The Premier League title race was blown wide open as Manchester United stunned Chelsea with a 2-0 victory at Old Trafford on Sunday.
Antonio Conte’s league leaders were well beaten by Jose Mourinho’s resurgent Red Devils side, with goals from Marcus Rashford and Ander Herrera ensuring the gap at the top of the table remains at just four points.
Mourinho’s tactical set-up prior to the match came under much scrutiny, with the majority suggesting that a ‘weaker’ team selection signified the Portuguese head coach’s intention to prioritise United’s progression in the Europa League.
Nonetheless, if the lesson hasn’t previously be learnt; we should never write off a Mourinho side – no matter how under-strength.
Rather than folding over at the hands of the Champions-elect, the Manchester United eleven carried out their manager’s master plan to perfection, and instead emerged with a much-deserved three points.
This was a victory that maintained the host’s challenge for Champions League qualification while blowing the race for the title wide open.
Key to the Red Devils’ success was homegrown duo Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford.
With Mourinho looking to nullify a Chelsea side that has been so successful this season, the former Academy prospects proved a potent attacking force. Instructed to play as a front-two, in a 3-5-2 system, the pair ensured Chelsea’s defenders experienced a torrid afternoon at the office.
Despite being the away side, Chelsea will have been considered the more dominant team as they fell to a second successive defeat. Indeed, Antonio Conte’s side enjoyed 53.8% of the possession on Sunday afternoon, while completing 369 passes in comparison to United’s 314.
Mourinho will have been fully aware of this outcome, and he set up his side to counter, as a result. Knowing the visitors would experience the lion’s share of the ball, United would rely on the pace and athleticism of Rashford and Lingard to attack in behind Chelsea’s back-three.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing the lone centre-forward role – as he has done for much of the season – this would not have been possible.
Mourinho, being the astute thinker that he is, opted against familiarity, giving his homegrown attackers the opportunity to perform for the Old Trafford faithful, and they repaid his faith.
Lingard and Rashford have grown up through the Manchester United Academy ranks together and have seemingly struck un unbreakable bond, both on and off the pitch. The telepathic-like understanding between them was evident in their passing and movement, which was excellent throughout.
Rashford proved a menace down the right-hand channel, taking on both David Luiz and Gary Cahill, while Lingard played a more nomadic role. Tasked with creating space for his strike partner, the latter’s persistent movement displaced Chelsea’s centre-backs, allowing Rashford to perform his responsibilities between the lines.
Granted, Rashford was aided by the absence of Marcos Alonso at left-back for Chelsea, which left the visitors considerably more vulnerable down this side, but he must be credited for playing his role to perfection.
Instructed to run in behind Chelsea’s defence at every given opportunity, Rashford’s efforts paid dividends within the first ten minutes. Latching onto a perfect through ball played by Ander Herrera, the England international broke free of Luiz, before firing a low finish past Asmir Begovic in the Blues’ goal.
An often underappreciated aspect of Marcus Rashford’s game is his ability to compete on a physical level. Not only is he lightning fast, the 19-year-old possesses brute strength which enables him to go toe-to-toe with the top flight’s most accomplished defenders.
On multiple occasions at Old Trafford, he could be seen tussling – and coming out on top – against David Luiz and co. On one occasion, he showed surprising strength to hold off Luiz and N’Golo Kante before drawing a diving save from Asmir Begovic.
Following Lingard’s substitution in the second-half, Rashford found himself left to his own devices in the final third. Despite being isolated for much of this time, the 19-year-old continued to hold his own against Chelsea’s back-three – even causing further problems for them as the game moved into its dying embers.
Responsible for providing the firepower in the most exciting match Old Trafford has witnessed for some time, the combined performance of Lingard and Rashford will not be soon forgotten. The pace and movement of the duo offered the sort of threat that troubled Chelsea instantly while offering a return to the attacking days of old.
Manchester United came into this game having scored 46 times, 17 fewer than any other member of the Premier League’s top six and just one more than Bournemouth. Nonetheless, this frontline display – put on by the Red Devils academy duo – provided a gentle reminder of the abundant potential at Jose Mourinho’s disposal.
Whether the Portuguese head coach will opt to deploy the duo as a strike partnership again, prior to the end of the season, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, this performance against the current Premier League leaders will have been enough to prove to the Old Trafford boss that he has a very effective ‘Plan B’, should he so require.
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