Coming into this game, the positions of these two sides on the league table were almost certain, and in theory, it was little more than dead rubber. But this was far from dead rubber. Being contested between a couple of fiercely competitive individuals like Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, neither side was going to be happy to walk away with anything less than the maximum. Moreover, with United on the rise, and Chelsea seemingly slowing down, many considered this to be an audition for some of the high voltage clashes of next season. Either way, nobody was giving an inch in this contest, and it turned out to be as gripping a game as expected.
CHELSEA 1-0 MANCHESTER UNITED
Chelsea: 13. Courtois; 2. Ivanovic; 24. Cahill; 26. Terry; 28. Azpilicueta; 5. Zouma; 21. Matic; 8. Oscar (Ramires, 66′); 4. Cesc (Mikel, 90′); 10. Hazard (Willian, 90′); 11. Drogba.
Manchester United: 1. De Gea; 25. Valencia; 12. Smalling; 33. McNair; 3. Shaw (Blackett, 81); 21. Herrera; 8. Mata (Januzaj, 69′); 10. Rooney; 31. Fellaini; 18. Young (Di Maria, 69′); 9. Falcao.
Zouma vs Fellaini
United’s recent resurgence and run of form has a lot to do with the resurgence and form of two players who were picked up from the discard pile: Marouane Fellaini and Ashley Young. Superlative performances from the duo in the last few months have been important for the Red Devils, and their upswing of fortunes. Fellaini, in particular, has been a revelation as the deep lying target man, with his feather like chest proving to be the launch pad for United’s Champions League ambition. He had a lot to do with the devastation of Manchester City last week, and so it was imperative that Mourinho find a way to stop van Gaal’s pet monster.
And so Kurt Zouma was deployed in the middle of the park, alongside Nemanja Matic in what became a very physical midfield combination for Chelsea. Initially, Zouma was the man who was slated to mark Fellaini to set up what would be a one on one duel between the two. On the occasions that the two did come up against each other, Zouma proved to be an even match for Fellaini, with some feisty contests between the two. Fellaini didn’t enjoy his usual dominance in the air, and couldn’t really move into central areas without Zouma tracking, and indeed, challenging him quite effectively.
To counter this, Fellaini started drifting a lot more, especially into the wider areas. Initially, Zouma followed him around, and left a gaping hole in the middle of the park, which United did well to exploit. With Oscar not really tracking back well enough (more on this later), and Zouma being dragged out of space, there was a hole in the middle of the park, which Luke Shaw did well to run into. This manifested itself in the early chance for Rooney, among others.
This led to Zouma and Chelsea getting into a more zonal system for Fellaini. While he was always picked up by Zouma when he moved into the middle of the pitch, he was passed on to another defender as soon as he entered that zone. The other defender then proceeded to mark him very tightly, with Zouma, and in some cases Matic, acting as the covering player. Again, this worked well, as Chelsea were able to maintain their shape, and neutralise Fellaini at the same time.
The battle in deep midfield
The biggest loss to United coming into this game was Michael Carrick. The often underrated midfielder is one of the best deep lying midfielders around, and too many people have failed to appreciate his qualities. Moreover, he is almost like a senior statesman in the side, and his leadership skills, imaginative play, and guidance could have been crucial to a team that looked to lack direction, especially when they were going forward.
Deputising for the man, was the very capable Ander Herrera. The man from Bilbao is excellent on the ball, and has an eye for a pass. Unfortunately for United, despite his best efforts, Herrera couldn’t really influence and dictate the game in the way van Gaal had probably wanted him to. Don’t be fooled by the possession stats, United’s dominance of the midfield was far from clear cut, and they only really began bossing it in the second half after a tweak from van Gaal.
The Red Devils started in a 4-3-3, with Herrera sitting behind Wayne Rooney and Fellaini, who had license to get forward. Herrera was the player who was to receive the ball in deep positions, and kickstart the United attacks. Sadly for United supporters, this wasn’t a job he could do very effectively. Both Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas were quite intelligent with their pressing, and managed to block of the middle, specifically Herrera, from receiving passes on a number of occasions. The man from Bilbao often had to move into wide areas, and across the pitch to receive the ball, and as a result, United didn’t really have too much build up play from the middle of the park. Herrera was shut down to the extent that the United centre backs (who aren’t really great with incisive passes) had to move forward with it. Paddy McNair was getting off shots 40 yards from goal, which was about as threatening as the centre backs got.
This was a situation that obviously needed remedying. With 1 man in midfield, it was quite easy for the Chelsea players to block off the central passing lane. van Gaal identified this, and pushed Wayne Rooney even deeper, turning the 4-3-3 into more of a 4-2-1-3 (or 4-2-3-1, as you may want to call it). Fellaini was playing off Falcao, with Rooney and Herrera more or less in line. As a result, both were able to influence the game a lot more, and United began to dominate the midfield. They were assisted by the willing McNair, who also stepped into midfield a lot more. Drogba and Fabregas found it really difficult to pressure United and slow them down at the back in such a situation, and Chelsea had to work much harder in the second half to keep them at bay.
Chelsea’s breaking tactics
It cant be very difficult to try and predict what Chelsea do in such matches. Usually, you see a compact, and deep back 4, protected by another line of 4 midfielders. The team then tries to maintain it’s shape, and be hard for the opposition to break down. Chelsea then waits for a mistake, or a lapse of concentration from the opponent, and then attacks. On Saturday night too, Mourinho didn’t disappoint.
The team set up to make life difficult for United from the word go. The Red Devils really couldn’t direct any of their play through the middle of the park, and Fellaini, their usual outlet was pretty much shut down by Chelsea’s midfield. The likes of Juan Mata too, couldn’t really influence the game, and Radamel Falcao also endured a frustrating afternoon. United were forced to go through the wide areas, and this wasn’t really effective at all. John Terry and Gary Cahill were satisfactory when dealing with incoming balls, and the full backs too, were able to handle the threat from the wings effectively. In fact, even when Adnan Januzaj and Angel Di Maria, two wingers who could be expected to run at defenders and beat them, came on, they were rendered pretty impotent thanks to some fine defending from the two full backs. Of the 6 dribbles that the duo attempted, only 1 was successful.
The only real problem Chelsea faced here was with Oscar not really doing a great job tracking back in the first half. It meant that Ivanovic was often left facing 2 players. This was fixed after half time, and when Ramires came on, he completely shored up the Chelsea right hand side.
Going forward, the Blues were looking to break off Drogba. The old man doesn’t have the pace he once did, but can still challenge for aerial balls, and hold up play very well. With the lack of pace evident, United pushed their defence pretty high up the pitch. Chelsea allowed them to do so as well, and sat quite deep in their own half. The Chelsea threat came from runners in behind this high line.
When Chelsea did win the ball, they looked for Drogba to hold it up, and have it played behind to the runners. This is where the trio of Fabregas, Oscar, and Hazrd got involved. Their link up play and speed was the key to unsettling the United back 4, and there were occasions when Chelsea looked quite threatening on the break. Early on, Fabregas made a darting run behind, and received the ball in a dangerous position, only for Herrera to foil him. Hazard made a similar run for the goal he scored, and the United defence was too high to recover and cope with his pace on that occasion.
Where does this leave them?
This was a very well contested, and very tight fixture. The stats may lead you to believe that United were the dominant force, but that would be very misleading. Chelsea were in control of the game for large parts, and only when Rooney did drop deeper, were United able to truly boss Chelsea. For all of van Gaal’s passive-aggressive claims that this was their best performance of the season, one feels that United could have done more up front against a determined Chelsea back line. As the likes of PSG and City have shown, it isn’t impossible to score against this Chelsea strategy. Despite that, United gave a good account of themselves. If this is the trailer for next season, bring on the movie!
The Blues can be most satisfied with this result. The win takes them to within 6 points of what will be an excellent title win. The team was shorn of the likes of Remy and Diego Costa, and they still managed to pull out a great result in trademark fashion. Kudos to Mourinho and the team for perfect execution of a plan that’s now so predictable, that you’d expect opponents to start beating it.
Written by Vishal Patel