CHELSEA vs MANCHESTER UNITED
Monday night and a quarter final trip to Stamford Bridge for what would be a real test against the run-away league leaders and Champions elect. United of course also lost their league visit by a significant margin, their last league defeat, so this was an opportunity to measure progress across the season. Despite all this the bottom line was that United were looking to continue the defence of their FA Cup holdership and potentially their pursuit of a Cup treble. How would Jose approach this game, particularly after playing three at the back in Russia and given a hectic fixture schedule with a second game to follow later in the week?
In: De Gea, Valencia, Darmian and Rashford.
Out: Romero, Blind, Fellaini and Ibrahimovic.
- Jose again set up with three at the back and wingbacks. This time that appeared to be to match up to Chelsea’s shape. This worked reasonably well at the start but by the time of the sending-off the running and sharpness of Chelsea’s passing especially through Hazard and Willian had begun to tell.
- The sending-off inevitably changed the game. United had to sit deeper and be more passive. They retained discipline however and battled away to limit Chelsea’s opportunities to score. Despite this these qualities were a good thing to see. Recently United sides have lacked a “backs to the wall” battling quality but here they rolled up their sleeves; a credit to United’s developing team spirit. Valencia embodied this spirit perhaps more than anyone else.
- After the sending-off United could only expect opportunities to hit Chelsea on the break but withdrawing Mkhitaryan left Rashford isolated. Recovering from illness he became isolated and United were ineffective as an attacking force on the break.
- Chelsea’s movement on and off the ball, the tempo of their play and the slickness of their passing was too much for United but with United sitting back much of Chelsea’s play was in front of United. United dropped too deep at times and ultimately paid the price with Kanté having plenty of time on the edge of the box to look up and pick his spot.
- United missed Ibrahimovic here. His strength and ability to hold the ball up would have helped significantly to resist Chelsea down the centre of the pitch and so to give the defence some respite. Criticism of Pogba appears unfair in the light of this. This highlights the extent to which United need additional striking options for the future.
After using a 3 at the back strategy in Russia, (which is widely believed to be the first time Jose Mourinho has ever used such a shape), the manager chose to utilise the same shape here. This made some sense because it mirrored Chelsea’s usual 3-4-3. The challenge would be whose wing backs would play on the front foot? Whoever succeeded in this might achieve overloads in the wide areas. The strategy also required bravery on behalf of both coaches in the front line where three front men might be up against three central defenders. That of course is contrary to the usual perceived orthodoxy of retaining one more attacker than the opposition has defender.
United’s starting shape with the zone in which United struggled to contain Willian and Hazard highlighted and Jones who had a particularly difficult time with Hazard
It didn’t quite work out this way because United shape was more of a 3-5-2 with Young dropping eeper and Chelsea’s more of a 3-4-2-1 with Willian and Hazard dropping into space behind Costa.
The start of the game saw United press Chelsea high and all over the pitch and for the first fifteen to twenty minutes United had marginally the better of the game. Darmian and Valencia particularly pressed high and pushed Moses and Alonso, Chelsea’s wingbacks back. This allowed Herrera and Pogba to press forward with Young tending to drop slightly, often behind Darmian a player not perhaps as well suited to the wingback role as Valencia. United were quite successful in holding the ball when they won it and had a good deal of possession in the Chelsea half. They made minimal impression on Chelsea however and created no goal-scoring opportunities. This was as a consequence of Chelsea’s hard working determination. Their wingbacks dropped deep effectively creating a bank of four so that even when United channelled the ball wide they found little space and with Kante and Matic patrolling in front of the back five Herrera and Pogba had no time on the ball.
Whenever United won the ball deep they tended to hit the ball forward quickly towards Rashford and then look to build from there with Mkhitaryan trying to build off the youngster. This didn’t quite come off but it looked a promising tactic.
There is a tendency when there is a sending off and one team is forced to change strategy to talk about how that moment changed the game. As course this is true a sending off will change the game and it did here but that is not the full story. The game had already changed by the time of Herrera’s dismissal and then did so again at that point. The game was initially changed by the movement of Hazard and Willian. Operating as a two behind Costa they dropped deep effectively asking United’s back three how they would respond. United were continuing to press and they found this increasingly difficult as the half progressed because of the movement of this pair. Much has been made of United supposedly rotationally fouling Hazard through this period of the game. We don’t believe this to be the case it was just that the movement and running of Hazard in particular was too good for Smalling, Rojo and particularly Jones. As Hazard dropped deep to turn and run at United one or other of them, usually Jones followed him and attempted to press but was usually too high. The alternative was for Herrera or Pogba to drop deeper to pick up the pair as they dropped into their zone. Herrera did this but his impetuosity got him sent off. Before this happened Hazard’s movement and running on the ball had fashioned a couple of good clear cut chances.
Then came the sending-off. This was a rash foul and unnecessary. Jones had been penalised for a foul on Hazard with the referee issuing a stern warning to the player and captain Smalling. Immediately after Herrera fouled Hazard; Herrera had already been harshly booked for an earlier incident when Hazard deliberately ran into the United man and so on 35 minutes United were reduced to ten men as Herrera was sent off.
Jose Mourinho made an immediate substitution replacing Mkhitaryan with Fellaini. Fellaini dropped into Herrera’s midfield space with Rashford now operating as a sole front man as United set up as a 3-5-1. They battled away for the next ten minutes dropping deeper and pressing less to ensure that the score at half-time remained 0-0.
Following on from the end of the first half United continued in a 3-5-1 shape at the start of the second half as Chelsea took control of the game and push United back. Chelsea’s approach here was a masterclass of how to overcome a low block; they passed the ball at tempo constantly moving the ball in and out and from side to side. With United now sitting deep Hazard and Willian could not find space as effectively between United’s midfield and defensive lines and as such much of the play was in front of United’s block but because they moved the ball quickly this kept the pressure on United who therefore need to both do a lot of running and concentrate on retaining their shape.
United’s second half shape with Fellaini taking up Herrer’s former poition
It only took Chelsea six minutes of the second half to make a breakthrough. Thus came as a diect consequence of the pattern of display described above. Chelsea moved the ball quickly across the pitch constantly and when they returned the ball to the centre United were out of shape and too deep allowing Kante time and space to look up and pick his spot from just outide the box. 0-1 after 51 minutes.
The pattern of the game did not change much after the goal from that point until the end of the game. United didn’t concede again because they showed great discipline and worked hard retaining their shape. Notable mentions here should go to Valencia who defended resolutely but also tried to break out whenever he could and Rojo who battled Costa and did not respond to that players usual attempts at provocation.
Unfortunately for United they could not find a way back into the game however and Rashford looked increasingly isolated. He worked hard but recovering from illness his energy levels seemed to drop as the half wore on. He failed to convert a great chance in the 58th minute when grabbing a long clearance he turned Cahill this way and that before his shot was saved by Courtois.
Late in the game Lingard came on for Young on 81 minutes which was perhaps an attempt to create a link to the isolated Rashford as United looked to find a way back into the game. They couldn’t though and so lost their grip on the FA Cup.
Obviously we are all disappointed to go out of the FA Cup, especially as the holders, but if we focus on refereeing decisions here we will miss the lessons in this game. United’s game plan was good so praise to Jose but we didn’t quite have the players to pull it off against a high quality side on top of their game. Even before the sending off Chelsea had begun to get on top.
Jones and Rojo had begun to struggle, Smalling less so as he was the spare man of the back three with less to do, less interventions to make. Jones and Rojo needed to be sharper, more alert and to show better judgement against the likes of Hazard and Willian. Herrera too needed to show better judgement; he is a good player but too impetuous at times. Young and Fellaini did okay, showed spirit but had minimal impact as an attacking force even if they held their own. United need to upgrade in certain areas to be able to impose ourselves in a game like this.
Rashford, if ill, did really well. He was isolated after the sending-off and the sacrifice of Mkhitaryan for long periods of the game and wasn’t quite clinical enough with the one chance he had. Perhaps given illness and all the work he was required to do as a lone front man this was excusable.
Jose got his game plan about right here, but he perhaps didn’t quite have the players to make it work fully and the on-going game circumstances conspired against him.