Chelsea completed one of their performances of the season in a 1-0 victory over a dangerous Manchester United. While Eden Hazard’s 38th minute goal was the difference between the sides, the sub-plots were endless. United’s midfield guile and energy asked for a typical Jose Mourinho-esque performance from Chelsea. Which is what they got. But the match as a whole was an interesting one tactically.
Radamel Falcao’s start and Kurt Zouma’s inclusion from the offset were the only anomalies. Falcao played due to the injuries of other players, while Zouma’s start was due to Mourinho’s preference for midfield destroyers in such clashes (Pepe is a notable example).
As was predicted before the match. Manchester United looked to impose their possession game over Chelsea. Mourinho instructed his troops to sit back and counter in response. Don’t be mistaken- Chelsea was forced into withstanding tremendous amounts of pressure. This was no cakewalk, they were against an in form United side.
Intriguing Battle Out Wide
When one side is playing possession football, the wings are usually important. Fellaini’s presence in the United side meant that they would try and expose Chelsea down the flanks and cross to their target man more often than not. Chelsea’s full backs- Azpilicueta and Ivanovic- had a hard job to do. The interesting part is that both full backs coped decently, despite their vastly different qualities.
Azpilicueta is the faster player who loves running with the ball. He was suited to the battle of pace against Valencia, and Juan Mata tended to drift centrally leaving Azpilicueta with a fairly straightforward job. The majority of United’s attacks came from the central and left sided areas, not azpilicueta’s right. Ivanovic is a far slower player, and is in fact a center back who has adapted to the full back role. Ivanovic relishes physical challenges, and had the more difficult job to do. Luke Shaw played one of his best games in a Manchester United shirt, and the omni-present Ashley Young is no tame horse. Ivanovic’s lack of distinct pace left him with a disadvantage, despite the fact that he was given so much cover. The Serb adapted well though, and his positioning was key. United targeted him and Ivanovic moved to advanced positions, knowing others would cover decoy runs. As the match wore on, Ivanovic became more effective, culminating in Luke Shaw’s withdrawal later in the game. This was probably the most interesting battle of the game. United would’ve won it if their delivery was better though.
United Struggle to Make the Most of Possession
United dominated possession- they had 71% to Chelsea’s 29%. They also made triple the number of passes compared to the home team. But they ultimately failed to create many 1v1 chances or tap ins when inside the box. United’s lack of incisiveness was visible towards the end of the second half, as the last 20-25 minutes saw them toil to no avail. The best chances they had were the ones they got when they beat Ivanovic.
United’s lack of incisiveness also saw them deprive a man who was playing well after a while of ball time- Radamel Falcao. Falcao seemed to have understood Van Gaal’s philosophy, and unlike previous performances, he was attempting to get involved in play.
Compare Falcao’s performance now to the one against Everton earlier in the season. Less chances, but he looked to optimize them. Only a very solid Gary Cahill and the post denied him. The reds didn’t capitalize on Falcao’s form though. United’s midfielders didn’t look to supply Falcao but rather to circulate the ball to the flanks, allowing the wide players to supply Falcao and Fellaini. Fellaini’s role of destroyer/physical goalscorer exempted him from distribution. Juan Mata was having a bad return to Stamford Bridge. This left Ander Herrera and Wayne Rooney with the job of ball distribution.
Herrera and Rooney, as their dashboards illustrate, looked to switch play often. They were the most central players on their team, and they looked to stretch Chelsea’s defense. The glut of horizontal passes wasn’t ideal though. Not only did they overlook Falcao, they also failed to test Chelsea’s defense vertically. Every single time United got forward it was when they dribbled forward, not when they attempted through balls. This is a situation in which United could’ve used a player who ‘verticalized‘ play, in the mould of James Rodriguez or perhaps Cesc Fabregas from the opposition
Zouma Staves Off Fellaini
Zouma is Mourinho’s new Pepe- he single handedly staved off Fellaini’s threat with some help from Nemanja Matic. Considering all the hype surrounding Fellaini’s heading, as well as Fellaini’s solid performances in the recent past, it was impressive. The youngster is destined for a long, successful career with Chelsea.
Resolute Back 4, Poor United Delivery
John Terry and Gary Cahill are a deadly duo. Miranda-Godin and Pepe-Ramos are probably the only center half pairings in the world which compare. But United’s strategy demanded that they beat them through the air. This feat, while challenging, isn’t exactly impossible. PSG did it thrice. But that usually demands inexplicably perfect crossing. Shaw, Young and Valencia were forced into difficult battles against their opposing full backs, but the few times they got through they struggled to cross or found it blocked. Juan Mata comes up as a name, and he was simply doing the same as the others- switching play. Mata’s play was linear, and he had little influence on the game. His few corner deliveries were decent, but nothing came up from open play. He was substituted, and United brought on arguably the best player in terms of crossing in world football.
Di Maria Brought On Too Late?
While Di Maria’s performances for the red devils of late haven’t been so great, this was probably the right match for him to be involved in. After United’s best period in the match- minutes 45 to 70- finished, they slowly waned. Di Maria’s introduction immediately saw an increase in ‘verticalization’ of play. He attempted crosses and through balls, but didn’t have the time to stamp a marker on the match. Van Gaal may find a use for him in this United side after all.
With Fellaini out-marked, Falcao starved, the wide players bruised and a lack of variety in attack, United were ultimately defeated in an attacking sense. Their performance was solid but was found lacking towards the end when Chelsea settled down. The match is somewhat similar to Chelsea’s draws with Paris home and away, as well as the draw with Manchester City earlier this year. The difference is simple- Chelsea are well drilled now. Mourinho may have been planning this all along, plotting potentially for a coupe of the Champions League next year, or this year. This time Chelsea’s defense held strong against a major challenge though.
Mourinho’s comments were typical– he was satisfied with yet another victory against a (once-more-major) rival. In line with his bold pragmatism, he would’ve been happy with 1% possession as long as he won. Mourinho had optimized his eleven’s value- drogba fought against players who were “young enough to be his kids” while Oscar was industrious and wonderful in the goal.
Louis Van Gaal was not as happy of course, but he highlighted the fact that his side played their best game all season, despite the linearity towards the end. Part of this was down to Chelsea, but Van Gaal was right. His side didn’t succumb at Stamford Bridge, and forced Chelsea to play like they have before- such as against Liverpool.
If United are to challenge for Premier League and Champions League honors next season, Van Gaal might need to learn a thing or two from Jose Mourinho in the big matches. The fact is, Thibaut Courtois was forced into making a record 1 save. They look like genuine title contenders though. For Chelsea, the circus goes on.