How else to interpret Mourinho’s team selection other than a tacit admission from the Manchester United manager that Thursday’s Europa League second-leg tie with Anderlecht was of more importance than this league game and, therefore, required the resting of tired veteran Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Of course, what that analysis failed to take into account was a tactical masterstroke by Mourinho.
Having injected much-needed pace into the United forward line by pushing up Jesse Lingard to partner Marcus Rashford, Mourinho also mirrored Chelsea’s three-man back line, allowing the speedy Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young to take up advanced positions and add even more energy to his team’s recently moribund attacking play.
That also served to bolster United’s midfield and allowed Mourinho to unleash his tactical piece de resistance, with Ander Herrera performing a man-marking job on Eden Hazard that was so complete that the Chelsea playmaker must have expected his opponent would sit next to him in the visitors’ dressing room at half-time.
Jose Mourinho finally got one over on Antonio Conte Manchester United player ratings against Chelsea Sun, April 16, 2017
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The fact that Herrera scored the decisive second goal early in the second half merely underlined that this was, even more than the League Cup final win over Southampton, Mourinho’s finest hour as United manager to date.
Apart from the sheer football acumen Mourinho brought to bear on proceedings, his recent handling of his young forwards also proved significant.
The United manager has taken the unusual step of calling out Rashford, Lingard and Anthony Martial by name, pointing out their dreadful ratio of chances to goals and Frenchman Martial, poor again in the trip to Anderlecht on Thursday, did not even merit a place on the bench yesterday.
But if Mourinho’s desired effect was to provide the remaining two young local forwards with the proverbial kick up the rear, then his man management has been magnificent based on their respective displays against a Chelsea defence that has been virtually impregnable for large parts of this season.
Manchester United put Chelsea to the sword at Old Trafford
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Pacy and direct, Lingard and Rashford troubled Chelsea’s back three from the off and, even allowing for the loss and disruption caused by the injury of Marcos Alonso in the pre-game warm-up, there was no excuse for the terrified manner in which David Luiz and Gary Cahill failed to cope with their opponents.
Nor should Mourinho’s own considerable ego be underestimated. After losing his first two meetings with his former employers this season, this was simply not a game Mourinho was prepared to lose and it brought the very best out of him.
Chelsea may not agree but the Premier League – and the title race – is a better place this morning for that fact.