Yesterday’s crunch Premier League fixture between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford was billed as being a battle between two of the world’s finest coaches.
Matches between these two giants of the Premier League era have traditionally been feisty affairs. However this game seemed to have even more needle than usual, after Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte’s public war of words, that has raged over recent months.
Ultimately, United’s Portuguese coach would prevail as his side emerged with a 2-1 victory, and if the game was to be analysed from a coach-to-coach perspective, there is little doubt that several of Conte’s decisions hindered, rather than helped his side.
His first major call was in relation to his sides starting XI. The Italian coach decided to disregard the fluid front three of Pedro, Willian, and Hazard, that was so impressive against Barcelona in the Champions League last week. Instead he chose to recall a woefully short on confidence Alvaro Morata to play in a traditional centre-forward role.
Unfortunately the 24-year-old looks like a shadow of the player that looked so accomplished earlier in the season. Apart from one decent instinctive volley that hit the bar early on, the former Real Madrid man spent most of his afternoon losing his duels to Chris Smalling and then petulantly complaining to the referee.
Despite Morata’s shortcomings as the link man in attack, Conte’s side still managed to dominate the first period with Hazard and Willian a constant menace between the lines.
United did manage to get to grips with the talented pair a little better in the second period, but the home side lacked fluency in their own attacking play, and were most definitely there for the taking.
That is why Conte’s decision to substitute his team’s best player Eden Hazard on 73 minutes for ‘tactical reasons,’ was so strange.
The player himself looked bemused by the decision and the Blues travelling support let their Italian coach know in no uncertain terms how much they disapproved of his decision to remove their mercurial playmaker.
As Hazard trudged off the Old Trafford pitch it immediately felt as if the momentum of the game switched in United’s favour, and sure enough Jesse Lingard headed home the winner just two minutes later.
Conte was righted lauded for winning the Premier League title with an unfancied Chelsea side last season, during his first campaign in English football – even last week, he again received many plaudits for the excellent tactical performance his side put in against Barcelona.
However, there is little doubt the former Juventus coaches decisions in this weekend’s game severely damaged his teams chances of securing a positive result.
Sunday’s loss sees Chelsea slip to fifth place in the table, six points clear of United in second. With the Blues travelling to the Etihad to face Pep Guardiola’s superb Man City side next weekend, and then travelling to face the mighty Barca in the Nou Camp soon after, the speculation surrounding the Italian’s position as manager at Stamford Bridge may well begin to ratchet up once again.
If Chelsea are to start to struggle in the race for the top four and exit the Champions League in March, Conte could well end up looking back at his poor decisions at Old Trafford as being the start of his downfall.