Match Review: FA Cup Quarterfinal – Chelsea 1 – 0 Manchester United

Updated: March 14, 2017

José Mourinho was desperate for revenge after his side received a 4-0 thrashing the last time he played Chelsea, but it wasn’t to be. The Reds fell to a rare N’Golo Kanté effort from range after being forced to defend for long stretches following Ander Herrera’s red card. Marcus Rashford was United’s brightest spark, and was unlucky not to equalize against Thibaut Courtois in a 1-on-1 situation. Otherwise, Courtois’ goal remained unthreatened, and Chelsea’s only regret would have been not adding more to the scoreline.

Mourinho’s back six

Mourinho deviated from his usual 4-2-3-1 formation in order to avoid Chelsea’s typical effectiveness against teams who play with a back four. Instead, like Pochettino and Guardiola did before him pretty effectively, he went to a back six. What didn’t change was his usual style of playing a reactionary game based on the opponent’s strengths: United used man-marking all over the pitch, especially on Chelsea’s ‘danger men’, Willian and Eden Hazard. This left Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to fill in the fullback positions when Phil Jones and Matteo Darmian, the two tasked with Hazard and Willian respectively, were forced to leave their position and follow their men.

This worked perfectly for the first 15 minutes. Nemanja Matic and Kanté were suffocated in midfield, and Willian and Hazard were too tightly marked to have any influence. The key to unlocking United’s defense, however, was provided by the two players it was meant to suppress. Willian and Hazard, in an attempt to find more space and shake their makers, started dropping deeper and varying their runs to an even greater extent than usual.

Willian intelligently worked combinations with Costa and was particularly effective when using dummies in which he’d let a pass run through to Costa before spinning off Darmian and getting the ball back from the Spaniard with United’s goal in front of him. Hazard too was able to get on the ball with space to run into, which lead to Herrera’s sending off and the game shifting in Chelsea’s favour.

Hazard targeted

It doesn’t take a hardcore fan or detail-obsessed analyst to tell you that Eden Hazard is the core of Chelsea’s attack. Nobody understands this better than Mourinho: the Belgian was the driving force in the second half of Chelsea’s 2014-15 title-winning campaign, at times carrying the team on his shoulders creatively. Under Antonio Conte, Chelsea’s attack is much more balanced. This hasn’t diminished Hazard’s potency, however. If anything, it’s added to it. Teams have tried and failed to defend him all season, and it’s clear Mourinho went into this game with the intent to shut down his former club’s most creative player.

As mentioned before, it was Phil Jones who was mostly tasked with this unenviable duty. But as the game progressed, and Hazard’s movement became more and more unpredictable, it was down to a variety of players to try to stop the Belgian. The first foul came in the 14th minute: Herrera desperately pulled back on Hazard after the Spaniard got turned on the halfway line.

From then it only got worse, culminating, appropriately, in another Herrera trip. Oliver, having seen Hazard pushed over by Jones just moments earlier, had had enough. Herrera saw a second yellow — the first was also for a foul on Hazard — and Chelsea were free to completely dominate the game, forcing United into an impotent 6-2-1 shape.

Ironically, hacking Hazard is just what Mourinho had detested as Chelsea manager. Mourinho spent countless press conferences complaining about teams targeting the Belgian, whom he had always claimed was criminally under-protected. Hopefully Mourinho learned a lesson at Stamford Bridge: Be careful what you wish for.

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