Tactics Watch: Chelsea vs Man United

ESPNSTAR.com delves into the more rational side of football in the fiery clash between Chelsea and Manchester United on Sunday.

Van Persie's shot hits the post and then Luiz...
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

Chelsea came into the match with the initiative to bring the game to their opponents. Roberto Di Matteo opted to go for his much-used 4-2-3-1 featuring three rotating attacking midfielders while Jon Obi Mikel and Ramires held the midfield in the absence of Frank Lampard.

Manchester United's line up was more of an enigma and interesting to comment upon. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie were the two strikers named in the starting XI; in previous such instances, United played a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-3-1 (depending on how high the wingers are playing) with Rooney in a withdrawn role. 

This time, Sir Alex Ferguson went with something that looked like a 4-1-4-1 formation. Rooney dropped deep into midfield in front of Michael Carrick, who was deployed in a holding role with Tom Cleverley shuttling up until he's almost level beside Rooney in midfield.

It's also interesting to note that Van Persie played in a withdrawn role despite leading the United attack, which meant that he was always facing Chelsea's two defenders instead of hanging around their shoulders like a typical out-and-out striker.

Isolated Cole is Chelsea's worry

Chelsea's previous games have shown that they are slow when making the transition between attack and defence, and United planned to exploit that by playing on the counter from the start.

Ferguson designed the team to exploit Chelsea's weakness on their left flank, where Eden Hazard is usually based at. 

Antonio Valencia's starting position in the game was more withdrawn (as compared to Young on the other flank, who had Cleverley to help with defensive duties). This invited a freed-up Cole to overlap on the attack with Hazard and leave his flank free for United to counter.

This was obvious in the first goal, where Cole was on the overlap in front of a withdrawn Valencia when Rooney had the entire flank in front of him to run into.

Cole was not helped that Hazard was the player situated in front of him. It's not that the young Belgian doesn't defend - he presses up and chases the ball in the opponents' half very well, but he hardly tracks back when the opposing full back goes past him on the overlap, leaving the defender behind him (in this case, Cole) exposed in a 2-on-1 situation.

The second goal for United was a perfect example of this - Hazard was simply lounging about when Rafael went on the overlap, which left Cole on a 2-on-1 situation. Luiz then had to come out to left to cover for Cole, leaving Chelsea with one less man in the box to win the ball.

In fact, it can be observed that the first time Cole defended Valencia in a 1-on-1 situation was in the 30th minute - which by then showed that Di Matteo has sorted out the problem and asked Cole to pull back deep instead of going out to challenge Rafael if there was a 2-on-1 going on.

Van Persie and Young's roles

Credit must go to Ferguson for planning the attack, using Van Persie in a false nine role to draw Cahill in while Young cut in between the center back and Branislav Ivanovic.

In the first goal, Cahill was nowhere to be seen when Young received the ball from Rooney. Cahill then chased down the winger, leaving Van Persie free to make a late run to force the own goal on Luiz.

For the second goal, Cahill was distracted by Young's overlapping run and glanced towards him for half a second, which allowed Van Persie that extra yard in the box to score.

It was again the same combination which saw Ivanovic receive a red card in the second half. The striker held up the ball to draw Cahill in before playing in Young through on goal before being fouled by the Serb, who was then sent off.

As a result, both of United's early goals had a lot in common: 1) Both goals came from United's right wing 2) Cole was nowhere near his area when the goals were scored 3) Young was ahead of Van Persie when both goals were scored.

Carrick and Mikel - poor holders for different reasons

Chelsea were alert to the threat United posed, tightened up their lines and upped the pressure.

This exposed United's main weakness in midfield: Carrick.

Carrick is actually a decent holding midfielder in an open game due to his excellent vision and positioning but his poor physical ability puts him in poor stead when hemmed back right in front of defence. Players easily held him off while going past him, providing scant protection for United's back four, whereas someone else like Darren Fletcher or even Anderson would have been a better presence to relief the pressure for United.

With wave after wave of attack, Chelsea were simply poured men forward against United's 10-man defence and United's lack of a combative holding midfielder to relief the pressure told when Chelsea scored twice either side of half time.

There is little to observe tactically regarding Chelsea's two goals - the first was an excellent set piece by Juan Mata while the second goal came after United's box was literally flooded with blue shirts and it was down to probability for a Chelsea player (in this case, Ramires), to get the ball in the net.

Di Matteo deserves praise for that - it's not easy to go into half time with so much momentum with your side and manage to come out for the second half to continue where they left off (Chelsea had 64% of possession in the second half by the 60th minute). This speaks volumes of Di Matteo's ability as a motivator of players.

It can also be said that with the scores at 2-2, Chelsea could have been further in front if not for Mikel.

United started to press forward and Chelsea had a few decent chances on the counter, and it happened that two of the best chances came when Mikel was holding the ball. 

The Nigerian had an open United defence in front of him and quick team mates to play through, but on both occasions, Mikel was slow to judge the situation, slow to bring the ball forward and found his team mates at poor positions after that - all of which are the opposite of how a player should be when orchestrating a counter attack.

It is too easy to imagine if it was Frank Lampard on the ball; he would have advanced, drew a defender in and played the ball behind for a team mate to chase.

Also, as a holding midfielder, Mikel was far too advanced in front of his defenders to offer them any protection, which also allowed Young and Van Persie the pocket of space to play the overlap with each other in front of Cahill.

This allowed the Van Persie-Young combo to work and it ended with Ivanovic getting sent off (as mentioned earlier) in the 62nd minute.

Carrick and Mikel put up very good contrasts - the former is adept in positioning and intelligence but offer little physical presence while the latter has excellent presence but much is left to be desired of his positioning and intelligence.

A game finished in red

After Fernando Torres was sent off for an extremely harsh second yellow card (the decision, while controversial, will not be discussed here as the purpose of this is to observe the tactical nuances of the game), the match was basically there for the taking by United simply because of their sheer numerical advantage.

*Formation graphics are from www.sportsdood.com's 'Football Dood' app on Android


Kelvin will be analysing a Premier League match every Monday in Tactics Watch. You can follow his twitter account @plevyakin for more tactical insights and football updates.



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