If Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United career was a television show, their 3-2 victory over Newcastle United could be a good candidate for a new pilot episode. The question still remains though – will the show be renewed for an entire season? Fortunately for the Portuguese manager, he has the opportunity to script an even more historic episode which might just give him a new lease on this show that everyone has high expectations off but has seen a serious drop in ratings over the last couple of months. At the same time, it could also lead to a season finale that proves worse than what the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother dished out.
Mourinho can either count his blessings or curse his luck – his shot at redemption is in familiar surroundings, the Stamford Bridge, where, in his own words, he won “three Premier League titles, three, more than any other current managers. Respect, respect, respect.” It is the third time he is going there as United boss and so he knows the kind of cauldron that awaits him, the kind that no person can ever be ready for. At the same time, he can guide, inspire, and provide the tactical insights to his players about Chelsea’s style of play, that, perhaps, no other manager can, in the world.
Former friends – Hazard and Mourinho
It is an episode like none other, where Mourinho’s downfall at United could be written by the same figure, who was partly held responsible for ending his Chelsea days. “The last season under Mourinho was not enjoyable. We didn’t win, we got into a sort of routine, training without having fun, it was better for all parties that we parted ways,” the Belgian forward recently said in an interview. Hazard’s deteriorating form in Mourinho’s third season at Chelsea was one of the chief reasons why they came uncomfortably close to the relegation zone. This coupled with rumours of a rift between the two ended, rather abruptly, the Jose era at Stamford Bridge, just a few months after he led them to the Premier League title.
This season, Hazard has been in the form of his life. The 27-year-old has scored eight goals and made three assists in six appearances in all competitions for Chelsea. Under the new manager Maurizio Sarri, Hazard has broken the shackles. The presence of crafty Olivier Giroud inside the box sets him up to cut through the defenders, and he presses the ball hard enough, to make the goalkeeper go the other way, as he hits the ball into the back of the net. A troubled Manchester United defence comprising of Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, and Eric Bailly, will find it hard to contain the Belgian threat. But this is exactly where Mourinho has to play his cards right.
There is, perhaps, no other manager in Premier League, who knows Hazard better than the two-time Champions League winning manager. He, once, esteemed the Belgian as a better footballer than Cristiano Ronaldo. Mourinho had shown in the past that he can counter the threat posed by Hazard by placing a man alongside him throughout the game. It was Ander Herrera, who frustrated the Belgian over a year ago, as he did not allow him to get enough of the ball. United won the match 2-0.
“It was Mourinho’s plan more than me. We knew Hazard is their best player, the most difficult to mark – their most dangerous player. I was the one who was taking care of him. I just tried to not let him receive the ball easily; to make the game difficult for him,” Herrera said after the match.
Mourinho needs a similar strategy this time to deal with the Belgian. Former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic and Marouane Fellaini can play the defensive role in the midfield, to try and tackle the Hazard threat, while Paul Pogba can continue to mingle up front with Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial, to move forward the attack.
Under the Sarri regime, Chelsea have found the same level of threat they posed in the first season under Antonio Conte. The negativity of the previous season has been forgotten, and the looming question marks over Roman Abramovich’s ownership of the club has also been papered over. This is the Chelsea of the old, relying on the passing game, and known for their abilities to dig deep in tough situations to pull a result out of the hat. But the old style has been repackaged, with what is described as “Sarri-ball”, which have made the Blues a more confident side this season.
Under Sarri, Chelsea make quick passes when in possession and press higher on the pitch when the opposition have the ball. The strategy has allowed Jorginho to settle in midfield quickly and given N’Golo Kante a more intrusive role to play. It has also allowed David Luiz to return to the team’s starting line-up as the defenders being able to play the ball forward is critical to ‘Sarri-ball’ tactics.
The tactics have worked for the club – they are tied on points (20) after 8 games with Manchester City at the 2nd position, only behind by goal difference.
The flipside to this is that Chelsea’s defence tends to get opened up time and again, a phenomenon that was seen in the thriller against Arsenal. This is where Mourinho needs to pull up his socks and take advantage of the situation, by playing counter-attacking football. He would want his attacking players to exploit the gaps in the defence and make the most of goal scoring opportunities on offer.