Antonio Conte’s decision to adopt the 3-4-3 formation at Chelsea has been influential in the narrative of the Premier League season. While Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur have stumbled over different formations and team selections, Conte has persisted with the shape that brought him so much success with Juventus and the Italian national team. Chelsea’s balance of defensive solidity, work ethic in midfield, and mercurial attacking talents have pushed the Londoners to within touching distance of the title.
As weeks go, Manchester United’s was certainly mixed. FA Cup defeat to Chelsea on Monday came amid the controversy of Ander Herrera’s dismissal and Antonio Conte’s accusation of Red-flavoured anti-football. The former was certainly unfortunate, the latter misleading. Then, on Thursday, José Mourinho’s side eased into the Europa League quarter-final in unspectacular fashion, albeit in the process of losing world-record signing Paul Pogba to injury. Mourinho believes a heavy schedule is catching up on the club. It could get worse before it gets better.
At the season’s start the suggestion that José Mourinho would start with both Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan would have been summarily dismissed. The notion that the pair could be picked in the same team has seemed fanciful for much of the campaign. After all, Mata and Mourinho shared a chequered history together at Chelsea, while Mkhitaryan was frozen out of the first team picture altogether for a large chunk of the season. Yet, the duo could be the club’s most important combination as United enter the business end of the season.
There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.
The pattern is familiar: a high profile game, a hotly debated decision, pundits grasping loosely for facts in an opinionated world, and irate supporters venting frustration across social media. It was no different on Monday night, as referee Michael Oliver booked Ander Herrera twice inside 35 minutes at Stamford Bridge, in one moment ruining both the spectacle and Manchester United’s chances of retaining the FA Cup. To many United supporters Oliver’s performance was an aberration; to most others, a delight.
Another week, another frustrating draw. In what is quickly becoming the standard result for José Mourinho’s side, Manchester United braved a 3,750 mile round trip to Rostov to return with yet another stalemate. It was, at least, a result that should be enough to see the Reds through to the Europa League quarter-final. An FA Cup tie at Chelsea on Monday represents another challenge again.
As the world’s most expensive footballer took a wild swing-and-miss in the dying embers of Manchester United’s dismal draw with AFC Bournemouth last weekend the sound of knives being sharpened was almost audible. The reaction to that pivotal miscue was a perfect snapshot of the hyperbolic culture that has ingrained itself in modern football. There is no better example of the phenomenon than Paul Pogba.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic will miss three Manchester United games after taking pointed retribution against Tyrone Mings at the weekend. The Swede’s swinging elbow was missed by referee Kevin Friend, but an FA panel found inevitable guilt in the 35-year-old’s violence. Yet, while the striker’s 26 goals in all competitions have been vital to United’s cause this season, there may be greater benefit from an enforced leave of absence.
Manchester United wasn’t in any mood for a song and dance at the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard on Wednesday. The Old Trafford club eased to a 1-0 win against their French opponents, Saint-Etienne – a victory attained at some cost, with Eric Bailly seeing red, and both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick collecting injuries.
To go, or not to go that is now the question. From the moment Jose Mourinho called time on Wayne Rooney’s special privileges at Manchester United the clock began ticking on the Scouser’s Old Trafford career. The inevitable is nigh. Now the club, although not publicly, is pushing Rooney towards a more rapid exit than previously imagined. China calls; will Rooney pick up?