Mourinho’s Insight Adds to Chelsea’s Pain in Loss to Manchester United
MANCHESTER, England — There are certain types of hurt that intimates alone can inflict. It is those who have been close enough to know where the pressure points are, to have learned the flaws and secrets, who are best equipped to exploit them.
Against José Mourinho’s Manchester United on Sunday, Chelsea suffered the most personal defeat it could have imagined, a setback that could only have been engineered by someone who had been on the inside. That pain, that sense of being exposed, is bad enough; worse still is the knowledge that the full extent of the damage may not be clear for some time.
Mourinho, of course, made his name producing these sorts of tactical masterpieces, perfectly calibrating his teams while at F.C. Porto and Inter Milan, in particular, so as to pick a way past opponents of greater talent and greater standing.
United’s 2-0 victory at home on Sunday was not as significant as, for example, Inter’s defeat of Barcelona in 2010, widely seen as Mourinho’s high-water mark, but it belongs in the same category. It showcased Mourinho at his analytical, cunning, sharp-eyed best, succeeding where so many of his peers have failed and finding a way not just to stop Chelsea, his former team, but to beat it, and deservedly, too.
It would not have been possible, though, if Mourinho did not know Chelsea as well as he does. He found ways of negating strengths that could not have been discerned from afar; he drilled into weaknesses only someone who has spent time trying to disguise them would know.
He used Ander Herrera — once a midfielder of delicate elegance, reinvented by his new manager as an incessant pest — to shadow Eden Hazard relentlessly, no matter where he roamed, denying him space and time and any sense of privacy.
He deployed Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford as central strikers, with both seeking to disrupt Chelsea’s three-man defense and putting sufficient pressure on David Luiz to keep him from building play from the back. And he had both of his central defenders do all they could to stoke forward Diego Costa’s ire, encouraging Costa to focus not on the game but on his own personal feuds.
Mourinho is not the first to try all of these tricks, but he is the first in some time to make them work. He suggested later that was because of the resources he had at his disposal.
“It is not easy for another manager to find a player like Herrera to do that job,” he said. He was right, too, although perhaps not in the way he meant. No other manager knows Chelsea as well as he does; that was the key in this instance.
“I was convinced that controlling the two players behind Diego would give them lots of problems,” he said, speaking with the air of a man who, not so long ago, spent more than two years worrying that someone would do the same to him.
That should, improbably, provide Chelsea with some solace. On the morning of April 1, Chelsea sat 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League, within touching distance of a second title in three years. Cliché demands that the end of the season always be depicted as a race. This looked a lot more like a procession.
Sixteen days later, that sense has evaporated. Chelsea remains atop the Premier League, but almost everything else has changed. It has been beaten by both United and, in rather more unfortunate circumstances, Crystal Palace. Tottenham is now only 4 points back and is on a run of seven consecutive wins, the bit between its teeth.
Even Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, said after the defeat on Sunday that it was Tottenham that ranked as “the best team” in the country at this point. It is Tottenham that has the momentum; Tottenham that, in Conte’s view, will be inspired by the “chance to make history” on the horizon. “The league is open,” he said. “We have to think there are six finals from now until the end.”
None, on paper, are quite as tough as this; the trip to Goodison Park to face Everton on April 30 aside, Chelsea’s schedule is kind, and far more approachable than Tottenham’s. In uncertain form, though, and with the hot breath of the pack on its neck, Chelsea may find that even the most straightforward games suddenly seem full of contortions and complications.
More important, though, none will bring Conte and his players into combat with someone who can read their minds quite so well as Mourinho, none who have been so close, none who can hurt them quite as he could. This was a personal game, and a personal defeat, accompanied by a deeply personal pain. It will be a considerable relief that everything that lies ahead is strictly business.