by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge against a hapless Manchester United managed by Jose Mourinho was one of the best performances by the Blues in their recent history. 

Manchester United found themselves in all sorts of trouble 30 seconds in to the game when Pedro was sent through by a fantastic spot and pass by Marcos Alonso. David de Gea tried,  in vain, to pull off a Manuel Neuer-esque clearance but simply didn’t get to the ball in time. Pedro scored and made it 1-0 and Jose Mourinho’s master plan fell flat on its face. 

Jose Mourinho, the self-proclaimed “special one”, the prodigal figure so revered at Chelsea, was playing his first game as the manager of another Premier League club at Stamford Bridge. Sparks were bound to fly and the game surely would hit the boiling point at some time or the other. 

Lauded for his tactical acumen and his side’s rock solid defending against Liverpool the previous week, many expected Mourinho to perform the same ‘job’ on Chelsea as well, but his master plan went out of the window within 30 seconds after kick off. Had David De Gea got to the ball and made a clearance, things would have perhaps panned out differently. 

Panic at the Bridge

Before the game started, there was hope and expectation from the Manchester United faithful, within 30 seconds there was panic, which United never fully recovered from. By the time the game ended Mourinho had suffered his heaviest defeat in the Premier League. It was certainly a mixed bag of emotions for the former Chelsea man returning to the ground where he made the infamous unbeaten home record as sections of the crowd booed him chanting “You’re not the special one”.

What was alarming in the opening exchanges was the appalling defending on display by the Manchester United defence. Daley Blind was standing still allowing Pedro to get to the ball and then attempting to scurry back. For that matter, the horrible positioning by Chris Smalling before Marcos Alonso’s ball over the top was also suspect. The United defence was just not concentrating enough in those opening moments.

When it came to set pieces, there was a small warning for United when Hazard was found free just inside the box, he fired his shot wide but the away side didn’t pay heed to it. Later, while defending another Chelsea corner, it was almost as if the entire Manchester United defence was ball watching as they just watched and stood still for Gary Cahill to smack the ball into the roof of the net. 

Manchester United’s defending

Manchester United defence
United were horrendous in defending

Manchester United’s defending was utterly shambolic. They were out of position, refused to make a telling tackle and simply stood off their opponents. Smalling was rated with a zero by the Manchester Evening News. That’s right a zero. We don’t think that has ever happened. He was a shadow of the defender that played against Liverpool and it probably was his “worst performance in two years”.

Daley Blind was made to look like a school boy and was rated with a 1. He was equally pathetic in defence and it was also his worst performance in a United jersey. One might wonder if he got any sleep the previous night because that’s all he did throughout the ninety minutes. 

Eric Bailly was the best out of United’s defenders and kept Diego Costa at bay, but his team mates let him down. This was only the second time in Premier League history that a Mourinho side had conceded four or more goals. If there was any positive, then it was Antonio Valencia’s performance at right back, he was the only player that did anything good for United. 

Chelsea’s 3-4-2-1 formation

It’s more of a 3-4-2-1 when the fullbacks overlap and Hazard and Pedro are tucked in with Costa alone up front. If Hull City was the litmus test and Leicester City was the warm up then surely after this brilliant performance Conte’s 3-4-2-1 will be the way Chelsea line up for the rest of the season. This system suits them well because firstly, there is almost always an extra man while defending in the center. David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta look like unshakable defenders after this switch.

David Luiz, in particular, has the freedom to defend and roam at will knowing that there is cover. Hazard and Costa are combining well and are happy up front. The wing backs Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses are playing well too, but it is Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante that are really enjoying their football in this system. At work rate, this formation allows them to cover the pitch with a lesser burden, making them an even more lethal combination. These two are arguably the best two defensive midfielders in the Premier League. 

On Sunday, the pair of midfielders dominated the 139 million  Manchester United midfield with class and guile. Pogba disappeared again; Fellaini was a bystander and Ander Herrera could do nothing. Kante and Matic recycled possession well and covered the length and breadth the pitch nullifying United’s midfield.

Kante would finally get his first goal for Chelsea after receiving the ball from a clever Hazard flick. The way he so effortlessly beat Smalling and finished to De Gea’s right almost like he couldn’t believe it, further highlighted how poor Smalling was in the game. He stood off him again without making a tackle. But that being said, Kante scored a well deserved first goal for the Blues after a string of man of the match performances. 

Mourinho vs Conte: Round 1

Antonio Conte
There were some heated words exchanged between the duo

Mourinho and the incident with Conte after the game took much of the talk away from Manchester United’s woeful performance. Mind you; this man is the master of smokescreens and distraction tactics. It remains to be seen if this incident will escalate into a fierce rivalry between the two managers, but nonetheless, Antonio Conte was rather chuffed about his side’s emphatic victory, and rightly so. 

While on the other side Jose Mourinho was left ruing his side’s poor defending and fair share of errors branding them as “incredible” mistakes. 

There is certainly bad blood brewing between the two with those private words exchanged. 

When accused by Mourinho of “humiliation” in the post match interview Conte said, "We were 4-0 up and our crowd was flat. I wanted our supporters to applaud our team because they deserved it."  

Antonio Conte finally delivered in a big game. Chelsea’s players played their best football match in years and performed at peak level. This is what Chelsea are capable of when in full gear. In what was a surgical strike and a half by the Blues, Chelsea and Conte have sounded a title warning to the rest of the Premier League and will go from strength to strength after this game, proving last season was just a one-off. 

While Chelsea will look to do similar damage to West Ham and Southampton in their next two fixtures. Meanwhile, United fans are wondering if the real Manchester United would please stand up. They play Manchester City in the EFL league cup next. Mourinho and Manchester United will look to beat City which could re-instill some confidence in his abilities as a manager and leader.

However, if United should lose, Mourinho will certainly come under intense scrutiny. It’s all down to his players –  they must pick themselves up and put in a good performance. While Chelsea, on the other hand, look to go from strength to strength after this victory. 

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