/ 3 November 2017

A kick down memory lane

Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea completes his hat trick against Manchester United in the league match at Stamford Bridge in 2014.
Samuel Eto'o of Chelsea completes his hat trick against Manchester United in the league match at Stamford Bridge in 2014.

Sunday-afternoon football may be synonymous with the National Football League rather than with “soccer”, but every once in while the fixture gods throw up a true gem of a day for the English Premier League, too. We get such a treat this weekend.

First up: the so far unstoppable pretenders to the throne, Manchester City, take on the toiling but not quite knocked-out Arsenal. Chelsea host Manchester United following that at Stamford Bridge — a game that has become one of the most competitive in England over the past 15-odd years.

The more neutrally aligned among us crave goals. Free-flowing, attacking football would be the perfect complement to any planned end-of-week braais. Alas, it’s not likely to be what we’ll get as a more cautious approach in this crucial part of the season may be the order of the day. Plus, José Mourinho is involved — enough said.

In this spirit, we look back on four tactical victories among the clubs in recent memory. These games are not only remarkable for their on-pitch action but also for the indelible impact they left behind.

Manchester City vs Arsenal (6-3) December 14 2013

In many ways, this game helped to define how Arsenal would approach games against the big six in future seasons. After conceding a half-dozen, the team would go on that season to be routed 5-1 by Liverpool and then destroyed 6-0 by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Arsène Wenger could no longer remain as oblivious as a blind sloth to the pragmatism required when travelling to a title contender and shored up his backline in future outings.

For their part, Manchester City were utterly ruthless in how they tore apart their prey. The first goal set the tone: Sergio Agüero was so quick to the flicked-on corner that it left Laurent Koscielny striking a phantom ball with such vigour that he spun into a 180° turn. Theo Walcott twice briefly restored a semblance of hope to proceedings with a few uncharacteristically calm, well-placed shots, but ultimately it was for less than nought.

Then-manager Manuel Pellegrini got his tactics spot-on as his team unlocked the Gunners at will. The score was hardly an exaggeration, Yaya Touré’s last-minute penalty bringing the tally to half of what it could have been. City kicked on from the win and went on to claim the league that season.

Arsenal vs Manchester City (2-1) FA Cup, April 23 2017

Last season’s FA Cup semifinal between the two clubs was arguably the apex of Wenger’s more sensible approach to big games. The Gunners were going through their now customary late-season misfire and few gave them much of a chance of sinking the City ship. Instead, they turned in a tight, considered display that outclassed Pep Guardiola’s game plan.

It all began according to script as Agüero’s killer instinct once again shone through. Latching on to a through ball on the halfway line, the Argentine showed his heels to Nacho Monreal before finishing with a clever dink over the dawdling Petr Cech.

From that point they got into gear, effectively spreading the play out wide and ultimately outplaying City on the wings — Monreal achieving redemption after tapping in an early cross from one such move.

After providing the assist for the first goal, Touré was suffocated in midfield along with Kevin de Bruyne and given little space to manipulate the ball. Once Alexis Sánchez secured the winner, it was time for the shop to close up and see out the game reasonably comfortably.

Arsenal would go on to lift the FA Cup — an achievement the conspiracy theorists credit as the reason Wenger still has his job.

Chelsea vs Manchester United (3-1) January 19 2014

Samuel Eto’o’s Chelsea stint was more a stroll in the twilight than a bold pitstop in his illustrious career. You wouldn’t have guessed that during United’s visit to Stamford Bridge during Mourinho’s first season back in charge, however.

The Cameroonian was a terror, leaving Phil Jones more flat-footed than a dozing duck before cutting in and finishing from a deflected effort. The Red Devils struggled to cope with the Blues’ movement all game long and could do nothing as Eto’o poached another two goals to complete his hat-trick.

They struggled to break down a formidable backline, meanwhile, and only managed to grab a consolation goal late in the day. Mourinho had Eto’o to thank for spearheading the businesslike display and promptly thanked him by mockingly insinuating that he had lied about his age a few weeks later.

From a United perspective, it was one of the many nails that ultimately doomed David Moyes to obscurity.

Manchester United vs Chelsea (2-0) April 16 2017

Come last season, the roles were reversed as Mourinho sat perched in the Old Trafford dugout. Despite his assertions to the contrary, the Portuguese surely would have been out for revenge against his former club after a 4-0 humiliation in the reverse fixture and an FA Cup loss to them before this meeting.

Whatever his motivations, there’s no denying that he served up a tactical masterclass that thoroughly put Chelsea’s title aspirations in doubt.

In typical Mourinho style, the team snuffed out any ember of creativity and nullified the usually potent threats on offer. At the other end, Marcus Rashford tore past a static back three and went on to bury the ball in Asmir Begovic’s far corner.

But it was Ander Herrera who was to be the real star of the show. In possibly his best performance in England, the Spaniard assisted the first goal with a defence-splitting pass before grabbing his own with a power drive from the corner of the box.

In truth, the significance of the goal paled in comparison to his other contribution. Eden Hazard came into the game on hot form against the Red Devils and was always going to be key to the Chelsea cause.

Herrera ensured he didn’t get a sniff. Any time the Belgian attempted to get a move started, or beat his man on the flank, there he was — the omnipresent nuisance.

Will Hazard get his revenge this weekend? Or will Mourinho’s bus prove too unscalable an object? The beauty of football is that answers will only come after the fact.