In the wake of a United defeat, especially an important one, I usually spend several days feeling really quite miffed before it begins to subside and the anticipation for the next match and a chance to put it right comes to the fore.
This is a familiar and expected reaction, one to which many of you may relate. So a loss at Stamford Bridge should, in theory, have had me spewing invective at the rabbits/any human being who made the mistake of crossing my path/unfortunate social media users, before I reached for the solvents. Any defeat to Chelsea is hard to take, the objectionable scumbags that they are. Or were. Now it’s just Captain Slip-up, the snidey Grandad up front and Darth Jose, but it’s enough. Last year an ageing Samuel Eto’ dispensed a whole world of pain. I was apoplectic and wanted to throttle David Moyes before burning down the world.
And yet here I am, ruminating about a 1-0 defeat, to them lot, and I don’t feel any anger at all. No pathological desire to damage a ginger person or to set Armageddon in motion. Mostly I just feel disappointed. This was always going to be United’s biggest ask in the season’s run-in. As much as hurt Reds wanted to deride the abilities of this Chelsea team it is actually a fine group of players. They have a world class goalkeeper, two high-level dogged full backs, John Terry continues to set the standards in defending domestically, Matic is a beast in midfield and Cesc Fabregas remains the creative talent he has always been. More importantly they have the finest footballer in the Premier League currently in Eden Hazard. There was a hell of a lot to contend with, even with the excellent Diego Costa absent. More important than all of those on the pitch was the greying guy in the dugout. Jose knows how to get sh*t done. It was no disgrace losing to such a fine team.
However, my disappointment centres from the fact that United could have won on Saturday. They were so close to it, even with the self-harm inducing news on Friday that Messrs Carrick, Blind, Jones and Rojo would miss out through injury. All the elements which had combined to precipitate the huge increase in the quality of recent performances taken away before we’d even kicked off. So it would be Rooney back into midfield, Ander Herrera’s forward thrust reduced and Paddy McNair into the back four. It was clear once the team-sheets were handed in that Mourinho was worried regardless, including Zouma in midfield to nullify Fellaini and employing a counter-attacking style from the off. And yet in the early stages of the game it clearly wasn’t working, as United dominated and controlled the game and Wayne Rooney missed a great chance to open the scoring. The first goal was always going to be vital. And of course it fell to Chelsea, some brilliance from Oscar setting Hazard through and that was that. Sakes. And from that moment the game was in Chelsea’s control. They gave United possession and sat back looking (occasionally) to counter. Van Gaal’s team passed and probed but simply couldn’t find a way through, the best chance falling to the wrong man, Falcao, who torpedoed a post.
Mourinho’s tactics worked a treat. They often do, the self-satisfied thunder-fanny. He has a compact, powerful team and a world class talent on the wing. But United ran them bloody close. Defensively the back four were excellent, Smalling and McNair impressing, bar the moment when the right hand side switched off and left the space for Hazard to get free. When you’re playing a sh*t winger at right back this stuff will happen. Luke Shaw was the most impressive man in red, exploiting the space left as Chelsea concentrated on nullifying Fellaini, and with slightly more composure could have assisted a goal or two. The midfield scrapped and harried and passed and probed. The tempo of the game was being dictated by United. But we come back to the theatrical, mardy one and his infuriatingly excellent tactical brain. Chelsea’s full backs nullified Mata and Young, Zouma did his job on Fellaini and the two centre backs tackled and blocked almost everything that came their way. United weren’t in control of the game from the moment Chelsea scored (you can’t be in control when you are losing) but it’s a win they’ll know they had to work really hard for.
But United were so close to taking at least a point. Space in the final third was limited, but with a world class striker up front, with more deadly boots, a better touch and greater mobility than the forlorn looking Radamel Falcao, and with Herrera further up the pitch they would surely have scored at least once. Return Carrick, Blind and Jones or Rojo to the side and it could have been three points. Jose knows that we are good, but the squad quality and depth just isn’t quite there yet. However, the improvement since being dispatched by an Eto’ hat-trick with less than 50 minutes on the clock is enormous, and this is why there should be no anger. This is a side which is going places, but doesn’t quite yet have the players to get there. If Hislop has a strong summer and flaws are addressed then there could and should be a title challenge to look forward to next season.
So I’m disappointed, because this is a match that could have been won. But we are still short. United dominated possession because Chelsea let them. All of the moralising on Twitter was a touch cringeworthy. “I’d be embarrassed if United won a game like that, with only 30% possession. These will be the worst title winners ever” said quite a few equally disappointed types, forgetting United’s dysfunctional title win in 2012/13 or the way in which they have employed the exact same tactics with the same level of success against Arsenal for a decade or more. Invite pressure, kick people, counter at speed. As if aiming for a top four place and posting changing room group selfies isn’t Gooner enough some have now gone full Arsenal, claiming that United were the moral victors, ‘won the passing’ and played the game the ‘right’ way. I’ve no doubt that those same types roundly jeered Van Gaal’s sides comic win at the Emirates this season in which they employed the exact same tactic and had an almost identical level of possession. Alternatively, who can remember the 2007/08 Champions League semi finals against Barca in which Fergie successfully twice ‘parked the bus’? It’s just frustration talking no doubt, but deriding a very good Chelsea side who have dominated possession in nearly all of their League matches this season is puerile. Take Mourinho’s approach as a compliment, recognition of how big a challenge he perceived us to be.
Ultimately Chelsea deserved to win because they implemented their game-plan better than United. And United deserved to lose because their work in and around the Chelsea penalty area wasn’t good enough and they were not clinical enough to finish the chances and half chances that came their way. But make no mistake, this is a team and a squad on the up. What’s more, because of the wonderful wins over Liverpool, Spurs and City, this is a defeat we could afford. But it can really only be one. The fixture list remains unkind and with City and Liverpool having ‘softer’ games remaining a Champions League place is still far from secured. United now face three tricky aways and Arsenal and a winnable outing against West Brom at home. The pressure is on as we go to Goodison to face a semi-revived Everton. Eek.
Fortunately Sunday brought some relief from my disappointment as Liverpool contrived to lose to Villa in the FA Cup semi-final. If I could have written a final season for Steven Gerrard at Liverpool this would have been it, his final chance to win a trophy at his lifelong club, in his final match for them, on his birthday, dashed by a relentlessly smirking Tim Sherwood. Throw in the sending off against United and the slip last April and I’m struggling to imagine what more could have gone wrong in more unlikely circumstances?
Nope. Me neither.
Christian Benteke scored again for the Villains, the day after being linked with a move to United. He’d be a wonderful addition, a fantastic all-round centre forward and significantly better than the other striker reported to be interesting Van Gaal, Danny ‘Scott Sinclair Jack Rodwell’ Ings. Welcome to the world of Premier League ‘homegrown’ quotas sonny.
Anyway, as I said, I’m disappointed, but not a lot. We’re going places folks. Steven Gerrard is just going to the glue factory.