MANCHESTER UNITED VS CHELSEA
After a good win at Swansea David Moyes first home league game saw United face Chelsea. Many see Chelsea as the pre-season favourites for the title and with Mourinho back in charge for the visitors this was always likely to be a tough test.
Moyes chose to make only one change from the side that faced Swansea with Rooney starting this game in place of Giggs. The starting eleven then was the eleven that finished the game in Wales.
- For most of this game Chelsea played without conventional forwards. They set up to restrict space and this natural asked United to take the initiative. In one sense United failed here, being unable to break Chelsea down. United lacked creativity in the centre of the park.
- When United were creative Rooney was the fulcrum of that creativity. He had an excellent game, dropping deep, running high and wide, linking play and directing the direction of the attack, he was by some distance the best player on the pitch.
- Valencia and Welbeck stayed narrow in the attacking areas and this placed responsibility on the full backs to provide a wide threat by making overlapping runs. To some extent Evra rose to this challenge on the left, but on the right Jones whilst playing well as a defender, failed to create any meaningful threat.
United started this game in a 4-2-3-1 shape. Rooney played behind van Persie with Welbeck narrow on the left and Valencia narrow on the right. Mourinho sprang a surprise, choosing not to select a recognized centre forward. The Chelsea shape was roughly 4-3-3 with two deep pivots and Oscar ahead of them and behind the front three. The front three however were so deep that the shape often resembled a 4-6-0. The obvious consequence of this was that the midfield area was crowded and it was clear from very early in the game that Chelsea were effectively looking to occupy midfield space in an attempt to set United a challenge to try and break them down. Chelsea were then aiming to hit United on the break via their fast mobile players.
A number of patterns emerged in United’s play almost from the kick-off.
Firstly United’s front four all looked to press Chelsea aggressively whenever a Chelsea defender had the ball. If Chelsea had won possession deep in their half, whoever had the ball was closed down very quickly. This was a far more aggressive press than was usual under Sir Alex management and it was quite effective. United often regained possession quickly and in high positions in the Chelsea half, but having won the ball they didn’t then use it well. This could be contrasted with situations where Chelsea beat this initial press. Then United dropped off and covered space with Carrick and Cleverley screening the back four.
Generally and unusually, of the two pivots employed by United Carrick started furthest forward and to the left. Carrick is usually the deeper of the two and usually stays right.
Welbeck and Valencia tended to stay fairly narrow. This helped in the pressing as they were closer to the central players and could therefore work in tandem. It meant however that United were relying on the full backs for a wide threat. Valencia especially was tending to pull Ashley Cole inside but Jones is not a natural attacker and failed to exploit the space left on the right. On the other side Evra’s forward bursts were generally more effective. The general quality of United’s crossing however was poor throughout this game and the wide threat generated very little. This was disappointing as when attacking United often switched play laterally and found space in wide areas by doing so. Either the delivery was then slow or inaccurate. On many occasions having created the space the wide players simply recycled possession back inside to Carrick or Cleverley.
The other consequence of Welbeck and Valencia playing narrow was that this further congested the centre of the pitch. United’s attacks often broke down in the area just outside the D, a zone where for most of the match there was little space and no way through. In response to this Rooney ran deep away from goal to get hold of the ball and look to direct play from a deep position. Rooney was everywhere and had an excellent game. His play showed real urgency, energy and inventiveness.
Carrick and Cleverley did what they did well. They screened the defence, retained possession, moved the ball and recycled the focus of attacks. It was what they didn’t do that was an issue. Neither played especially telling passes and as a consequence United lacked creativity in midfield. Of the two Carrick was perhaps the most creative, refocusing the attack by switching play. Very little came from this with United’s more promising moments coming whenever Rooney dropped deeper. Did Carrick’s play suffer from playing in a higher position?
Both sides defence’s were on top here. Chelsea’s massed ranks were expertly marshaled by Terry, who had a great game and Ferdinand and Vidic were solid for United. As a consequence there were very few clear cut chances with the pattern once set quite early in the half remaining unchanged until half-time. Chelsea were restricted to shots from range, to which De Gea was always the equal.
Not a lot changed at the start of the second half until Mourinho made his first substitution after 60 minutes. Torres replaced De Bruyne, presumably in an attempt to create more of a focus to Chelsea’s forward play. This worked to an extent and thereafter Chelsea’s attacking play improved marginally.
From about this point onwards United seemed to press less. Up until the hour mark a noticeable feature of United’s play was the number of tackles they were making. They were also winning a significant number of them, both 50-50 balls and often tackles that were 60-40 in Chelsea’s favour. It’s quite possible that from this point on United simply tired. If so that is a concern. Are they capable of playing in this way for a sustained period? In other matches if United have taken a clear lead they might not have too, but in a tight game against top opposition such a high energy approach may be unsustainable.
On 67 minutes Moyes made his first change replacing Valencia for Young. This was a straight swap. Then on 78 minutes he replaced Welbeck with Giggs, again a straight swap. Moyes did not change his the tactical approach at all during the whole of the game, the only real differences being that United showed a greater sense of attacking urgency late in the game and around the time of the substitutions the game became a little stretched. This apart the pattern of the game, set early in the first half did not change. Stalemate.
This was a frustrating game. United showed that they have the ability to compete and in not playing conventional forwards Mourinho illustrated that whilst many commentators don’t seem to rate United’s chances of retaining their title, he certainly doesn’t see things that way. He came to ensure that Chelsea did not lose.
The frustration came from United’s inability to create significant clear cut goal scoring opportunities. Their play lacked creativity in the midfield, and with minimal wide threat, especially on the right they were unable to make a significant impact on the Chelsea defence. The balance in midfield is not right; Carrick and Cleverley both functioned well in all respects except for creativity. They kept the ball well, recycled attacks, screened the defence and made it difficult for Chelsea to exert an attacking threat when they did break out, but going forward their play lacked the decisiveness and imagination.
On the plus side United looked solid and competitive in all areas. Clearly well organized under Moyes, they pressed high attempting to win the ball back early in the Chelsea half. They were sharp in the tackle winning most 50-50 balls in the first hour. Thereafter they seemed to tire a little allowing Chelsea greater opportunity to find space after transitions.
Rooney was the stand-out performer here. Whatever his personal ambitions he was excellent from start to finish.