There was but one Chelsea player at Wembley Stadium on Saturday capable of winning the FA Cup. No fewer, no more. One player, and only one, capable of engineering the moment that clinched Chelsea its only trophy of 2017-18.
And Manchester United, despite all its talent and money, despite all its tactical precautions and theoretical superiority, couldn’t contain him.
Eden Hazard, that player, condemned Jose Mourinho’s United to a trophy-less campaign by winning and converting a first-half penalty, the only goal of Saturday’s FA Cup final at Wembley. He wriggled free from a defense designed specifically to stop him. And he incited an offseason inquest at Old Trafford that is 100 percent justified.
The context of Hazard’s goal
Hazard was not the only Chelsea player capable of creating the moment that won Antonio Conte his second trophy in England. He wasn’t the only Chelsea player capable of finishing it off. He wasn’t the only Chelsea player capable of ensuring that one moment was decisive. But he was the only one capable orchestrating it, beginning to end.
That’s why Mourinho devised an unorthodox system to snuff out Hazard’s threat. He essentially deployed Ander Herrera as the right-sided center back in a back three. Herrera’s express purpose was to man-mark Chelsea’s Belgian star.
Herrera had performed a similar function for Mourinho before – memorably, in a 1-0 win over the Blues last year. But he had previously done so from a central midfield role. This time he had more positional responsibility unrelated to Hazard.
So when Hazard switched sides to the right early in the first half – a simple countermeasure – he was able to evade Herrera fairly easily. He isolated himself against Phil Jones in transition, and exposed Jones with a tasty first touch and burst of speed. Jones took him down, and referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. Hazard buried the penalty.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 19, 2018
The penalty incident
Hazard had the beating of Jones from the moment his first touch turned Jones inside out. Jones recovered decently well, though. Hazard appeared to have taken one too many touches in the box, with the last taking him to a sub-optimal angle. Jones didn’t have to make the lunging challenge, especially with the world’s best goalkeeper waiting in net.
But he did. And Oliver got the decision spot-on. It was inarguably a penalty. But Jones made an attempt to play the ball. Under the new laws of the game, the attempt to play the ball rules out the so-called double-whammy, penalty and red card. Oliver correctly brandished yellow.
That kept United in the game. But Chelsea shut up shop and shut the Red Devils out of the game. N’Golo Kante was superb. The Blues parked their bus. And that peeved Mourinho.
Mourinho hits out at Chelsea’s defensive approach
Mourinho has received criticism for his cautious approach to games. He seemingly wanted that same criticism thrown at Chelsea:
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) May 19, 2018
But here’s the thing about the Mourinho criticism: There’s nothing wrong with winning a game 1-0. There’s nothing wrong with playing defensively and getting desired results, especially in a one-off, do-or-die match. The problem with Mourinho is that his style isn’t conducive to consistent winning over a long season. That’s the critique. And … well, part of it was validated on Saturday.
Chelsea had Hazard. United had Paul Pogba, and Alexis Sanchez, and Jesse Lingard, and Marcus Rashford, and Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial on the bench. Perhaps none of them are Hazard. But all are capable of game-breaking moments.
And yet under Mourinho, they have been all too often incapable. Mourinho’s system constrains them. It prioritizes defense over attack. He, and the players, and the system haven’t been able to adapt it to attacking situations.
United had a decent amount of possession over the final hour of Saturday’s game. But it didn’t threaten nearly enough. It pinned Chelsea further and further back, but could break the deadlock. Mourinho couldn’t turn his pragmatic approach into a more attacking one to take advantage of all his talent.
And thus despite all that talent, for the first time in Mourinho’s career, the Portuguese boss’ second season at a club will end without a trophy. That’s far from incomprehensible, given the quality and depth of the Premier League at the top. But it’s unacceptable.
Futures of Conte, Hazard
On the other side, even a trophy likely won’t be enough to keep Conte at Chelsea. He spoke after the match as if he was on his way out. His relationship with the club has deteriorated over the past year, despite two trophies in two seasons. He has pressured the hierarchy, both publicly and privately to spend more. He sent the message again Saturday.
Conte straight on front foot with CFC board, describes himself as ‘a serial winner’. ‘I can’t change, my way is always the same … my past speaks very clear’.
Which sound like Italian for ‘back me or sack me’
— Sam Wallace (@SamWallaceTel) May 19, 2018
When asked in a TV interview if he would be staying at the club, he said, “I don’t know. It’s not my decision.” He sure seems like he won’t be.
There will also be questions about Hazard. He wants Champions League football. He won’t have it next year. He wants to challenge for major trophies, not just the FA Cup. He wasn’t able to this year. And according to reports, his decisions to stay or leave might likewise be dependent on Chelsea’s willingness to spend money and surround him with other world-class stars.
And on Saturday’s evidence, Chelsea should do whatever it takes.
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