CHELSEA vs MANCHESTER UNITED
After a creditable draw at Anfield and an easy win in the Europa League United travelled to Stamford Bridge for a third game in six days. Jose Mourinho had stated after the game at Liverpool that this wasn’t a spell for making up ground but a spell to keep in touch. United fans were therefore anticipating another tight organised performance.
In: Valencia, Blind, Herrera, Fellaini, Rashford and Ibrahimovic.
Out: Darimian, Shaw, Carrick, Mata, Martial and Rooney.
- Conceding a goal in the first minute is never how you want to start a game but when the match settled down after this opening goal it was United who were marginally on top until they conceded a second on twenty minutes against the run of play. Thereafter things went from bad to worse.
- United were undone by bad defensive errors. Two in the first half and then two more in the second half as they chased the game. Mourinho made a half time substitution and changed shape from a 4-3-3 which had become a 4-1-4-1 to a flat 4-4-2. This didn’t work. When United attacked the play became compressed and United channelled the ball wide. They got absolutely nothing from their crosses. The shape also left the centre of their midfield and defence exposed to counter attacks.
- United’s defence had a poor game. Defending without conviction; Chelsea looked sharper quicker and more determined with Pedro and Hazard running into the channels on either side of Herrera. United looked lethargic and lacking defensive vigilance or co-ordination. Such a contrast to the game at Anfield.
- Much of United’s attacking play was very lop sided with the emphasis on the United right. United worked hard to create overloads or even just one-on-one situations against the perceived weakness of Alonso. Valencia did well in the first half but got few opportunities to isolate the wingback in the second.
- The centre of United’s midfield looked very weak and was overpowered at times in the second half. Pogba looked slow and was often bullied out of the game. Mata was busy coming inside from a starting position on the right but created little and whilst Herrera was busy as well but he was regularly outnumbered. Chelsea were just quicker to everything.
This game started very badly for United. With their attack Chelsea’s Alonso hit a hopeful looking pass forward through their left hand side. Daley Blind was left flat footed and Chris Smalling failed to track the run of Pedro who fired Chelsea into a first minute lead as De Gea came rushing out of his goal. Clearly this all happened before there had been any chance for the game to settle into any sort of pattern, but a lack of understanding at the heart of the defence was a feature throughout.
Jose Mourinho made six changes from the team that faced Fenerbache three days earlier but also changed the teams shape from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. Herrera was the sole defensive midfield player with Pogba and Fellaini ahead. Initially Rashford was positioned against Alonso on the United right with Lingard on the left against Moses. We say initially as within the first fifteen minutes the pair had swapped sides.
United in the opening moments and then after Lingard and Rashford switched
This sets up the first talking point of the game. Why did they swap? The most obvious answer was that Mourinho was concerned about the pace of Moses against Blind on the United left and wanted to put Rashford over on that side to add pace here. This meant that Lingard would be up against the weaker Alonso. Actually it was Valencia who pushed the wingback back as Lingard pushed inside and deeper. With Rashford playing almost as a wingback on the other side the shape had become more of a 4-1-4-1.
Much of United’s attacking endeavours came down this right hand side as Valenica pushed forward. United seemed determined to create overloads on this side or one on ones with Valencia against Alonso and Fellaini and Lingard pressing in the inside right channel. They regularly passed in triangular patterns looking to set Valencia free. When they managed to deliver the ball wide quickly this worked and Valencia regularly outpaced the Chelsea defence on that side. United’s best moments in the first half came when Valencia got into a high position and delivered a centre. Chelsea coped with this but they did looked troubled at times.
When Chelsea had the ball in deep areas United pressed via Pogba and Fellaini with Lingard tucking in. Rashford on the left tended to drop deeper so United’s team shape was slightly diagonal. They had some success in pressing however and at times Chelsea had difficulty moving the ball over the halfway line, but all too often when United won the ball in high areas, Lingard and to a lesser extent Herrera were slow to move the ball forward. After about twenty minutes it was fair to say that whilst the game was fairly even United had probably just about had the better of it. Ibrahimovic however was dropping deeper and this was making it fairly easy for the Chelsea defenders and defensive midfield players Matic and Kante. Then the wheels came off.
Chelsea’s second goal came on twenty minutes from a high corner delivered into the box. United failed to deal with this. Herrera was slow to react and the ball bounced off him in the penalty area; Cahill fired home with the ball deflecting off Blind. Pinball in the box but the goal illustrated an issue with United’s general performance. Chelsea looked sharper and reacted far quicker to the loose ball, United flat footed. This was a feature of the second half as well.
For five minutes after the goal United really wobbled and seemingly lost their way. They stopped pressing Chelsea and dropped far too deep. A better side would have punished United at this point. United rallied however and continued to push Chelsea on the right. The pattern of the half hadn’t changed. United took the game to Chelsea who frequently struggled to move the ball forward but when they got into the United half the running of Pedro and Hazard troubled United in the half spaces whilst Pedro bullied the United central defensive pair. The trouble came when Chelsea got beyond the United midfield pair of Fellaini and Pogba and at and around Herrera. If they got into this area Smalling and Bailly didn’t seem to know whether to stick or twist, come or drop and their movement was often un-coordinated.
At half time United needed a rethink. 0-2.
Jose Mourinho had a re-think at halftime, made a substitution and changed team shape. The substitution saw Fellaini removed and Mata introduced. The change in shape saw United move from a 4-3-3 to a flat 4-4-2. Mata was positioned on the right of midfield with Lingard on the left. Rashford joined Ibrahimovic in a front pair. This was a bold move. Perhaps the thinking was that United would have two forwards against the three man Chelsea defence. A two goal lead had allowed Chelsea to drop deep and await opportunities to break. With Moses and Alonso deeper and Matic and Kante infront of the back three it is a fair assumption that United would need more than a single central forward in Ibrahimovic. The problem was that this would always leave the central midfield pair of Herrera and Pogba exposed on the break to the pace of Hazard and Pedro and the power of Costa. It would also leave United’s midfield potentially outnumbered.
Mata of course has a tendency to come inside from the right and so initially this was avoided, but his movement and United’s flattish shape made little impression on Chelsea who dropped deep. Essentially this meant that when United came forward the play became compressed and United continued to move the ball wide to try to get behind Chelsea. In truth United got virtually nothing from crosses from the wide areas with the Chelsea back three winning everything.
On 51 minutes Bailly picked up an injury and was replaced by Rojo. Rojo took up Blind position on the left and Blind moved to centre back. This was a good thing in that it meant Rojo could use his pace, (as a defender against Moses), but a bad thing in that it potentially left Blind exposed to the pace of Pedro who moved to a more central position.
United after the half time re-organisation and later after further substitutions
On 61 minutes Chelsea struck again. Hazard had the ball on the left, playing at walking pace United’s defence seemed to be prepared to stand off and allow him the time to do what he wanted. He laid the ball off and ran onto the blind side of Mata who had switched off and let him run. He collected a return pass and shot inside the near post. Again United were asleep and the goal seemed to illustrate how much sharper and more alert Chelsea were to the possibilities. Defensively United were all at sea.
After this goal on 64 minutes United made their last substitution replacing Lingard with Martial. Martial was full of running but in terms of the result the die was cast and this changed very little. United pushed forward in a 4-4-2 shape and regularly looked vulnerable through the centre of the pitch to breakaways. The classic illustration of this came in the 69th minute when Kante was allowed time and space to run at the heart of the centre of United’s half before shooting home. The defence backed off; hesitating Smalling and Pogba failed to make a challenge, you have to challenge when a player runs at your penalty area!
Thus was a day to forget.
Always chasing the game after a bad start United rallied but were undone by some costly errors at key moments. For all this at halftime one could reflect on a tight game which was not un-recoverable with a more clinical second half performance. Chelsea had however looked sharper, more intense and more alert.
Mourinho was right to make a change but did he make the right change. Removing Fellaini weakened the spine and in the second half this is where United looked vulnerable to breakways. Can Herrera operate effectively as part of a central midfield pair, can Pogba; the evidence here suggests maybe not. Lingard looked lightweight in the first half and the obvious change seemed to be to replace him with Martial.
If the change was to facilitate a striking pair against Chelsea three man defence this was logical thinking, but United had gone from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1 in the first half. The 4-3-3 would have put the Chelsea back line under one on one pressure, but the change in shape isolated Ibrahimovic and effectively allowed the Chelsea wingbacks to push forward. With Hazard and Pedro dropping in United were also outnumbered at times in midfield. This was compounded by their sluggishness.
The change of shape didn’t work; the ball was slow to be delivered from the wide areas and Chelsea’s three man defence stood firm. United didn’t seem to have the conviction, the belief they could get back into the game. Their play lacked intensity and was occasionally fatally sloppy. Perhaps this change should have come later in the game. Coming so early it left United vulnerable to counterattacks. Chelsea capitalised.
In defence and attack United seemed lethargic. They were often second to loose balls and Chelsea seemed sharper. United also seemed to lack the requisite appetite for the defensive side of the game; only 34% of their tackles were successful and they regulalry failed to track runners. That is basic stuff; it doesn’t matter what tactical approach you adopt, if you don’t get that right you will lose. This was a surprise after the excellent defensive display at Anfield. They will have to be sharper on Wednesday.