MANCHESTER UNITED vs CHELSEA
28.12.2015

Another game, another must win. Having lost four games in a row now however United really did need to break that sequence. Chelsea came to Old Trafford having changed their manager and with speculation at fever pitch that United might be about to change theirs the pressure was on.

PERSONNEL

In: Darmian, Scweinsteiger, Schneiderlin and Rooney.
Out: Jones, Carrick, Fellaini and Memphis.

KEYPOINTS

  • Not a win but a much better performance against a resilient Chelsea side who showed renewed conviction under their new boss.
  • United didn’t do a lot differently, but they did move the ball more quickly once they got into the oppositions half. Their movement in the final third was better and much credit for this should go to Rooney, Herrera and Mata. I wide areas Martial was direct and threatening on the left and Young pressing forward from full back on the right provided a degree of balance.
  • Chelsea were outplayed for periods of the game but from about 20minutes in they managed the game well. They slowed play by taking their time at free-kick and throw-ins, they feigned injury. This disturbed United’s rhythm and United lost their way.
  • Whilst United were quicker in the final third they were often over cautious and methodical coming out from the deep. There were too many square passes with Schneiderlin particularly guilty of this.
  • United aren’t having a lot of luck in front of goal but they do need to make things happen for themselves by being a bit more clinical when the chances come along.

FIRST HALF

Van Gaal made four changes here, all reasonably significant. Darmian came in at right back allowing Blind to return to the centre of the defence alongside Smalling. Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger returned as the pivots and Memphis stood down with Rooney starting as the centre-forward and Martial moving to the left. Herrera played centrally and so Mata occupied the left side but playing fairly narrowly. Chelsea matched this shape but without a recognised centre-forward. Hazard occupied that space with Oscar behind him. Willian and Pedro occupied the wide areas but with United taking the initiative these two dropped back making their shape closer to 4-4-1-1 rather than 4-2-3-1.

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United started in the ascendancy taking the game to Chelsea. Mata cut inside onto a simple lay-off from Rooney and shot against the bar. This was the high point of a very strong start. United moved the ball quickly with Herrera Rooney and Mata all rotating positions. In other words there was a lot of movement in the final third; a contrast from recent games. Mata’s movement tended to be inside whilst Rooney tended to drop into the middle of the pitch. Herrera was likely to pop up anywhere but didn’t usually go anywhere as wide as Mata’s starting position. This left plenty of space on the wide right into which Young regularly charged from full back. This in turn left some space for Chelsea’s left hand side to exploit. Pedro and Hazard who dropped across to that side always looked dangerous here on the break.

Mata action areas - coming in from the right to occupy a midfield zone

Mata action areas – coming in from the right to occupy a midfield zone

On United’s left the play was much more predictable.  Scweinsteiger pushed forward on this side and fed Martial and on occasions Darmian who looked to by-pass William and double up on Ivanovic. Martial’s direct running caused all sorts of problems for Ivanovic who didn’t seem to have the pace to cope. This running caused problems but was undermined by the final ball. The left hand thrust was actually much more effective when Martial cut inside to shoot. He was unlucky not to score when one of his shots hit the near post and rebounded across the face of the goal.

Rooney action areas - increased involvement

Rooney action areas – increased involvement

United’s bright start had lasted about twenty minutes, but they then lost their way. Why? Quite simply they allowed Chelsea to start to break up play. They did this by slowing the game down at any opportunity. Firstly by taking an age to take free-kicks or throw-ins, secondly by committing a series on snide fouls and thirdly by feigning injury and going down under innocuous tackles by United players. You can call this gamesmanship but the bottom line is teams do this when they are under pressure. All you can do when the opposition does this is stay focused on your game and hope the referee deals with events. The referee here didn’t though. This was a very poor refereeing display. United however didn’t do their part. They appeared to lose their focus and were certainly knocked out of their rhythm.

Herrera action areas - action all areas

Herrera action areas – action all areas

The consequence of this was that they failed to make a breakthrough and the score remained 0-0 at halftime.

SECOND HALF

The second half followed a consistent pattern throughout. United were generally on top with Chelsea breaking up the game and looking to hit United occasionally on the break. Chelsea did look dangerous on the break through their quick diminutive forwards although it was Matic who blazed over the bar on the break when he should have scored.

United themselves had a couple of good chances but it is worth considering why their football was never quite as threatening as it had been in the first twenty minutes. We can’t do anything about the referees performance so let’s forget about that. The issue we can do something about is the overly methodical play in our own half.

This was an issue towards the end of the first half but became even more noticeable in the second and in truth has been at the core of United’s malaise for a couple of years now. Quite simply when Van Gaal first took over as manager he encouraged the team to retain possession and develop play systematically from the back. At first we struggled to do this with the obvious example being the 3-5 defeat at Leciester when we were caught, losing possession in the middle of the pitch on a couple of occasions as Leciester ran on to score break away goals. Throughout last season United became stronger at playing the ball out from the back but the patience in the build-up as United pass the ball around in the middle of the pitch has also proved something United fans simply do not like. The fans don’t have the patience for this.

It can also be counterproductive if United move the ball forward very slowly, which currently they do. This can mean that by the time the team reach the oppositions defensive third they are easily formed up in a good defensive shape and then United’s static forwards, (outnumbered often), make little impact.

Schneiderlin passing - too many square passes?

Schneiderlin passing – too many square passes?

In this game Blind and Schneiderlin were particularly guilty of not moving the ball forward quickly enough choosing square safe passes rather than more risky forward passes. Schweinsteiger achieved a better balance and could often be seen urging players to take an early opportunity to make a forward pass.

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As the game wore on Van Gaal made a number of substitutions generally as players became fatigued and often those returning from injury who perhaps did not have the “match rhythm” to last the full game. So Van replaced Darmian with Borthwick-Jackson, Blind (Blind who was limping) and Mata who had run all day with Memphis.

One was left feeling that this was two points dropped as the game ended in a 0-0.

CONCLUSION

Those people baying for Van Gaal’s blood might be a little disappointed by this result; a crisis point seems to have passed. In the light of recent games and indeed four consecutive defeats this was a much better performance United played well at a better tempo with more aggressive intent so their football was noticeably more purposeful. With better movement from Mata, Herrera and Rooney there was an increased level of guile in the final third. Concerns persist however.

Match statistics - United dominated possession and passing combinations again but to no significant impact. The most interesting statistic through is fouls for and against which does not reflect the game but instead an incredibly poor refereeing performance.

Match statistics – United dominated possession and passing combinations again but to no significant impact. The most interesting statistic through is fouls for and against which does not reflect the game but instead an incredibly poor refereeing performance.

For much of the game Chelsea, on their own poor run were overly cautious; they played most of the match without a centre-forward but they managed the game well. No surprise as they may not be in a good run of form but as last year’s worthy Champions they are nobodies fools.

The primary concern for United is that given this cautious approach United could not score. United’s play was still overly cautious in the initial build-up phase and in front of goal they are still less than clinical and lacking an understanding and so co-ordination between players. The final ball is still an issue. Perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies, but there is still significant room for improvement.