CHELSEA VS MANCHESTER UNITED
Easter Monday, and the inevitable pre-work gloom was temporarily lifted as United visited the flag waving idiots at Stamford Bridge in the sixth round replay of the FA Cup.
In: Jones, Cleverley, Ferdinand, Nani, Evra, Welbeck, Hernandez
Out: Rafael, Vidic, Buttner, Anderson, Young, Kagawa, van Persie
United were poor in possession and looked bereft of ideas as Chelsea’s midfield gained control.
There was poor possession throughout the team subsequent of the twenty-five minute mark.
Welbeck was fantastic in the first half. His close control pays homage to Mulensteen’s cuerva coaching methods but he was guilty of giving away cheap free kicks in the second half.
Valencia and Nani were ineffective, predictable and wasteful as the lack of width was an issue for United.
Jones, Smalling and De Gea were positives. Deep down you feel faith in the youngsters United are bringing through.
Some interesting changes were made by Sir Alex, one of which was particularly pleasing. The return of Jones.
Initial thoughts amongst United fans was that he’d replace the injured Rafael at right back but we saw him in, what many feel is, his best position in front of the defence. This in turn saw Valencia play at right back giving United real intent on that flank as his strength of attacking from deep would hopefully be utilised with Nani in front. Was Sir Alex intending that with Nani, Ashley Cole would be pushed back and Valencia could exploit Chelsea’s lack of width, helped then by Nani’s inclination to drift inside?
United were fluid and enjoyed good possession but their successes on goal came from outside the box as they found it difficult to break through with anything meaningful.
This retention and neat interplay was only punctuated by the poor touches of Nani who enjoyed plenty of the ball but didn’t do a great deal with it.
United’s formation was a positive one but one which had the task of negating Chelsea’s ‘world famous attacking trident’ of Mata, Oscar and Hazard, through Carrick and Jones, with the former having improved his tackling stats significantly throughout the season (up to average of 2.4 successful tackles per game)
This was a 4-2-3-1 formation (matching Chelsea’s) but because United were without Rafael they didn’t have that usual overlapping threat on both wings and as such we saw an offset back three, a two in front which saw Evra sometimes part of it but only positionally not coherently and the 3+1 in front; with Welbeck tormentor chief!
It was working and the space was reduced, as we often saw Ferdinand and Smalling showing great anticipation to intercept a number of through balls.
United were compact and energetic.
Or so it seemed. The half quickly petered out and appeared to be heading the same as at Sunderland where you felt both teams had more to offer.
Bad start; Chelsea put the ball behind the United defence and Ba skillfully looped the ball over De Gea.
They hadn’t employed this tactic in the first half and it forced United to retreat thus creating space for Chelsea’s midfielders to attack.
United were more static as Chelsea gripped the middle of the park better through Mikel and Ramires who were then able to get the ball to Hazard and Mata who were now pushed beyond the dropping Ba and when necessary the Brazilian was able to support follow up shots unfettered.
The goal heaped the initiative on United to attack too and increase the pace of and precision of their passing, yet they didn’t respond accordingly and the game seemed to get away from them; Welbeck positioned centrally wasn’t as effective as it was earlier in the game.
Sir Alex sought to arrest this development with a couple of substitutions in a five minute period – Giggs for Nani and van Persie for Cleverley. It’s surprising to note the length of time the latter spends on the pitch before being subbed; quite short.
Giggs’ introduction was hoped to make United more direct but the ball over the top, usually to Hernandez, didn’t have the same effect as his ball to van Persie in the game at West Ham earlier in the season did.
The game was becoming stretched and spaces were being found in the pockets behind the full backs. United were fortunate not to go two down.
Sir Alex played his last card as he brought Young on for Welbeck and he and Valencia now started a lot higher. Whilst Young was OK, Valencia looks severely malnourished in terms of confidence and the end of the season cannot come soon enough for him.
Moses’ introduction was an attempt by Benitez to reduce the threat of Young and Evra but it had little impact as Young was providing useful crosses one of which van Persie perhaps could have done better with as his header towards the end of the game went over; his second good chance in a short space of time.
The FA Cup passes United by for another year, yet after what was a promising start United really didn’t apply themselves in this game.
The tactics looked like they were working in the first half and you felt emboldened by this team as the semi final appeared a realistic opportunity.
However, the game turned quickly as Ba’s superb strike went in. United were unable to step up and force Chelsea’s midfield back. We also saw Azpilicueta push on and United were quite simply swamped.
You can’t help but think the season has now lost its edge. Thankfully we face the bitters on Monday and what better way to get back on it!