United’s win against Chelsea was the fourth time this season that Jose Mourinho has chosen a three at the back strategy and as far as we are aware only the fourth time in his coaching career that he has used such an approach. The previous games were the two matches against FC Rostov in the Europa League and the previous game against Chelsea in the FA Cup. Both Rostov an Chelsea favour a three at the back approach so to some extent Morinho has mirrored his opponents strategy, but that is a fairly superficial analysis as there was far more to United’s game plan than this.
For one thing Chelsea adopted their now usual 3-4-2-1 shape. United’s shape was roughly a 3-5-2 system; Chelsea has a single front man, Costa, with Pedro and Hazzard behind. United on the other hand had two front men in Rashford and the very slightly more withdrawn Lingard with Fellaini behind and Pogba slightly deeper. It was really only the three at the back approach which mirrored the Chelsea shape.
What was that team shape?
As described broadly speaking it was a 3-5-2 but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For one thing Herrera’s role to man mark Hazard meant that he popped up anywhere that Hazard did, which would inevitably distort the team shape. Since the game the shape has been variously described as a 3-4-1-2, 3-5-2, 3-1-4-1-2 or a 3-4-1-1, it has even been described as a 4-4-2. None of this matters although looking at the roles of various players in the system would allow a closer definition.
The three at the back consisted of Bailly, Rojo and Darmian; Herrera generally sat in front of them and to the United right although as previously stated he stuck fairly closely to Hazard. It is easier to understand the roles the three defenders played by looking at what and who they were trying to counter.
If Herrera stuck limpet like to Hazard Darmian tracked Pedro. Pedro started the game behind Costa on the Chelsea right which meant that as the right sided player in the three he was tracking his natural opponent. Darmian had an excellent game as his statistics demonstrate, he judged his positioning well and made the right decisions about when to follow Pedro or pass him on to Young. Young had an equally effective game, but more about his role anon. If Pedro came narrow, (which he frequently did), Darmian came narrow and Young dropped into the wide area. Valencia did much the same when Herrera tracked Hazard inside from the right
The critical thing here is that as Herrera tracked Hazard rather than that job being assigned to a defender this left two central defenders to pick up Costa. Rojo usually stayed tight to him, and got involved in a number of tussles as a consequence with Bailly fulfilling the role of the spare man.
What all this meant was that the three at the back with Herrera in front was often more of a 2-2 shape and if Young and Valencia dropped back as and when Chelsea came forwarded that made the overall team shape at time a 2-4-2-2.
Tempo, pace and positivity
Who cares about the team shape? Before looking further at the roles of individual players there is a couple of things to say about these three issues.
Over the last few years the tempo of United’s play has generally been too slow and whilst there has been some improvement in this area this year often there hasn’t been enough difference to solve the problems. By tempo we mean the speed at which people do things. In other words United’s tempo had been too slow because players take an extra touch and are ponderous in their decision making. Pace is different. By pace we mean specifically how fast players are at covering the ground. These two features of play can work together especially when combined with positivity. Combined these features are killer because they seize the initiative and deny teams an opportunity to recover from any mistakes they might make.
In this game United’s tempo was very good. To a degree this will be as a consequence of the opposition. Countless teams have come to Old Trafford over the years and sat deep in a low block asking United to break them down. In that scenario it is for United to force the issue and set the tempo. Chelsea have ambitions of their own of course so came to Old Trafford to compete for the win. Not sitting back meant that United had to circulate the ball quickly to retain it nevermind making an attacking impression on the game.
That brings us to pace. Chelsea’s centre backs are not the quickest in the game and it was a shrewd move to play Rashford and Lingard at the front in tandem. Mourinho picked Rashford at Stamford Bridge for the Cup game of course but to pick them both allowed both players to use their pace against Chelsea’s back three. Rashford and Lingard repeatedly ran the channels to spread the threat right across the front line and Luiz particularly struggled to contain Rashford from very early in the game. Both players were withdrawn late in the game because they would almost certainly have been exhausted by that point given the shift they had put in.
Equally important though was that United looked to hit the ball forward towards this pair early and they did not look to hold the play up coming towards the ball but instead looked to run in behind, something United forwards have not done enough this season. This pushed Chelsea back and saw United take the game to Chelsea but also ensured that if Chelsea made mistakes at the back pace denied them that opportunity to recover.
The importance of United’s wingbacks
We have already described how Valencia and Young dropped back when Hazard and Pedro came narrow. But that is only half the story. Young and Valencia played as true wingbacks here and their attacking thrust was equally as important as their defensive shift. It was important because it pushed Chelsea’s wingbacks back and ensured that they could not support Pedro and Hazard. It could have been the other way around of course and Chelsea might point to the late change with Alonso dropping out injured. Conte certainly wasn’t happy with Moses and Azpilicueta as he switched them early in the game but this may have been an attempt to provide more support for Hazard who was having no impact. The reason that it was United’s wingbacks playing on the front foot rather than Chelsea’s was however in our opinion because of that aforementioned forward threat provided by Rashford and Lingard. The whole Chelsea team took a step back.
The role of the wingbacks has been overlooked in most analysis of this game in our view. Herrera and Darmian were almost certainly helped significantly by the excellence of Young and Valenica. This pair are undoubtedly amongst the most tactically disciplined in the squad. Given a job to do, like Fellaini who similarly sticks to the script they will do it to the letter. So Young and Valencia pushed the Chelsea wingbacks back but they also judged when to drop back and create a back five or cover the space in wide areas caused by Pedro and Hazard moving narrow. Their judgement was impeccable. If they had got this wrong the strategy would not have worked and so they were perhaps key to the whole performance.
Fellaini and Pogba
Chelsea taking astep back as a consequence of the pace and positivity of Lingard and especially Rashford meant that Fellaini and Pogba could press Kante and Matic. This was interesting in that at times the United pair sat deep and went man for man on the Chelsea pair. This was noticeable when Chelsea looked to move the ball out from the back. Lingard and Rashford would sit on the outide players in the Chelsea defensive three. This left Luiz to bring the ball forward but Fellaini and Pogba’s positioning meant that he had no one to pick out with a forward pass. Pogba, Fellaini and indeed Darmian and Herrera made several interceptions as Luiz looked to pick out players further forward.
This was brave on the part of United because many Chelsea moves start with the passing from the back of Luiz. His passing is considered his strength but United seemed comfortable allowing him time and space. Perhaps that is because his targets Pedro and Hazard weren’t supported adequately by their wingbacks but also because tightly marked there was usually too much difference between Luiz and his targets.
With a half time deficit to overcome it was inevitable that Chelsea would make changes in the second half. Chelsea rely heavily on the pace of Hazard and Pedro or Willian whilst further back Matic and Kante work to maintain team shape and feed the quicker players. There is more to it than that but the point is that Matic and Kante are not the most creative pair so it was no surprise to see Fabregas introduced with his greater range of passing but was also probably something to do with the distance between Luiz and his passing targets. He replaced Moses and initially took up the number ten position. This created a problem for Herrera and Darmian who now had to cover Hazard, Pedro and Fabregas.
Mourinho’s response to this was to introduce Carrick for Lingard. Carrick’s job was to mark Fabregas and he did this very well, so well in fact that Fabregas dropped deeper to avoid him. Carrick could have got this wrong for while he followed Fabregas he only folloed him so far. If he had stayed tight to Fabregas and followed him right up the pitch between them Fabregas and Luiz would have passed around Carrick and moved forward with the ball getting closer to their passing targets. That might have hurt United but Carrick judged this exactly as required. With these changes and a two goal lead United’s shape was now closer to a 3-4-2-1. Young and Valencia alongside Herrera and Carrick sat behind Pogba and Fellaini. Ibrahimovic later replaced Rashford and proceed to make as much of nuisance of himself at the front as he could. Ironic that that was the shape Chelsea had started with. Mirroring?
This was a masterclass in that the tactical strategy worked exactly as required with everyone executing their role as required and necessary to limit the “Champions Elect” to a total of zero shots on target. Rashford and Herrera grabbed headlines for goals and in Herrera’s case for subduing Chelsea’s best player but actually it seems unfair to other to pick out any one individual.
Everyone played their part.