Chelsea fans could hardly believe their luck when Manchester United’s team was announced for Sunday’s Premier League clash. Social media came alive with fans and journalists suggesting that Jose Mourinho was resting a number of key players in order to prioritise Thursday’s Europa League game against Anderlecht.
Antonio Conte’s team had enjoyed an eight-day break ahead of their visit to Old Trafford, while United had played just three days earlier in Belgium. With Zlatan Ibrahimovic playing 90 minutes every week, Mourinho made the brave decision to rest United’s top scorer and put his faith in some of the younger players at his disposal.
Ibrahimovic has scored 28 goals in all competitions this season and only three players have more league goals than his 17. Yet Mourinho opted to start a group of players with a combined top-flight goal tally of just 12.
All that mattered little once the game had begun, though, with Mourinho employing the perfect tactics to lead United to victory. As has been the case far too often this season, the Red Devils were wasteful with some of the chances they created, but still managed to find the back of the net twice. Chelsea, in contrast, did not register a single shot on target, which has not happened since a 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford a decade ago.
There was plenty of post-match praise for Ander Herrera, who scored one, assisted another and kept Chelsea’s best player, Eden Hazard, out of the game. The Spaniard – who has gone from strength to strength under Mourinho – deserved the fans’ adulation; he has now picked up man-of-the-match awards against Tottenham, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea, and many will be hoping he is named captain next term.
It would be unfair, however, to overlook the contribution of Marcus Rashford, who arguably had the game of his career. Like Jesse Lingard, he was all over the pitch throughout, helping his team defensively as well as sprinting forward to get on the end of any balls that came his way.
Rashford had more shots on target and completed more take-ons than anyone else on the field, while only Herrera created more chances. He breezed past the experienced David Luiz to score the opening goal, before holding off the Brazilian and forcing Asmir Begovic to save another of his efforts.
This sort of performance was what we should have seen at Stamford Bridge last month. Rashford was Mourinho’s secret weapon that day: having previously been ruled out, he boarded the train separately to the rest of his teammates, ready to be unleashed against Chelsea in the FA Cup.
Herrera was sent off with an hour left to play, however, and Rashford did not have the opportunity to shine in the same way. Yet the player must have taken great confidence from the fact that his manager put his faith in him that evening.
Mourinho has been criticised in the past for failing to develop youth, but it is clear that he has begun to change his ways and adhere to the traditions of his current employers. Tim Fosu-Mensah (19) has made nine appearances in all competitions under the 54-year-old, while Axel Tuanzebe (19) and Joel Pereira (20) have made their first team-debuts this season.
Mourinho has now handed 1,443 minutes of Premier League football to teenagers in 2016/17, compared to 415 for Pep Guardiola, 19 for Mauricio Pochettino, one for Wenger and an astonishing zero for Conte.
When you consider Chelsea have won the FA Youth Cup in five of the last six seasons, it is incredible how little game time their youngsters get in the first team. The Blues have not had anybody break into the starting XI on a regular basis since John Terry in 1999; with their captain set to leave the club at the end of the season, Chelsea will probably not have any academy graduates in their line-up next term.
In contrast, Sunday saw the continuation of United’s 79-year record of having at least one academy graduate in their matchday squad – the victory over Chelsea was the 3,856 consecutive match in which this applied. When Mourinho was asked whether he was aware of this record in an interview with fanzine United We Stand, he responded: “of course.”
The Portuguese also confirmed that he had been working closely with head of academy Nicky Butt and acknowledged that, while it was more difficult to play youth players now than in the past, it was still important to do so.
“It’s impossible to compare: 20 years was 20 years ago… but tradition plays a part and the heart that kid born in the club can bring hasn’t changed.”
United is in Rashford’s heart and has been for some time. Just last week he posted a picture of himself as an 11-year-old, where he revealed that his one aim in life was to play for United. The fans love him and have already honoured him with a flag and a chant or two.
Rashford made his United debut just over a year ago; in that time, he has scored goals in United’s wins over Manchester City, Arsenal and now Chelsea. He does not even turn 20 until October.
It is too early to predict what the future may hold, but it is clear that Rashford loves the club and Mourinho loves playing him. With a place in next season’s Champions League to fight for, United supporters will be hoping he has a few more big moments in him before the end of the campaign.
Scott Patterson started The Republik of Mancunia blog in 2006. He is a freelance writer for ESPN and FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M