Manchester United hadn’t beaten Chelsea in their last eight meetings - a record against any club for the Red Devils - but this time Jose Mourinho got his tactics exactly right.
The ageing Zlatan Ibrahimovic was benched in favour of pacy youngsters Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to lead the line, while Chelsea’s attacking stars - Eden Hazard and Pedro - were thwarted by man-marking from Ander Herrera and Matteo Darmian.
The strategy saw United score twice past Chelsea, but Mourinho had already used a similar set of tactics against the Premier League leaders in the FA Cup defeat last month.
United lost 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, and the Portuguese blamed the defeat on Herrera’s red card that reduced the Red Devils to 10 men.
“We went to Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup with the same tactics (when United lost 1-0),” said Mourinho.
“The game was totally controlled with 11 players, only the decision that made us play with 10 men for the second half and 10 minutes in the first half gave Chelsea a chance to be dominant.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been Manchester United’s standout player, but Mourinho’s decision to leave him out was vindicated against the Blues.
Ibrahimovic had scored 10 goals in his previous 12 Manchester United appearances, but has also played more minutes than any of his Red Devils teammates.
“Maybe we didn’t ‘rest’ players ahead of Thursday (when United play Anderlecht in the Europa League), we just chose the team we thought was the best team,” Mourinho told Sky Sports at Old Trafford.
Instead, Rashford and Lingard led United’s line, with Ibrahimovic, Michael Carrick and Henrikh Mkhitaryan starting on the bench.
But the inclusion of the speedsters made the Red Devils more lively going forward, which proved pivotal to the victory.
Rashford scored the opening goal and was praised by his manager for his “fantastic” performance, while Lingard was constantly supporting the starlet going forward.
“Chelsea’s usually well-drilled defence was unable to handle their pace and movement,” wrote the Mirror’s David McDonnell.
Rashford received a standing ovation when he was substituted in the 83rd minute for Ibrahimovic, while Lingard came off on the hour mark.
“He (Rashford) played fantastically well, I think he did also a very good game at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup,” Mourinho said.
“Today he scored and it was at the beginning of the match which gave the team confidence and stability. The kid played fantastically well, but everybody fought and did what they had to do.”
“He has truly taken his chance,” said United legend Gary Neville in the Sky Sports commentary box.
“He has been outstanding. The Chelsea back three, who have been fantastic all season, have been torn apart all day.”
Neville added: “As a United fan, it wasn’t half good to see two players move upfront, be mobile and look like they want to play with each other.
“In the last three or four years, that was probably the best I’ve seen a front pair play for United.”
Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness suggested Mourinho could now use Rashford alongside Ibrahimovic upfront.
He said: “I think he has learned something today. Rashford has made it difficult for him to leave him out. I think he’s a very exciting young talent.
Also read: United expect Shaw thing at Burnley
“He gives them legs and I think he could play with Ibrahimovic. I think it would suit both of them, but that’s for the manager to decide.”
Mourinho set United up to stop Chelsea, with Ander Herrera and Matteo Darmian tasked with the responsibility of tracking dangermen Eden Hazard and Pedro wherever they went.
At the back, he played with a three-man defence, with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia playing as wing-backs to make sure their opposite numbers were pushed back.
That decision effectively muzzled Chelsea, who failed to register a shot on target in a league game for the first time since 2007.
They also registered just one shot in the first half, which is their lowest total in a Premier League first half this season.
But despite Herrera’s chief role as a stifler, he created United’s seventh-minute opener, albeit in contentious circumstances.
However, Souness doesn’t think the set up that will work for the Red Devils every time.
He said: “Today they were fabulous. He got his tactics spot on and enjoyed a bit of luck, but I don’t see that as a template.
“Manchester United have to dominate the ball here. They have to be on the front foot and get everyone in the stadium on the edge of their seat, like they have done for the best part of 20 years.
“I don’t think they could go and play like that every week against lesser teams who will sit in and not try and open up against them.”
He added: “I think this is a one-off. We know he does that in games, he can park the bus when he wants to, as he did at Liverpool earlier this year.”
Chelsea were without goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois due to an ankle problem, while Marcos Alonso succumbed to a virus, bringing Asmir Begovic and Kurt Zouma into their first XI.
However, Antonio Conte, who didn’t display his usual enthusiasm on the touchline, blamed the lacklustre performance on himself instead of his team.
“In this case, the fault is the coach. It is mine. In this case I wasn’t able to do the right motivation.
“To play this type of game from now and until the end, we must have great enthusiasm, great motivation to try to reach the target.”
“The satisfaction is for different reasons,” said Mourinho, whose side take a 1-1 scoreline into the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final at home to Anderlecht on Thursday.
“The first reason is, with Liverpool and Manchester City’s victories, if we don’t win today, goodbye Premier League (top four).
“We don’t know what can happen in the Europa League, so these three points were phenomenal.
“The second reason is they are the leader. They are named Chelsea, but they could be named Arsenal or Tottenham.
“When you beat the leader, it is obviously a very good feeling because you feel you are as good or better than them.”