Did Manchester United expose Chelsea's weakness and provide the blueprint to beat the Premier League leaders?

Jose Mourinho's side flattened Antonio Conte's hitherto unbeatable gameplan. But is it too little too late?

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The Independent Football

A big blow for Chelsea… but also a blueprint for everyone else? That may be the real significance of this 2-0 defeat to Manchester United for the league leaders.

The gap at the top of the table getting cut to four points will of course so frustratingly play on the Chelsea players' minds until they next get to vent on the pitch - with that game, in so timely a fashion, coming in the FA Cup against a ravenous-looking Tottenham Hotspur - but it is unlikely to be what really plays on Antonio Conte’s mind.

He knows his team are unlikely to get mentally derailed by defeats, given that they so impressively responded to the loss to Crystal Palace with that win over Manchester City. No, what was more concerning was how Manchester United seemed to respond to what Crystal Palace did that day and offer even more evidence that this Chelsea can be got at and beaten; that their 3-4-3 has many more holes that just weren't exposed yet.

For that 2-1 Palace win, Sam Allardyce used two forwards to get at Conte’s back three, with Wilfried Zaha’s pace off Christian Benteke causing the league leaders more problems than they’ve faced in months. For this 2-0 United win, Mourinho doubled down on the pace, and caused Chelsea even more problems. Jesse Lingard and especially the exceptional Marcus Rashford were so easily able to spin off each other, meaning that the three centre-halves didn’t really know where to go. That has been in stark contrast to pretty much Chelsea’s entire season, because that back three - and particularly David Luiz - have so easily shuttled attackers to where they wanted them. Not at Old Trafford.

Mourinho, and more specifically Rashford, showed the way to get at the Brazilian and that back three. A lot more teams are surely going to try it, and what Mauricio Pochettino tries next week will be enlightening, given the amount of on-fire forward options that Spurs have.

What Mourinho did with Eden Hazard will be harder to replicate. The Portuguese got Ander Herrera to follow the Chelsea playmaker all over the pitch, and regularly storm all over him, although that was obviously greatly helped by the fact Hazard did not have the injured Marcos Alonso bombing down the left to distract defenders. The sturdier Cesar Azpilicueta was never going to do that.

The effect of that late change on Chelsea cannot be underestimated, and they did play as if they were a first XI that had suddenly been asked to follow a different gameplan they weren’t familiar with. That is probably one reason why they looked so conspicuously off the pace, and why they were a second off every move, because it has no doubt got to the point with their fist XI that they so innately understand the system they barely have to think about it. Here, they had to think a lot more, and that was painfully event.

It won’t be as painful once Alonso comes back to restore balance to the team, but what may well be a pointer to everyone else will be to try and disrupt that balance when he’s on the pitch; to perhaps try a lopsided approach that obstructs Chelsea down one side.

It might mean they themselves look a more diminished side.

It may well be a lesson.

Conte, however, will have no doubt learned a lot from this himself.

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