Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A Tactical Analysis of Manchester United vs. Chelsea

The much-anticipated clash between Chelsea and Manchester United at Old Trafford last night signaled the return of big match football to the Premier League this season. Jose Mourinho arrived with a three-point lead in the table courtesy of a narrow victory over Villa in mid-week and the psychological advantage of never having lost to David Moyes in his previous stint with Chelsea. Moyes had seen his side get off to the best possible start at Swansea on the opening day of the season and was hoping to follow that up with a win in his first competitive game in charge at Old Trafford.

Chelsea set up in the same shape as they did against Hull and Villa in a narrow 4-2-3-1 formation with Oscar, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne hoping to support surprise selection, Andre Schurrle, up front. In their earlier game against Hull, Chelsea moved the ball brilliantly between their front four, with the interplay between Hazard, Oscar and de Bruyne a particular highlight. The intelligence in their movement between the Hull midfield and defense and their ability to find space in such a congested area was excellent, highlighted by Chelsea’s particularly well-worked first goal.

The starting positions of the two sides. Oscar and Rooney are the only two players without a natural marker and it is no surprise that they had the most influence on the game.

This area ‘between the lines’ is certainly an area that Chelsea would look to target in any game given their strength in that position.[1] However, having watched United’s display against Swansea, it was speculated that Chelsea would have specifically targeted this area as one to exploit. Despite the excellent 4-1 score line, United owed their good result more to the quality of their finishing than their defense. Time and again United were undone by Swansea with Michu, Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer repeatedly finding space in behind Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverly in midfield. With Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic unsure whether to step out and close Swansea down, Swansea were able to create some quality goal scoring opportunities.

If Hazard doesn't cover Jones, it leaves Valencia and Jones
two on one vs. Cole. Ditto on the other side.
By contrast United would attempt to exploit Chelsea’s lack of natural width. All of Chelsea’s wide players like to drift inside with the ball and United were hoping to exploit this tendency by getting the ball wide as quickly as possible. If Hazard or de Bruyne were to shirk his defensive responsibilities then United would be able to use their overlapping fullbacks to double up out wide on the exposed Ivanovic and Cole to create crossing opportunities for United’s potent strike force of Rooney and Van Persie to exploit.

Utd squeeze the play with their two banks of 4, not allowing Chelsea to
play between them. Chelsea respond by trying to play Schurrle in behind
their high line.
The game got off to a hectic start with little pattern to the play to begin with and few of the creative players able to get onto the ball. Slowly however a few things did begin to emerge. Chelsea knew that, to compensate for their weakness between the lines, United would try to keep the gap between them to a minimum by playing a high defensive line. 4 or 5 times in this early period Chelsea attempted to exploit United’s high defensive line by attempting long through balls for Schurrle to run on to. These passes were mostly unsuccessful however, well read and covered by the excellent Vidic and Ferdinand, culminating in Chelsea surrendering possession too easily in the early stages. United’s own attacking efforts in the wide areas were thwarted by the high energy and work rate displayed by Hazard and de Bruyne in the early stages.

With the wide players on both sides under strict instructions, on and off the ball, the only players on either side with any tactical flexibility were Oscar and Rooney. Oscar was to be found all over Chelsea’s midfield, sometimes dropping deeper than Lampard and Ramires to pick up the ball and at other times playing up along side Schurrle in attack. It was no surprise then that the first real chance of the game fell to Oscar after 20 minutes but his shot skewed wide. 

By staying wide in attack it allows the midfield pairing of Carrick and
Cleverly to play the ball into the feet of the strikers.
After 25 minutes of the game United’s width began to create dividends up front. By keeping their wingers wide, Chelsea’s fullbacks were unable to cover their centre halves allowing United to isolate Rooney and van Persie one-on-one with Cahill and Terry. As the half went on Cleverly and Carrick began to feed the ball into the strikers’ feet, giving them the chance to create opportunities. First Rooney spun Cahill but couldn’t generate much power on his shot, then a flick round the corner nearly put Van Persie through. When Chelsea did narrow their defense to prevent the pass into the strikers, United moved the ball wide and Cleverly fired over following a headed clearance from Terry. 

On the counter Chelsea were still dangerous. Stealing the ball in midfield, Oscar was able to set up de Bruyne to cross and after a blocked clearance it fell kindly to Oscar but De Gea comfortably saved his snap shot.

After half time the game opened up a fraction as the players tired but chances were still extremely rare. United were beginning to make most of the running with Chelsea happy to sit back on the counter, hoping to pounce on a mistake. Welbeck began to cut inside, rotating positions with Van Persie and Rooney with good effect, eventually working a couple of wasted shooting chances. 

Schurrle catches Evra too high up the field but can't take
advantage as he is called offside.
Schurrle had been ineffective for much of the game, partially due to a lack of striker’s instinct, but mostly because of the excellent work of Ferdinand and Vidic. When Schurrle drifted wide into his more natural right-sided berth it almost gave Chelsea their best moment of the match. Schurrle snuck in behind the unaware Evra and fired against the bar but the play was brought back for offside.

Both teams changed personnel throughout the half in an effort to trigger a moment of inspiration but neither side was willing risk changing tactically to go after the win. The late introduction of Torres did give Chelsea more of a target up front than Schurrle had, allowing Chelsea to start their attacks from higher up the pitch but overall little was to change tactically for the remainder of the game. Interestingly most of the substitutions came in the wide areas highlighting the high work rate required for the tactical discipline demanded by the managers (de Bruyne, Hazard, Welbeck and Valencia were all substituted). 

Rooney continued to be the heart and soul of United’s performance, an incredible effort given the speculation about his future. A particular highlight was his track back and tackle on Ramires down by his own corner flag, followed by a fantastic outlet pass to Van Persie to change defense into attack. However despite this, and despite a number of long-range efforts that only mildly troubled Cech, Rooney was unable to provide the moment of magic this game needed to spark a goal.

In summary both sides played a conservative game based on tactical rigidity, hoping to exploit the frailty of the opponent without exposing their own. Neither manager picked a negative lineup with plenty of attacking talent on display but there was too much respect between both sides for either side to risk throwing caution to the wind. United were perhaps the more adventurous but in truth there was little to choose between the two sides. By the end both sides were happy to settle for a point, unwilling to lose to such a close rival at this early stage of the season. John Terry, man of the match as voted for by Sky, expressed as much in the post match interview.

This stalemate was in truth to be expected with Mourinho and Moyes at the helm. Though Moyes likes to play attacking football, it was always highly unlikely that he would gamble and risk losing his first home game in charge. By contrast Mourinho has always been a defensive coach, preferring to operate from a strong defensive base initially to ensure that his sides don’t lose before trying to engineer a win. You didn’t think that just because Mourinho is the league’s most entertaining manager that his teams played the most entertaining football did you?  

[1] New signing Willian, Juan Mata and Schurrle all prefer to play in-between the lines as well creating somewhat of a logjam at the position leading to speculation that Mata, 2 time Chelsea player of the year, may be moved on to fund the signing of a striker to Jose’s liking. It was certainly a damning indictment of Chelsea’s striking options that Jose chose to pick Schurrle, a natural winger, over more established striking options (Torres, Ba and Lukaku) for the biggest game of this young season.