It is a team part-built by Jose Mourinho, bearing many of the hallmarks of a Jose Mourinho side and on the verge of another league title for the club with which Jose Mourinho is synonymous. But unfortunately for Manchester United fans, it is Chelsea and not the Red Devils who head into the clash between the two sides on Sunday as champions elect.
Under Antonio Conte the Blues have rediscovered the mojo they lost so spectacularly last season as Mourinho’s crown well and truly slipped and he was asked to depart the Stamford Bridge throne when his side headed for Christmas in 16th place, just one point clear of the relegation zone.
Where Chelsea seemed to have lost much of their edge, their togetherness and their fearless determination last term under Mourinho, Conte has given them a renewed vigour. Without being particularly dazzling or overly dominant in matches, the west London outfit have had a bit of mongrel about them with the Italian in charge.
United, though, have not had that winning edge; victories have not appeared inevitable when they have begun to take the game to their opponents. Simply said, Mourinho’s side do not have the look of champions. Just take a look at their home form as Chelsea come to town. Six wins in 16 home games has never been the form of a team wanting to carry off a league title.
Having spent hundreds of millions of pounds under three different managers, United had been expected by many to push Chelsea closer this season. Like the Blues, they had a new manager and a new project. But whereas Chelsea appeared to be a sense of direction and a modicum of harmony away from being a very competent side, United have looked a rag-tag bunch for the best part of four years.
Conte claimed earlier this season that the difference between his side and second-placed Tottenham is a winning mentality.
“I think the difference between Chelsea and Tottenham is this… if you stay in Chelsea and win it’s normal,” Conte said. “If you stay in Tottenham, if you win it’s great but if you lose it’s not a disaster, no? Not a disaster.”
But while for Manchester United losing is very much considered a failure, there has also been that lack of a winning mentality at Old Trafford this term. United could learn from this current Chelsea side not just in terms of the greater energy with which they attack but also in the way they provide the right kind of support for their difference-makers.
Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all came into the setup last summer with the tag of being potential match-winners, but in a squad shy of the right elements alongside them they have too often been asked to deliver individual magic. If they are to emulate Chelsea next season by becoming a title-challenging side they need to round out their team in Mourinho’s vision rather than present a mish-mash of players brought in by three different managers with three very different philosophies.
Pogba’s qualities need to be better complemented by a more forceful midfield partner than a Michael Carrick who is now a fading force and an Ander Herrera who provides a little bit of everything but doesn’t really dominate a midfield. The Frenchman always looked a far bigger danger at Juventus when in the same team as Arturo Vidal, who made it his mission to stamp his impression on a game.
Elsewhere, Mourinho needs to either get the best out of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial or get somebody closer to Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Too often when Ibra has dropped deep to involve himself in play this season, there has been little effort by the wide attackers to fill the gap left behind in the area. That needs to be addressed either in house or with the addition of a quality central attacking force. The manager himself has spoken more than once about the lack of a Javier Hernandez figure, and it is that sort of intelligence United don’t have right now.
Lapses at the back have also been a concern this season, which can partly be put down to their use of Ibrahimovic and the lack of pressing which goes on further up the pitch as a result. But there also needs to be a leader of men at the heart of their defence.
Where once strode Steve Bruce, Jaap Stam and Nemanja Vidic there is now a chasm awaiting a true defensive rock. Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo have been United’s best two centre-backs under Mourinho, but the Ivorian needs more time to come to terms with the language and the league while Rojo remains a loose cannon on whom the club would do well not to rely.
Mourinho’s spell at United could very well be defined in 2017-18, and the addition of a top centre-back, a dominant, energetic midfielder and an intelligent goal-seeking forward could well make them title hopefuls once more. Moreover, the manager needs to ensure there is the kind of togetherness and kinship in his squad which is currently on show at Stamford Bridge and has been missing at United for four years.
He may have developed something of a reputation for winning titles in his first full season at a club, having done so with Porto, Chelsea and Inter, but in every single spell of his managerial career the ‘Special One’ has delivered a league championship in his second season. Now in his sixth job at the top level, he will be looking to extend that streak at Old Trafford while also regaining some of the mystique he lost in that incredibly miserable title defence at Chelsea in 2015-16.