Tactical Analysis | Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea: Both sides opt for caution in midfield


Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea | A lot of the big games in the Premier League are built up with their own little sub plots and storylines, and this one was no different, with Mourinho and van Gaal hogging the limelight in the build up to the game. The student, and his teacher, waxed lyrical about each other as we got close to kick off, but all the love was left behind in the press rooms as the two rivals took to the field for an intensely competitive encounter.

Chelsea have been cruising this season, swatting aside most of their opponents without too much trouble. The additions of star names like Costa and Fabregas added a cutting edge to a team that came within a whisker of lifting the league last season. On the other hand, Old Trafford hasn’t been as sorted as always of late. With van Gaal arriving in the summer after a disappointing season, United added a number of attacking names to their ranks, but narrow wins against teams expected to finish near the foot of the table have done little to convince doubters. It was an extremely rare occasion where Chelsea went in to a fixture against United at Old Trafford as favourites, according to my betting sites, and receive criticism post-match for not getting all three points.

Chelsea United Tactics

Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea Tactical Line-Up

Manchester United: 1.De Gea, 2.Rafael, 12.Smalling, 5.Rojo, 3.Shaw, 17.Blind, 31.Fellaini, 11.Januzaj, 8.Mata, 7.Di Maria, 20.van Persie.

Chelsea: 13.Courtois, 2.Ivanovic, 24.Cahill, 26.Terry, 3.Filipe Luis, 21.Matic, 4.Fabregas, 8.Oscar, 22.Willian, 10.Hazard, 11.Drogba.

Goals: Drogba, 53′ // van Persie, 90+4

Substitutions: Wilson (Mata) 66′ // Mikel (Oscar) 66′, Schurrle (Hazard) 89′, Zouma (Willian) 90+2′


Both sides opting for caution

The game had a very exciting finish, with a late goal from van Persie bringing an absorbing contest to a thrilling climax, but the rest of the game was a slow build up to this end. The first half in particular saw two sides that were waiting for each other to make moves, and looking to counter.

Both United and Chelsea sat a bit deep, and restricted the amount and type of pressing that their midfield would involve itself in. Chelsea stuck to their usual big game tactic of hanging deep and waiting for the opposition to attack them to launch a counter and create chances. United too, uncharacteristically, stayed deeper than usual, and players like Di Maria and Januzaj stuck to their task of marshalling the Chelsea midfield, rather than going for an all out press on the man on the ball for Chelsea. Doing so would have left spaces for Chelsea to counter into, and van Gaal tried giving Mourinho a piece of his own medicine in this way.

United were quite content to stay in their own half, and not go for the kill. Both sides were trying to concede the initiative. This sort of defending, with rigid holding of positions and a distinct lack of aggressive pressing made it quite difficult for Chelsea to play through the middle in the way they like to. The floater, Willian, wasn’t getting the ball inside his full back as much as usual, and Cesc Fabregas, the main creative player, hardly had an influence on the game. It did allow gaps for the Chelsea defenders to play, with Cahill getting space on a couple of occasions, but it worked well enough, and may just be a template for other teams on how to stop this Chelsea machine.

Chelsea Penetrative

Chelsea did pretty much the same thing, with all their midfielders lining up across the pitch to ensure that United couldn’t get penetrating passes down the middle of the pitch. As a result, the former Chelsea favourite, Juan Mata had a very frustrating evening, and was hauled off soon enough.

Both sides, in order to get their goals, were looking towards quick transitions to launch attacks, when the opposition did attack. Both of them looked to their pacy wide men to carry the ball out of midfield and drive at the opposition. United were looking to get the ball to Di Maria as quickly as possible, and as much as possible, while Chelsea were feeding their underrated gem, Willian.

Fabregas, the defensive weakness

Many have laid a lot of credit for Chelsea’s successes at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, and rightly so. The Spaniard has returned to the Premier League, and looked like the missing piece of the puzzle in the Chelsea midfield alongside Nemanja Matic. His passing, and intelligent movement have created chances aplenty, and he is already on top of a lot of the assist charts. However, he does have a weakness, and that is his defensive awareness and contribution.

This first surfaced against Arsenal, where Cazorla and Wilshere both ran off him to get into good positions, and it showed up once more today. His direct opponent was Fellaini, probably not by coincidence, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence either that the Belgian had a great game, while Fabregas had a quite one. While Fellaini did a splendid job of roughing it up with him and not allowing him time on the ball, Fabregas couldn’t do the same to Fellaini.

Fellaini was able to complete tons of passes in Manchester United's half | via WhoScored

Fellaini was able to complete tons of passes in Manchester United’s half | via WhoScored

As co-editor Arnab Ray pointed out after the match, Rojo-Fellaini was an outball for United, and Fabregas simply didn’t do enough in terms of stopping him. Even further forward, Fellaini was able to run behind Fabregas without much opposition, and find himself challenging the likes of Terry and Cahill in the penalty area for crossed balls.

Chelsea forced into long passes

With United willing to play the waiting game in midfield, and Fabregas shackled by Fellaini in particular, Chelsea needed to bypass that avenue, and try to go direct. While they obviously would’ve loved to have their first choice striker in the line up for this match, Didier Drogba was the player available, and the big Ivorian was the target of a number of long passes from the deeper areas of Chelsea’s half. He won 67% of the aerial duels that he was a part of, and in general, he put in a whale of a performance, with the goal being the icing on the cake.

United forcing long balls

As seen above, Man United came out with clear instructions from Van Gaal in the second half that the trio of Cheslea’s central midfielders needed to be prevented from being able to find time and space to get their passes going from the deeper areas, forcing Chelsea to instead aim long-balls into the attacking third.

The long passes aren’t the variety that Chelsea prefer playing, on the evidence of this season, but as they proved, they can be pretty effective doing so when they need to, and this is a very encouraging sign for the Blues and their supporters.

United forced into wide areas

A repetitive pattern from the big Chelsea games is that Chelsea are quite happy to defend their area and let their opponents have the wide areas to put crosses into the box. The same happened at Old Trafford on Sunday night, as the Chelsea midfield got quite narrow to stop United playing through the middle, and the Red Devils were forced to look at the space in the wide areas. In these areas, only the full back came out to meet them, while the wide midfielder ran behind to cover the space vacated by the full back. While United did manage to put a number of crosses into the box, they weren’t really effective, and couldn’t really hurt the opposition. Chelsea seemed quite comfortable in the air, with the likes of Terry and Cahill facing trouble only from Fellaini.

Chelsea Wide-Full Backs

Later on, van Gaal decided to go all out in his pursuit of making full use of the wide area, as he took off the mercurial Juan Mata for James Wilson. The added presence in the box suddenly made United a lot more dangerous from crosses, with the two strikers, and Fellaini looking to get on the end of things. The wide play eventually saw Di Maria win a free kick late into the game, and van Persie scored from the delivery.


Where does this leave them?

Chelsea must feel mixed emotions after this game. Obviously, it must be very frustrating for Mourinho to see his side concede late in Manchester yet again to drop 2 points. But, the bigger picture is that Chelsea have now played Everton, United, and City away, arguably 3 of the toughest away fixtures, and are still well ahead of the competition. Mourinho will need to put in some effort to iron out the flaws in his side, but the fact that they could get this result without players like Azpilicueta, Costa and Remy should give them a great amount of confidence. If Mourinho were offered draws at Old Trafford and the Etihad before the season started, he would probably have taken them.

For United, this may not mean much in terms of points and the table (they’re still closer to relegation than the top), it means a lot in terms of morale before a big Manchester derby. The team showed a lot of fight and spirit to hold off a rampant Chelsea side, and the last gasp equaliser must surely feel like a winner for them. They haven’t moved up the table with that result, but they certainly have shown what they can be capable of (defensively especially).


Written by Vishal Patel

Vishal Patel

Vishal Patel

Massive Chelsea supporter. Follow Mourinho and love Ronaldinho. Enjoy discussing tactics anytime, anywhere. Enjoy watching the Italian National team as well.
Vishal Patel