Manchester United have been a club in flux for the last couple of years but most people would agree that they are on the ascendancy now. United entered the home tie against league leaders Chelsea on Sunday on the back of a three match unbeaten streak. For the next ninety minutes the home side produced a gritty display and a last minute equalizer scored by Robin van Persie allowed United to walk away from the tie with a well earned and deserved point. The match threw up many positives for United supporters especially given the fact that Radamel Falcao and Phil Jones had joined their burgeoning injury list while captain Wayne Rooney was serving out his three match suspension. But more importantly, the tie may have thrown up a blueprint of sorts on how other Premier League sides may be able to halt the impressive Chelsea bandwagon that has raced to a four point lead at the top of the table with just about a quarter of the season done. Chelsea, for probably the first time this season, seemed to labour and had to put in a shift to push back an effervescent United attack. A tie that was touted as the proverbial master vs pupil tie lived up to its billing as Louis van Gaal produced somewhat of a managerial masterclass to trump protege Jose Mourinho in front of 75,000 Old Trafford faithfuls. THT takes a look at what United did right and possible lessons that other Premier League sides may pick from the game.
Shut down midfield with man-to-man marking
United had hitherto played a zonal marking system with Blind and Herrera marking out the area in front of defense while the forward players operated up ahead. Ander Herrera, however, was unavailable for selection owing to an injury he picked up a couple of games ago. Enter Marouanne Fellaini. Fellaini marshaled midfield alongside Blind and Mata and produced probably his best performance in a United shirt so far. The instructions from LvG seemed clear and Mata and Fellaini marked Matic and Fabregas respectively for the duration of the game. LvG, like many others, was quick to note that the Matic-Fabregas double pivot was what made the Chelsea midfield tick. The Dutch gaffer however was probably the first one to actually do something about it. Matic is a very strong defender and protects the defensive line efficiently. However, the more critical role he plays is carrying the ball out of defense up field and passing it at opportune moments to Fabregas who then delivered defense splitting crosses to either Hazard or Oscar upfront. Most sides prior to United have tried to mark out Hazard or Oscar but to little effect given the skill of these two as well as the options they provide Fabregas for the key passes. LvG instead decided to cut off supply at the source by stifling Matic and Fabregas. Chelsea’s erstwhile midfielders like Lampard depended more on power to carry the ball through. Fabregas, on the other hand, is more a technical midfielder who needs time on the ball to pick out an inch perfect pass. Mata and RvP regularly positioned themselves between the Chelsea center backs and Matic thus preventing them from passing the ball to the Serb. Even when Matic did get on the ball, Fellaini was at hand to close down Fabregas from receiving the ball. Deeper midfield, Daley Blind was on Oscar’s tail not allowing the Brazilian any space to play with the ball. The total effect of this was that probably the only two Chelsea players who had any real time on the ball were the center backs, John Terry and Gary Cahill, two players who are not comfortable coming up the field with the ball. Which brings us to the next point.
Quick counterattacks through midfield
United realised early on that if David de Gea started the game with the short passes from the back, Oscar would combine with Didier Drogba to press Smalling, Rojo and Blind high up the field. The solution was to pass out longer and thus bypass this initial press. With Oscar and Hazard higher up the field, this meant that United’s midfielders had some space to operate in the middle of the park. Most teams press forward in a compact shape however the Chelsea center backs, Cahill and Terry, are not happy campers near the midline especially since they are not very quick tracking back. With Terry and Cahill holding a deeper line and the rest of the team pressing high up, this left a significant amount of empty space in midfield allowing Mata and Di Maria time on the ball. In fact, United’s best chance of the first half – when RvP cannoned the ball into Courtois’ legs at close range – came off a similar sequence of play. De Gea passed out the ball long to van Persie, who controlled the ball and played in Januzaj before running forward into space to receive the return ball with the goal at his mercy. A total of two passes that started with de Gea saw the ball travel from United’s penalty area to the opposite one. The key was quick counterattacks with less or no buildup but instead with long balls.
Advanced positioning for the full backs
Chelsea were without the services of regular left back Azipilicueta, bringing in Filipe Luis as replacement. United were aware that Luis’ first start in many games meant he would be a rusty operator. Willian, however, on the right was a different proposition. The Brazilian’s game involves staying near the touch line to receive short passes from his center backs and then bombing forward with the ball. Luke Shaw clearly seemed to be extended the man-marking scheme from midfield as he stuck close to Willian throughout the game. In fact this marking often took him into advanced positions beyond his midfielders. This meant that Willian was not allowed any space or time on the ball. Shaw tracking him down even in advanced positions meant that Willian was forced back deeper into his own half as well as curtailed Chelsea from passing the ball out down their right flank.
On the opposite flank, Rafael was cautioned early in the game for an unnecessary foul on Eden Hazard. Another full back would have sat back deeper after that to avoid trouble and getting sent off. Rafael, however, had other ideas. He continued playing his attacking game pushing higher up the pitch with the ball. This forced both Luis and Hazard back to defend the ball rather than building play themselves. Rafael effectively linked up with di Maria as well on his flank to allow the Argentinian midfielder to cut into the center and overload midfield against Chelsea’s back four. The fact that the Hazard ended the game by being cautioned for a foul on Rafael sums up this role reversal perfectly.
Play a high defensive line
This last tactic was designed to capitalize on the fact that Chelsea’s star striker Diego Costa would not start the game. Loic Remy was also injured. Shurrle had only started a couple of times as a false nine but his relative inexperience playing solo striker meant that Didier Drogba was the prime candidate to start the game as the lone striker upfront. The 36-year old Ivorian was never the fastest on the field, always depending on his physical presence and aerial ability more than speed to score goals. Age does him no favours and if at all he has become slower. This provided United with the unique opportunity to play a high defensive line. With Drogba not making the runs that Diego Costa would in similar situations. Costa’s runs stretch the defense causing them to lose shape as well as pulling the whole team out of formation. Drogba allowed United to play their compact formation. In fact, often Rojo and Smalling were playing near the midline. This tactic hinged on the fact that Drogba was spearheading the attacks. Costa combines Drogba’s aerial ability and Remy’s pace making him more difficult to defend against. Future opponents may not be able to use this tactic with Costa around but it still provides a strategic option if need be.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho was quick to mention that Chelsea has injury woes but then Manchester United have no dearth of injury issues themselves. United have been widely criticized for celebrating a draw but given their recent performances and Chelsea’s stellar start to the season, even a draw seemed unlikely before the game. Yet, United managed to stick together to a plan and execute it to near perfection. Drogba’s superb header also came off the back of a rare momentary defensive lapse when Rafael lost track of his man allowing Drogba a free header at the near post. United now travel to the Etihad to take on City while Chelsea move to face cross town rivals QPR. Managers across the league, however, can take heart from this game and work on better strategies to tackle Chelsea while it will hopefully give Jose Mourinho and his men a new challenge thus in turn making the league title race a bit more interesting.