Premier League, Old Trafford, Manchester
This is a big game; Chelsea have started the season like a house on fire. They are clearly the best team in the country by some distance and are already being acclaimed in some circles as Champions elect. This may seem premature to many but it isn’t and there is a clear danger that this season could become processional.
Do United have a chance? Logically no given our stuttering start to the season, but there are signs of improvement despite on-going concerns about defensive solidity. United are a bit “Jeykll and Hyde” at the moment, great going forward but always likely to produce a defensive mistake that undermines our best attacking efforts. Chelsea on the other hand are solid in the mould of all Mourinho teams, powerful and having addressed last season’s areas of weakness they are potent going forward. Currently they look close to being the finished article. United do have a chance of winning this game, but they will need to show discipline to eliminate defensive lapses.
Chelsea’s tactical approach
Chelsea should have won the league last season. Their obvious weakness was at centre forward where Ba, Torres and Eto didn’t cut the mustard. Mourinho has moved to address this issue by signing the excellent Costa whilst also signing Remy and Drogba as back up. Costa may not be fit, (we would expect him to play actually), and with Remy also sidelined this may be an opportunity for Drogba to start. United shouldn’t underestimate Drogba, he will still be capable of producing a performance in a one-off game.
Chelsea’s improvement isn’t just about the forward line however. Mourinho signing of Fabregas is a masterstroke and he is at least as important to Chelsea as Costa. (Why did Wenger chose not to take advantage of his “first choice buy-back clause” from Barcelona? Surely this was not because he anticipated that Wilshire would prove to be a better player). Fabregas dictates the pace and direction of the Chelsea game playing alongside the powerful Matic in the double pivot. Matic provides the solidity allowing Fabregas to be more assertive in a creative sense.
Mourinho now favours a 4-2-3-1 shape. He has moved Eden Hazard to the left hand side of the three to allow Oscar to lend more solidity to the spine. He will play in the centre of the three and sit deeper when the opposition have the ball allowing the other forward players to be more adventurous. This allows Mourinho to retain his central midfield “trivote”, a feature of all his recent sides, and a tactic which ensures that his sides are never outnumbered in transitions in the central area.
Despite their all-conquering start to the season we would expect Chelsea to sit deep and maintain a cautious approach. This wouldn’t perhaps be to the extent seen last season and if United do not assert themselves we would expect Chelsea to take control, (at least by the second half). If they do sit deep Chelsea will look to break at United through the intelligence of Fabregas feeding the pace of those ahead of him. If he doesn’t start expect the extra pace of Andre Schurrle to be introduced at some point.
United’s tactical approach
It is a far harder task to predict United’s strategic shape than Chelsea’s. Having started the season in a 3-4-1-2 formation the orthodoxy in recent weeks has become a 4-4-2 diamond before in the last game at West Bromwich Albion starting as a 4-3-3 and then reverting to a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1. This sudden change has lead many to speculate that the last game was a dress rehearsal for this match. It isn’t clear that that was the case but the match has thrown up a number of issues.
Firstly West Bromwich Albion looked to attack the space behind Di Maria and they were especially successful in this early in the game. In some respects Di Maria is emblematic of United’s current schizophrenia. He is excellent going forward but often losses possession and when played as a wide winger, (which he was in this game), does not contribute significantly to defence. When United played as a midfield three in the first half Herrera occupied the left hand side of this three and pressed high. This left a lot of space behind Di Maria and in front of Shaw. Shaw was attracted to this space and often found himself caught out of position as evidenced by the first goal. United’s play improved when Di Maria moved into the half space playing as a narrow ‘inverted winger’. If United go with a 4-3-3 shape we would expect both wingers to play narrow.
Secondly the much maligned Fellaini has a role at United. Several commentators have speculated that the lesson here for van Gaal is that in the premier league teams need a physical edge and Fellaini can provide that. This isn’t a lesson van Gaal has to learn, after all his reported interest in Strootman speaks of an awareness of this issue. Despite what many would have us believe England is not the only country where teams need a physical edge. Fellaini’s introduction was significant in the second half however and we may see him play a role in this game, possibly as an advanced midfield player looking to engage the Chelsea double pivot. The likelihood of this is increased given the apparent fragility of Herrera’s ribs and the inability of Mata to adequately press the opposition when played as a high midfield player. Mata was really disappointing on Monday night where Rooney’s drive and physicality were surely missed.
The third lesson thrown up on Monday night related to Falcao. Introduced late in the game Falcao was a handful. Nothing he did was especially eye catching but it was his constant movement and physical presence which had an impact. He made life difficult for the West Brom central defenders and in so doing helped push their defensive line back creating space for a number of shooting opportunities from the edge of the box, (Blind’s late strike for example). If Chelsea do sit deep Falaco’s movement will be critical in creating problems for Cahill, Terry and Matic; United must find a way of making their life hard.
It is difficult to pick out the key battles as there is so much uncertainty regarding who will play.
Eden Hazard vs Rafael
This one is a given. Hazard is a great player and Rafael will need to be on his best form, alert and disciplined at all times to cope.
Fabregas vs Herrera/Fellaini
Van Gaal hasn’t seemingly changed his tactics very often at United so far to counter an opposition player. But Fabregas is a key player and van Gaal may look to sit someone on him to stifle his influence. Who that will be depends upon van Gaal’s judgement and player availability.
Jones and Rojo vs Costa/Drogba or even Schurrle
This is the most difficult one to call as we don’t know who Chelsea will select. Paul Scholes was correct this week in stating that Jones and Rojo could develop into a solid central defensive partnership. The key here is communication. Is Rojo’s English good enough to support this yet and who is going to be the defensive talker, the leader/organiser? People may be surprised by this assertion but it is worth considering that the primary cause of both the goals conceded at West Bromwich was blunders by fullbacks rather than centre backs.
A big game
We started by stating that this is a big game and it is. If United were to lose the press will be full of stories about van Gaal failing at United. His bluntness and self-belief is clearly a source of irritation for some journalists as illustrated by the number of articles sitting in judgement upon him after his three month settling in period elapsed last week. Some of the marks they gave him weren’t just harsh but ludicrous. But all that misses the point.
Chelsea are set fair to be the dominant force in English football for the next few years, whilst United are a work in progress. This game then feels like a mismatch. United want to be where Chelsea are and it may be sometime before they are close to that, (certainly more than three months), but the game is a big game as it gives us a chance to measure where United are against quite clearly the best team in England right now. We don’t think United are as far behind as many would like to think. A win for Chelsea might confirm many people’s view but that would be a false judgement. United are not at Chelsea’s level, but they are capable of beating Chelsea this weekend simply because of their attacking verve and a win would generate significant belief, that would be invaluable in providing encouragement to that work in progress.
Van Gaal won’t change his approach. He may chose a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 combination but he will look to dominate possession and create chances. Success in the game will depend upon whether United can retain defensive discipline and not get caught on the break.