As Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho sauntered down the Old Trafford touchline ostentatiously pointing at the club crest on his gilet, the message was clear: I’m still the man.
Mourinho has had a challenging first season at the United helm, with nine home draws in the league summing up his difficulties, but Sunday’s 2-0 win over leaders Chelsea was a tactical masterclass.
In fielding an unorthodox 3-5-2 system and charging two players with man-marking jobs, Mourinho showed his famed tactical acumen has not deserted him — and blew the Premier League title race wide open.
“United produced a brilliant attacking display as well as a convincing defensive one that was tactically aware of the different threats Chelsea posed,” said former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Jermaine Jenas, now a BBC pundit.
“Mourinho has masterminded plenty of wins in big games down the years, but he usually does it with a defensive approach and by setting up with a team that, first and foremost, is very difficult to break down.
“On Sunday, he flipped that model on its head. United played with two up front and with wing-backs who were high up the pitch. They were on the front foot and went at Chelsea from the start.”
The belligerent Ander Herrera was the emblem of United’s victory, marking Chelsea’s key man Eden Hazard out of the game and claiming a goal and an assist at the other end.
On the other flank, Matteo Darmian successfully stymied Pedro, leaving Chelsea striker Diego Costa with not even scraps to feed on.
Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, seized a rare chance to shine at centre-forward by netting United’s seventh-minute opener and tormenting Chelsea’s back three with his penetrative running.
Mourinho explained how he had shut Chelsea down with relish and claimed his side would not have lost at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup last month had Herrera’s dismissal there not disrupted his plans.
– Not a template –
“I was convinced even before the cup (game) that controlling the two players that play behind Diego (Costa) and controlling the full-backs would create lots of problems and I repeat the same,” Mourinho said.
“They are phenomenal in counter-attack. When they had the ball, we were compact and when they tried to play counter-attack, we were always in control of these two link positions.”
Rashford’s display suggested he deserves to be given more chances through the centre, where United’s top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic — rested on Sunday — has started almost every game this season.
“I think (Mourinho) has learnt something,” former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness said on Sky Sports.
“Rashford has made it difficult for him to leave him out.”
As well as restricting Chelsea’s lead over Tottenham to four points, United’s win took them to within four points of the Champions League places with a game in hand on fourth-place Manchester City.
It was only United’s second win this season over one of the other teams in the top six, following November’s 1-0 success against an off-colour Spurs.
But as the fruit of a carefully customised game plan designed to nullify the specific threats of a particular opponent, it did not represent a blueprint for future success.
“(Mourinho) got his tactics spot on and enjoyed a bit of luck, but I don’t see that as a template,” Souness said.
“Man United have to dominate the ball here. They have to be on the front foot and get everyone in the stadium on the edge of their seat, like they have done for the best part of 20 years.
“I don’t think they could go and play like that every week against lesser teams who will sit in and not try and open up against them.”
For now, at least, Mourinho has got his mojo back.