They were only a section of the Chelsea support, but they were more than enough to make themselves heard. Jose Mourinho, who stood sullenly some 15 yards in front of them, must have heard them. “You’re not special, you’re not special!” they roared jubilantly, “you’re not special anymore!”
It was midway through the first half, Manchester United were two goals down and if in that moment, Mourinho felt low but he would have felt even lower had he known that that it was soon to get much, much worse.
“I was in the game,” said Mourinho when asked afterwards about his reception. “I didn’t feel it. For sure, it was not negative. No reason to be…I think everything was like it should be, calm.”
It was far from calm on the pitch. In the stadium where he had made some of his happiest memories, Mourinho’s new team were brutally eviscerated by his old one. Chelsea were quick, organised and deadly, everything that United were not. For those who believe that Mourinho’s time at the top is over, who believe that football has changed and that he has not, this would have made for compelling evidence.
It may be too soon to draw that sort of conclusion. For all the schadenfreude, and there will be plenty of that in the coming days, this is only the third month of Mourinho’s stewardship at a club that has been disappointing its supporters for three and a half years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Every manager needs time to effect change. But it will surely concern Mourinho that so little appears to have been achieved, even at this early stage. It will certainly be alarming to him that a team that seemed to do exactly what he ordered on Monday in cancelling out Liverpool fell apart so quickly when it tried to do the same to Chelsea.
“We made an incredible defensive mistake,” he said of the first goal. “I have to say INCREDIBLE in capitals. Then the game is different.”
“I told the players at half time, we have to chase the result in the situation where Chelsea is very comfortable. We put ourselves in a situation where we gave them the game they want. They want the block to be compact and low like it was in the second half and wait for their chance in the counter attacks. We could score the 2-1, they score the 3-0. We could score the 3-1, they score the 4-0. We could score the 4-1 twice with Rojo and Zlatan. Probably with ten more minutes, they would score another one. So the performance has to be analysed together with the defensive mistakes. And we were punished by the defensive mistakes.”
But to put this defeat simply down to defensive errors is a bit of a stretch. United were poor throughout. Mourinho has a style and it is well known, if not exactly well loved. He builds steel-lined back fours and has them protected by an outer perimeter of midfielders, tirelessly tracking backwards and forwards while an uncompromising striker wreaks havoc up front. There will be intensity, there will be technical excellence, but above all there will be organisation and an overarching plan. But there was very little evidence of that here.
For the first goal there was enough blame to be shared three ways. When Marcos Alonso swirled a ball over the top, Chris Smalling delegated his defensive responsibilities to Daley Blind, who hadn’t received the memo and couldn’t keep up with Pedro. The ex-Barcelona man duly rounded the onrushing David de Gea somewhere several miles north of the penalty area and put Chelsea in the lead after 30 seconds. After 21 minutes, the lead was doubled. Eden Hazard’s corner was nodded on by Nemanja Matic and then blasted in by Gary Cahill via Daley Blind’s bottom. This is not how Mourinho teams usually defend.
But there was nothing much going on further forward either. Paul Pogba was again largely anonymous, drawing gleeful chants of, “What a waste of money!” from Chelsea supporters who’ve certainly seen enough big money flops in recent years to be considered experts on the matter.
Neither Jesse Lingard or Marcus Rashford were making any progress on the flanks and so the service to Zlatan Ibrahimovic was unworthy of even the most derisory tip. He rose menacingly above Cahill to reach Antonio Valencia’s eighth minute cross, but could only head it over. An Ander Herrera long shot, comfortably palmed away by Courtois, represented the total of their first half efforts.
Perhaps in an effort to draw the sting of the occasion, Mourino had appeared on the touchline half an hour before kickoff, ostensibly watching the warm-up, but accepting handshakes and hugs from former colleagues. By the time the game began, those who had wanted to shout, of whom there were few, had shouted and those who wanted pictures, of whom there were many, had their pictures. For all the hype, the big return was a non-event.
Chelsea were far more concerned with marking the 20th anniversary of the death of their former director, the visionary Matthew Harding. If respect was going to be paid, the Chelsea fans wanted it go to someone who will always be one of their own, not someone who used to be.
Mourinho made changes at half time to both personnel and shape, hauling off Marouane Fellaini for Juan Mata and switching to a 4-4-2 with Rashford joining Ibrahimovic up front. This was quickly followed by an unwanted change, the replacement of the injured Eric Bailly (“I’m afraid it’s bad,” said Mourinho afterwards) with Marcos Rojo. Immediately, United looked more dangerous on the attack. Unfortunately for Mourinho, they looked more vulnerable in defence too.
Twice Chelsea broke through their lines without success. The third time, just after the hour, Hazard put the result beyond doubt. The Belgian, whose performances for Mourinho were contributory factor in both his title success and his unexpected dismissal, curled a low shot into the bottom corner after a neat exchange of passes with Matic and N’Golo Kante.
As Chelsea celebrated, Mourinho clapped his hands, imploring his players to focus, trying to tell them it wasn’t over yet. And he was right, it wasn’t over.
When Kante, of all people, made it 4-0, the Chelsea fans finally sang their former manager’s name, but their voices were dripping with sarcasm. On the pitch, United’s shape had gone completely. Chelsea were able to pass the ball amongst themselves and Stamford Bridge rang out with shouts of, “Ole!”
The game was so well won that the home supporters soon fell into a satisfied silence, like slumbering guests at a particularly bountiful Christmas dinner. Antonio Conte, perhaps irritated that the only noise inside the stadium was the incessant, defiant singing of the United fans, threw his arms up in the air and bellowed at the Chelsea fans to wake up and make some noise.
Mourinho, who made a number of arch comments about the atmosphere at Stamford Bridge over the years, was entirely unimpressed and, though neither manager wanted to speak about it afterwards, Sky Italia reported that Mourinho’s lengthy and not entirely friendly looking conversation with Conte at the final whistle was centred on the issue of respect. However, given that Mourinho once earned himself a rebuke in this stadium for offering to shake Paul Lambert and Roy Keane’s hands in the 89th minute when Chelsea were leading his Aston Villa team 3-0, he may not be best placed to comment.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for him at the end, his team comprehensively battered, his old supporters mockingly taunting him with shouts of, “Who are ya? Who are ya?”
Things change so quickly. Once he was adored with such passion that you suspect he could have got away with anything in this stadium and the fans would still have defended him. Now they taunt him. And so after a heavy defeat, an injury to the hitherto ever-present Bailly and a fresh spat with a fellow manager, this was a most unhappy homecoming for Mourinho.