MANCHESTER UNITED vs CHELSEA
This was the first of a series of tough games for United against sides expected to be at the business end of the table at the end of the season. It was billed as a meeting of old friends, (Mourinho and van Gaal), as well as United’s first big test under the new “trainer/coach”. Many expected United to fall flat on their faces against the Premier League pace setters; United’s defending would certainly need to improve.
In: Smalling and Fellaini.
Out: Jones and Herrera.
- This was another tight game and on balance a draw was probably a fair result with United shading the first half and Chelsea being on top in the second half.
- Van Gaal pushed Fellaini and Mata forward to pick up Fabregas and Matic. It was usually Fellaini who staying close to Fabregas and Mata close to Matic. This prevented Chelsea getting into a rhythm and saw a separation between the Chelsea back six and front four.
- Fellaini had an excellent game. In addition to his role on Fabregas Fellaini pushed forward when United attacked, often playing almost as high as van Persie.
- Van Persie was much sharper than in recent weeks and had several good chances to score. Most of United’s better attacking endeavors went through him.
- In the second half Chelsea became more compact with the front four dropping deeper to help develop play. This allowed Chelsea to retain possession and get into a good rhythm. As a consequence they took control of the game.
- Both goals came through set pieces, but generally Chelsea defended set plays and balls delivered from wide areas far better than United. This has been a problem all season for United and remains a concern.
United started this game in a 4-3-3 shape giving credence to the view that the West Bromwich Albion game was a dress rehearsal for this encounter. Blind anchored the midfield three with Fellaini and Mata the two more advanced players. Chelsea formed up in a 4-2-3-1 as expected. What this meant was that Fellaini and Mata were directly confronting Fabregas and Matic and this was the defining factor in determining the nature of the first half.
Both Mata and Fellaini played quite high with Fellaini almost man marking Fabregas and Mata picking up Matic. The United men followed their Chelsea counterparts almost everywhere they went when Chelsea had the ball even when Fabregas and Matic switched sides. This was highly effective and resulted in a number of interesting points of note. Fabregas is key to Chelsea and the job Fellaini did on him meant that Chelsea’s passing became far to lateral. In turn this ensured that Chelsea became like two teams; a back six and and front four with a big gap at times between the two. Throughout the half only Willian of that front four dropped deep regularly in an attempt to bridge that gap.
This all meant that when United gained the ball there was space in the middle of the pitch; Chelsea were not compact. When United gained possession Fellaini and Mata took up wide positions which stretched Fabregas and Matic across the pitch and created a great deal of space between them. Robin van Persie took advantage of this and dropped deep into this space giving Blind or the central defenders an obvious passing option, (although at times Rojo passes out of the defence were particularly poor and caused a number of problem situations). The early long ball direct to van Persie’s feet as he dropped deep proved productive as he picked up possession, laid off a ball back or square to Mata, Januzaj or Di Maria and then worked the channels. In the first half an hour of the game this method saw United create a number of clear cut chances with the excellence of Courtois thwarting the reds on several occasions.
Courtois had an excellent game throughout and with United playing two wingers they delivered a high number of crosses. He dealt well with them all. Di Maria’s crosses were particularly disappointing. Di Maria and Januzaj had switched sides from their positions in the West Bromwich Albion game. Di Maria was now on the right facing Felipe Luiz with Januzaj on the left facing Ivanovic. United had more success on the left where Januzaj clearly had the beating of Ivanovic for pace.
The other notable feature of United’s play was the position of Fellaini when United had possession. As United attacked Fellaini would move forward and often take up positions ahead of van Persie. This caused Chelsea real problems throughout the game. Fellaini got the balance of his responsibilities exactly right here and had an excellent game.
All this suggests that United dominated the half. They did not, but instead shaded it. Chelsea for example had five corners in the opening twenty minutes. When Chelsea managed to move the ball beyond Felaini and Mata they looked dangerous, especially so when the play went through Hazard who had an excellent game. Rafael was booked as early as the 10th minute as he struggled to contain his man. Chelsea had a number of good chances themselves some of which came from the casual passing out of the defence from the central defenders. Rojo was the chief culprit with his wayward passing catching Blind out of position on a couple of occasions. On one such occasion Willian cut a neat ball back for Drogba whose shot was saved by De Gea.
For most of the first half the game was placed at a high tempo. At the start of the second half Chelsea maintained that pace whilst United did not. As a consequence Chelsea dominated possession for the first five minutes and pushed United back. Chelsea were able to do this because Mourinho had made adjustments at half time. The general shape remained the same but he effectively closed the gap between the front four and the back six. He did this by instructing the front four to drop deeper. Oscar, Willian and Hazard started much deeper and were therefore able to link with Fabregas and Matic. This effectively gave them easier passing options as Fellaini and Mata attempted to close them down.
Chelsea were now able to move the ball well, quickly and with some purpose, producing a number of patient but urgent passing moves. One of these saw Hazard run with the ball from deeper and after a one-two find himself in a one on one with De Gea. De Gea produced a breathtaking save and pushed the ball away for a corner. Unfortunately Chelsea scored from that corner when Drogba got across the United defence unchallenged to head home. The goal came after 53 minutes. The player marking Drogba at that corner was Rafael! This highlights a significant weakness in United’s game at the moment.
That weakness is organisation at set pieces. United generally have the bodies present to defend but the determination and organisation is missing. In this game it appeared that Fellaini was detailed to pick up Matic at set pieces, but Matic rarely came forward for set pieces or corners. This should have resulted in a reorganisation of who does what in these situations but it didn’t. We have talked previously about a lack of a defensive leader on the pitch and this illustrates that concern. Why was Rafael, United’s smallest defender detailed to pick up Drogba, Chelsea’s most accomplished header of a ball? Against a team as big and as powerful as Chelsea these sought of issues can be critical.
After the goal Chelsea dominated for about twenty minutes without actually pushing on for a second goal. United were there for the taking at this point, there play was slow and deliberate, there movement off the ball was poor and their passing was predictable with too many square balls looking to develop play down the wings or alternatively long balls forward with which Chelsea dealt with some ease. Mata and Di Maria were ineffective. Di Maria and Januzaj had now switched wings. Only Mourinho can explain why Chelsea did not show greater determination in trying to get the decisive second goal.
On 67 minutes both teams made their first change. Chelsea removed Oscar and introduced Mikel. This was a defensive move after Oscar had received a yellow card. Fabregas now moved to the no 10 osition with Mikel joining Matic in the double pivot. At the same time van Gaal removed Mata and introduced Wilson. Van Gaal now changed United’s shape with van Persie moving behind Wilson United’s shape became a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1.
Initially this had little impact but the presence of van Persie and Wilson playing in high positions seem to make Chelsea more cautious and allowed Di Maria and Januzaj to get forward on the break. The pace of these two trouble Chelsea and especially Ivanovic who struggled to deal with Di Maria. He was booked for decent after one foul. Much of United’s play continued to be via the wide areas with Fellaini often pushing on to join with van Persie and Wilson in the middle.
It didn’t look like United were going to get anything from the game however as the game entered injury time. Then Ivanovic was dismissed for a foul on Di Maria and from the corner United scored. It was ironic after United’s lack of organisation defending set plays that they profited at the end from Chelsea’s lack of organisation after the dismissal of Ivanovic. Di Maria’s free kick has met by the head of Fellaini, his header was parried by Courtois and fell to van Persie. Boom!
For the second consecutive game United snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat. But that doesn’t tell the full story; this was a good performance. The team executed the tactical strategy well, remained compact and from open play their defending was much improved. They were purposeful, urgent and energetic in attack. Against another keeper van Persie may have had a hat trick.
On an individual level several players gave much improved performances; Shaw, Mata, Januzaj and van Persie. This was perhaps Fellaini’s best game for United.
In the tactical battle van Gaal clearly won the first half whilst Mourinho’s adjustments meant that Chelsea dominated for 30 minutes after the break. Van Gaal then adjusted again to push for that well deserved equalizer at the death.