Instead of parking the bus, Conte's men make aggressive push for win at Stamford Bridge - and get it
Chelsea driven to victory over Manchester United on back of Morata header
Manchester United took the train down to London for a fixture they have come to regard with trepidation. And once at Stamford Bridge, there was refreshingly little sign of the bus.
That is the big, boring bus Jose Mourinho introduced many years ago to the vocabulary of English football, the one that gets parked - a shorthand for cautious, defensive tactics. It is a vehicle Mourinho himself has lately been criticised for parking right up on the kerb of United’s penalty area.
Neither Mourinho, nor Chelsea’s Antonio Conte, set about trying to reduce the distance Manchester City have opened up at the top of the Premier League by parking a bus on Sunday. Chelsea emerged victorious from a contest of positive endeavour and compelling openness.
It was lively from the start. Within the first 17 minutes both goalkeepers, Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and David de Gea had made saves that left their palms stinging, from Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard respectively, while Alvaro Morata was foraging around, hassling Phil Jones with a great tear in his sleeve, the result of a tug at his arm within the opening minute.
Several duels left bruises on limbs, although Jones might be considered fortunate that referee Anthony Taylor deemed him to have been fouled by Morata in the move that led to Jones, with the Chelsea striker pressing him, putting the ball into his own net early on. Chelsea thought they led at that point. Taylor though Jones had been illegally pushed.
There would be other chances for Conte’s team, playing with a great deal more poise than they had against Roma, who inflicted a chastening 3-0 defeat on the English champions five days ago.
The fact that the three of their best opportunities fell to Tiemoue Bakayoko bears witness to how progressive was the home team’s approach. Bakayoko had certainly not parked his bus, but played in a high gear throughout. His willingness to get forward was encouraging; his finishing, particularly when he misfired a first-half volley, less so.
Marcus Rashford too had cause for regret come half time, his header, while loosely marked, put over the crossbar. As a lesson in heading technique for the 20-year-old player, there may be no finer example than Alvaro Morata’s well-placed, angled effort that broke the deadlock. Morata, picked out by a deep, precise cross from Cesar Azpilicueta, timed his leap, kept his eyes on the ball and the position of De Gea.
It was a fine goal and an endorsement of Chelsea’s growing command. They had played the more incisive football either side of half time and with Cesc Fabregas the most creative figure, and Hazard nimbly dragging United’s Jones and Ander Herrara into fouls punished in quick succession by Taylor, United felt the pressure intensify.
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Chelsea did not let up, even at 1-0 up. Conte had taken one risk even before kick off, leaving out David Luiz from his squad, the Brazilian dropped for what his head coach described as “tactical reasons". Luiz was not greatly missed, and his replacement, Andreas Christensen, can feel encouraged at his contribution to keeping Lukaku quiet. United’s target man’s barren form continues.
As for parking a bus, Conte let Chelsea roll with their momentum, at least until he withdrew the excellent Fabregas with a little over ten minutes to go.
So often this season, that late period has been productive for Mourinho’s fit, physically imposing side. On came Anthony Martial, his specialist impact substitute, and Marouane Fellaini, that trusty magnet for high balls.
Fellaini did receive one, with 88 minutes on the clock, Courtois reacting skilfully to keep Chelsea’s win safe and to move the title-holders to within a point of Mourinho’s United.