Both sides had legitimate excuses for their poor performances at Old Trafford – Manchester United have sealed the Premier League title while Chelsea are coming towards the end of a difficult few weeks of fixture congestion. But the defining feature was the lack of tempo or technical quality, with neither manager capable of improving the contest with tactical decisions.
Sir Alex Ferguson selected a surprisingly functional midfield designed to stop Chelsea – many expected Shinji Kagawa to be given playing time at the end of a frustrating first campaign, but the Japanese playmaker remained on the bench. Without Michael Carrick setting the tempo or Wayne Rooney providing a spark between the lines, the trio of Phil Jones, Anderson and Tom Cleverley were far more effective at breaking up play than creating chances.
Jones' role was interesting – on paper his primary task was to sit in front of the defence and mark Juan Mata but he also sprinted forward into attack effectively. His final pass was often lacking, however, summed up by his overhit cross towards Robin van Persie in the second half.
Chelsea's midfield combination of Ramires and Frank Lampard, similarly, is more about energy than incision, and it's not an entirely natural partnership – the Brazilian bursts forward less frequently when playing alongside Lampard rather than Mikel John Obi.
Lampard was superb at breaking forward from an advanced role in José Mourinho's 4-3-3, and adapted his game well to prompt Chelsea's counterattacks in last season's victorious Champions League run, but is less comfortable when the opposition have men behind the ball, and he is forced to play inventive passes.
Perhaps the comparison is harsh but the disparity between this match and the two Champions League semi-finals in midweek was enormous. Whereas the best four clubs in Europe boast talented all-round midfielders who possess great technical quality and the physicality to create high-tempo contests, here the play was scrappy and slow.
In fairness, both managers tried to introduce extra attacking firepower. Ferguson summoned Rooney to play alongside Van Persie for the closing 20 minutes, although the primary effect of this substitution was to open out the midfield and allow Chelsea more time on the ball in central positions – they took command and put pressure on United's defence.
Rafael Benítez's decision to bring on Fernando Torres for Victor Moses also proved crucial, in an indirect way – Chelsea shifted to a 4-4-2 and Mata moved to the left, from where he scored the deflected winner. The Spaniard was not close to his best, yet remained the game's most dangerous player – despite United packing their midfield. He was intelligent with his positioning, always moving deep or wide into space.
Mata's chipped pass over the top of the United defence to Demba Ba settled the recent FA Cup tie between the teams at Stamford Bridge, and it was interesting how deep Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic positioned themselves to prevent a similar concession – often battling with Ba on the edge of the penalty area for long passes from Chelsea's half. As they dropped deep, Mata found space between the lines. He was the game's most prolific passer and played almost twice as many balls into the final third as any other player.
Mata deserved to be the game's matchwinner – especially considering his admirable selflessness when in goalscoring positions earlier on.