That fired up Conte. He called Mourinho a “little man” and added: “The game against United, we can meet in a room to try and explain about these comments. I don’t know if he is ready to meet me in a room, just me and him.”
That real life soap opera shouldn’t detract from the game, however. For all their flaws, and there are many, Mourinho and Conte are excellent tacticians, perhaps the best in the Premier League when it comes to winning a one-off game.
It’s what makes this game so fascinating. In the home dugout is Mourinho; the dogmatist. A defensive-minded coach who will not change for anyone, including star players or his club’s fans.
In the away dugout will sit Conte; the pragmatist. The Italian is far more tactically flexible than Mourinho. He lets his side off the leash when an attacking approach is necessary but, as proven against Barcelona in midweek, can ensure his players retreat and defend when required.
Choosing a winner is almost impossible. Both coaches could spring tactical surprises that could prove decisive, as Mourinho did last season when he put Ander Herrera on a man-marking job on Eden Hazard.
But we’ve looked into both sides’ strengths and weaknesses to try to find a winner.
How Man United Can Win The Game
Mourinho may not like to admit it but United have been defensively poor this season.
While that may be more down to the players – the likes of Chris Smalling Phil Jones and Victor Lindelof have all struggled – than the Portuguese’s system, it’s clear the Red Devils are vulnerable when tested.
They’ve conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League (19) this term but, tellingly, their xGA (expected goals against) stands at 31.74, the highest figure of the Premier League’s top five clubs. United are indebted to David de Gea for their position in the table.
What may prove pivotal for United, however, is Mourinho’s decision to turn to 4-3-3. He has toyed with several different systems over the course of season but has struggled to get the best out of a number of key players, Paul Pogba in particular.
While his relationship with the club’s record signing may be somewhat fractious, there’s little doubt 4-3-3 is the formation that will bring out the best in Pogba. And that could prove decisive against Chelsea.
If Mourinho deploys the United No.6 on the left of a trio, which could also include Nemanja Matic and Michael Carrick, then he will have the freedom to push forward and create without the burden of defensive responsibilities.
The 24-year-old would be able to exploit the gaps in Chelsea’s 3-4-3. N’Golo Kanté would, in all likelihood, have the brief in that instance of trying to stifle Pogba, which would in turn leave gaps for United to exploit in midfield, especailly if Cesc Fábregas is used as the other Blues midfielder.
It would require Mourinho to be bold and demand his team control possession, something he rarely does against the elite, but United, in a 4-3-3, would have the capability of dominating midfield and as a result the game.
And if Chelsea are pushed back, forced to defend and unable to counter, their forwards become isolated. Yes, the Blues would have a threat on the break but the best way of keeping the likes of Hazard and Willian quiet is ensuring they don’t get much of the ball.
While Mourinho is a man of almost unbreakable principle, he may want to break his side’s shackles just this once. Going on the attack is the best way to overcome Conte’s men.
How Chelsea can win the game
Chelsea’s performance against Barcelona in the Champions League in midweek was near perfect. Only a mistake from the usually reliable Andreas Christensen stopped the Blues from clinching victory.
It was a tactical masterclass from Conte and his side. The challenge for both coach and players alike to to repeat such a feat against Mourinho’s men at Old Trafford.
Conte pitched somewhat of a curveball by setting his side up in midweek without a recognised striker – Hazard led the line with Willian and Pedro playing behind. However, he shouldn’t to go down that route against United.
Álvaro Morata should be included in the starting XI with Hazard and Willian in close proximity.
The striker’s xG90+xA90 (expected goals plus expected assists per 90) of 0.77 this season is by far the best of any Chelsea player to have played 1,000 minutes. He may be out of form but his quality isn’t in doubt.
The Spanish striker impressed against the Red Devils in November at Stamford Bridge. He scored the only goal of the game, an excellent header, but it was his ability to occupy what was a United back three that day that stood out.
A repeat performance will be necessary against United’s back four, especially if Mourinho’s side control midfield.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 puts a lot of strain on on Kanté and his midfield partner, which is likely to be Fábregas. Not only do the pair have to defend but they also have to get forward and influence the attack. A striker who is capable of holding up the ball would give the pair a chance to do so without Chelsea losing their shape and United controlling the transitions.
Morata’s inclusion, would allow the Blues to attack strategically. Instead of solely playing on counter, as Chelsea did against Barca, Hazard and Willian could play off the target man, receiving the ball in United’s half instead of in midfield. From there they have the pace, imagination and quality to unlock a defence.
In defence the back three that started against Barcelona should remain, although César Azpilicueta could be targeted by the taller Romelu Lukaku. The Spaniard would require assistance from Andreas Christensen in nullifying the Belgian’s aerial prowess.
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 shape has proven successful against United in the past but it’s yet to be tested by a Manchester United side playing 4-3-3. It’ll be a fascinating tactical battle between Mourinho and Conte, hopefully that and not petty bickering is what dictates the post-match analysis.