Chelsea were good enough to frustrate Manchester United at Old Trafford, but what did it all mean?
The obvious subtext to José Mourinho's selection of that revolving four-man attack – a headless octopus of a thing, all arms and legs but no teeth, no decisive spurt of Wazza-like toxic ink – was that it was an act of grand-scale Rooney-seduction. This was the tactical equivalent of the rose between the teeth, the scented cushion, the carelessly tossed fronds of greying bouffant. Except, of course, not even Mourinho could set his team out like that in a game like this with such arch and knowing intent. Probably. Certainly, managers have done this kind of thing before. Roberto Mancini wasn't above making a point to those in charge of acquisitions. Harry Redknapp picked two substitute goalkeepers against Manchester City last season, thereby ramping up his own down-to-the bare bones hard luck story. But surely not here, not now, not this early. Maybe. Perhaps. Da da dum. Oh Wayne. You … complete me.
No spiders, no flies. Chelsea got a point at the champions. Had they nicked a goal and won 1-0 the entire reverse-intuitive footballing narrative would have shifted to José-the-genius, poor old Moysey, Premier League to change stance: medals now awarded in August and so on. Football is a business of small accumulated details. Over a season the smothering at Old Trafford may simply prove to be one that counts in Chelsea's favour.
On the other hand perhaps this was a chance missed for Mourinho, who turned up at Old Trafford, stomach held in, and squeezed into last year's tactical skinny jeans. "This is how we do things in Spain, Mr Moyes," that too-clever-by-half strikerless attacking formation seemed to say. In the event the promised blizzard of state-of-the-art pass-and-move failed to materialise and Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were no doubt quietly thankful not to be tested at any stage by the extreme physicality of Romelu Lukaku.
Let us make this clear, José answers only to one man. And that man is José. What mattered here was the Mourinho-hallmarked discipline of those attacking midfielders, particularly Eden Hazard and Oscar, who scampered like diligent little Santa's gnomes on their flanks, the work ethic of Kevin de Bruyne and 90 minutes of sedentary spectating for the current candidate for chief fall guy, the far-too-much-fun Juan Mata. Control is everything for Mourinho. And he had control here.
Judging from the first high-intensity selection of José 2.0, Mourinho has decided to address the vexed question of whether you can ever really go back by simply going back. John Terry in particular looked very solid against a United team that was never really able to isolate him. Frank Lampard, at 35, remains a high-class three-quarter speed footballer Great Scott. The DeLorean controls. They're stuck on 2005.
There was a favourable first flick of the Mourinho Biro for everybody's favourite all-action Brazilian midfield utility man. After some uncomfortable times on the right wing this was a significant start in a big game in his favoured position. Everybody likes Ramires. I like Ramires. You like Ramires. José, it seems, likes Ramires. On the whole good news, then, for Ramires.
As selections go this was the most José-friendly, José-affirming and generally José-stinking return to the big stage possible. By the end at Old Trafford Mourinho had fielded every single player available to him from his first spell at the club with the exception of Michael Essien and Hilário who, in the event, might have done a decent job coming on up front instead of Fernando Torres. For Mourinho this was the selection equivalent of striding into your new house, keys still in hand, and swishing down the net curtains, junking the lampshades, cramming César Azpilicueta into the kitchen bin and ceremonially dangling Demba Ba out on the washing line for a long overdue thrashing with the carpet beater. Thank you Avram, Phil, Carlo, André, Roberto, Rafa. I'll take it from here.
Yes David Luiz is injured. And yes Mourinho has so far been effusive on the Chelsea future of the most enjoyable loopy footballer among the Premier League elite. But still, putting David Luiz into Monday night's rigidly-honed back six would have been like putting a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire, cocktail umbrella on a pint of stout or a man who runs around a lot into a team of rigidly defined lines. David Luiz may yet become a Mourinho keystone – please, please can David Luiz become a Mourinho keystone – but the selection of Branislav Ivanovic, a full-back who is essentially a highly effective gristly obstruction, hints at other priorities.
Another thing about that front four: they're all very young, a fact Mourinho duly reminded everybody of afterwards, cooing fulsomely over his "boys" like a Portuguese David O'Leary tribute act and attempting, in the midst of assorted other concerns, to steal a little moral high ground, styling his forward line as a project, a spunky, underdog-ish affair. Never mind that we're talking about Brazilian, German and Belgian internationals with a combined value of £77m. In a certain light José's team sheet – and indeed José himself – said: we are not the evil empire. We are instead the rebel alliance.
Even within the richly fertile nexus of a José Mourinho team selection there are limits and some elements of the human experience will remain forever opaque. Torres's appearance on 60 minutes is perhaps simply one of these, an event with absolutely no meaning whatsoever. Although his hair did look slightly shorter.