Chelsea battle back while Mourinho throws United players under the bus
If Manchester United's players weren't aware before, they certainly are now. Jose Mourinho, once a man praised because his antics and public proclamations were perceived as distraction techniques, ways to divert attention and pressure away from his players, proved on Saturday that he's perfectly happy to blame someone else when things go wrong.
"I don't even remember a friendly match where our attitude was so poor," Mourinho said after United's 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield. "When I lose matches, I like to lose because the opponent was better and had more quality. But when you lose because of attitude, that is really bad.
"I heard Ander Herrera in his TV interview saying the attitude and desire was poor. Oh my God: when a player says that, or a player feels that, I think they should all go to the press conference and explain why -- because I cannot explain that. It concerns me because if it happened today why can't it happen tomorrow?"
It was classic Mourinho. Identify a reason for the defeat, paint it as something he could not possibly have done anything about, then hope nobody realises that's not the case. If only there was an experienced, decorated figurehead with some sort of influence over the players who could stop things like this happening.
It was interesting to contrast the way United crumbled against Huddersfield with how Chelsea came back from 2-1 down against Watford to earn a 4-2 win, three points, and a colossal exhalation of relief from Antonio Conte.
Before the Huddersfield game, United had been behind for just two minutes all season, when Stoke took the lead in September only to be rapidly pegged back by Marcus Rashford. Under Mourinho they have come from behind to win only two games: one was against Blackburn in last season's FA Cup, the other against Middlesbrough in the Premier League on New Year's Eve 2016. It might be just a coincidence that both teams were relegated from their respective divisions.
Or it might suggest that United are good front-runners, but on the evidence of this weekend are not quite so useful in adversity. Chelsea, on the other hand, have conceded five goals in their last two games, against Roma and Watford, were behind in both but lost neither. The obvious point is that it's not ideal they went behind in the first place, but at least they seem to show a little more mettle when they do.
Even when Chelsea were 3-2 up, they kept pressing, kept pushing, kept trying to seal the points. Their fourth goal came as a result of a careless scooped pass from Miguel Britos, but it was only because Tiemoue Bakayoko (who otherwise had a poor game) was closing him down, 30 yards from the Watford goal, that the mistake was capitalised on.
"In this moment it is important for the coach to stay focused on the pitch, to stay with your head on the pitch and to understand the right way to help your team," said Conte, when asked about his emotions when Chelsea were 2-1 down. "It is not simple. When you see your team is suffering it is not simple. But you must be cold to try and find the right way to help your team."
Conte's changes swung the game. Willian, Michy Batshuayi and Davide Zappacosta were all brought on and Cesar Azpilicueta was moved from right to left wing-back. Batshuayi scored twice, Azpilicueta got another running in from that left flank and both Willian and Zappacosta were involved in at least one of those three goals. Given that one of the key perceived problems about Chelsea this season is a lack of depth, Conte showed a shrewd use of his resources to change a game against a Watford team that have overpowered others this season.
Mourinho made changes too, not so successfully, although he was forced into his first substitution by the injury to Phil Jones. But perhaps it is something more ephemeral that was behind their relatively limp response to Huddersfield taking the lead.
Mourinho's comments after the 2-1 loss might have been intended as motivation, a public defenestration of his team designed to buck their ideas up. But instead it simply seemed like a passing of the blame, creating a division between manager and squad. Once Mourinho's strength was this iron bond between him and the players, but now he is seemingly happy to throw them under the bus when things go wrong, that spirit is at best more difficult to achieve. When that happens, inspiring a team to turn games around isn't quite so straightforward.
Part of the problem might be tactical, too. United under Mourinho are essentially a reactive team, one that plays to exploit opponents' weaknesses first, rather than imposing their own style. That explains, to a point, the approach in that tame 0-0 draw against Liverpool, but the problem is that if no weaknesses appear, United are in trouble.
"They don't really play with the same fluidity as Spurs or Man City. They build up quite slow," Huddersfield's Tom Ince said after the game.
"They couldn't find space and sometimes it seemed like: 'OK, we're standing in confident and they don't know what to do,'" Huddersfield goalkeeper Jonas Lossl added.
"That was great."
This is just one game, and United's season has otherwise been pretty good. Likewise with Chelsea, there are assorted problems that will not be solved by a spirited comeback against Watford.
But this weekend displayed that, if both of these teams go behind, there's only one that you would back to recover.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.