Pat Nevin: Tough and intriguing

With international football about to take a step back and the weekend’s big Premier League encounter moving to the fore, columnist Pat Nevin is relishing the prospect…

Rarely has the international week served up such dull and unsatisfying fare. Just when the Premier League was getting into gear and beginning to be lots of fun, well for Chelsea anyway, the break came along at the wrong time to slow everyone down again.

This season starting so soon after the World Cup and the addition of new Nations League games meant that some international dullness was only to be expected. If you are from these islands then a 0-0 draw for England with no fans present was an inauspicious start to this batch of fixtures, even if a point in Croatia was commendable. There were no goals for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland against Austria and Denmark respectively, Wales got hammered effortlessly by Spain and then my real gripe, Scotland deservedly lost to Israel and then Portugal’s second 11.

By yesterday I didn’t really want to watch any more international games, but fortunately made myself watch England v Spain and at last there was something to actually enjoy more than just endure. There was plenty to appreciate with England lightning on the break, but I particularly enjoyed Ross Barkley’s classic no.10 pass to Harry Kane who in turn laid it on a plate for Raheem Sterling.

Now there is something even more appetising to look forward to, football that is almost certainly going to be entertaining, emotional and thick with layers of storylines. There is understandable excitement about the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday and it’s not just from Chelsea and United fans, it is the football world in general that is engrossed. It will also be a media circus all week and for once it will be thoroughly deserved.

Much of the focus will of course be on Jose Mourinho after his tough start to this campaign and the various stories about his alleged strained relationships with some of his star players. That narrative will take up plenty of media space, social and mainstream, and there is even a part of me that unusually is looking forward to seeing how Jose plays it with the press boys. In all truth however that still remains secondary at best for me. This is about a game of football between two sides that are so different in style it can hardly fail to deliver an interesting and informative 90 minutes.

I think United will almost certainly use their power and physique, possibly more than any other time under the leadership of the current manager. That is not to deride this tactic, in their position I would be sorely tempted to do exactly the same thing. Looking at Chelsea so far this season and the style imposed by Maurizio Sarri, does it really seem like a sensible plan to try to out-pass the Blues? Obviously not, so expect the big physical guns to be deployed against us, especially from set-pieces.

There are many other dangers in that United side but I think this is the obvious area to attack us and something we will have to find an answer to. That used to mean asking our goalkeeper to come out and dominate the 18-yard area for all crosses but this isn’t always possible if the quality is good enough with the delivery.

What Chelsea have tried to do this season is to give as few opportunities away as a possible in terms of corners and free-kicks in wide areas. That sounds like a tall order but if we manage to dominate 60 per cent or even 70 per cent of possession as we have done for most of this season so far then yes, that should severely limit the number of dangerous situations United can develop. It could be argued that our possession stats are more important in this game than they have been in any other up until now.

There are those who are sniffy about United’s current style, but I revel in the fact that different styles can exist and work well in the Premier League. This is what makes the Premier League exceptional. Chelsea under Jose Mourinho, particularly in his first spell at the club, were utterly dominant just like Manchester City were last season, but they were dominant in different ways.

One style might be more pleasing on the eye but it is not the case that one style is right and the other is wrong.

If you scroll back the decades this has always been the case in English football when different, almost totally opposite football ethics rub up against each other. Think back to Chelsea v Leeds for you older fans back in the 1970s. How about a well-remembered cup final in the 1980s between Liverpool and the famous long-ball power merchants of Wimbledon? There is no suggestion the ‘wrong’ team won that day. The Dons had limited resources, used them efficiently and had a team spirit that was like an extra man. I know, I had to play against it and it was incredibly hard to overcome in its pomp.

I personally wouldn’t have opened the curtains had they been playing in my back garden and there is an argument that the long-ball game favoured back then by many in England stunted tactical growth for decades, but their interest was to win and as such that was the right thing for them to do in that moment. They even had my grudging respect, very grudging to be honest.

My respect for the current Man United team is certainly not grudging, so much so that I think this Saturday is actually going to be a tougher game for us than the recent visit from Liverpool that ended 1-1. Maybe the most interesting thing for me, apart from how United will try to stop Jorginho controlling the game and Eden Hazard causing them mayhem obviously, is how Maurizio will adapt to make sure these two players are still pivotal.

Liverpool tried to stop Jorginho by dropping Roberto Firmino into his area and then rushing our playmaker from all sides with Jordan Henderson to the fore. It didn’t work because he still found a way to obtain space and influence the game as much as anyone. Yes he was top passer again that day.

Both coaches have had a couple of weeks to think about precisely these areas and I do not doubt we will see some interesting tweaks by two of the best thinkers in the modern game. The joy is that they will both be thinking in different ways and that is why this will be one of the most intriguing games of the season. Even in comparison to the game the other week between Liverpool and Man City where their similarities cancelled each other out, happily that will not happen this time and as such it should live up to the hype.

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