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Tactical Analysis

Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 0-0 Chelsea | United’s fluid midfield disrupts Chelsea’s man-orientation

Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the goalless draw that Manchester United and Chelsea played out last week.

Neither Manchester United nor Chelsea came into this game in any kind of form, with Louis van Gaal’s men winless in their last 7 and struggling to find the back of the net. Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea weren’t finding it any easier in the league this season either and were languishing in 16th place coming into this fixture. A win at Old Trafford for the Blues could have proved the catalyst for their slim hopes of qualifying for the top 4; however even against a United side in their worst run of form since 1980, snatching a victory seemed unlikely.

Despite being unable to pick up a victory for the eighth time of asking, United still performed admirably and created a host of chances which should have been enough to earn them the three points. The return of the double pivot partnership of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Ander Herrera in the no.10 role almost proved decisive as United dominated for most of the game and disrupted the man-marking of Chelsea and allowed them to play between Chelsea’s lines of pressure with ease.



Chelsea United

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Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger movement in midfield = Better ball circulation

After bemoaning a slow and tepid style of play throughout the season and particularly during their awful recent form, United fans could breathe a sigh of relief when looking at the team sheet and seeing Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger as a double 6 in front of the back 4.

Not only did United look more solid defensively as a result of their positioning in anticipation of defensive transitions, but they were also more effective in constructing attacks in the build-up phase and playing through Chelsea’s waves of pressure.


In the image above, United are in the build-up phase and Chris Smalling is in possession and has laid the ball off to Matteo Darmian out wide. Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger are deep and are looking to create more space between the lines. Schweinsteiger drops into the left half-space and drags Oscar with him, who appeared to have been instructed to man-mark Schweinsteiger in United’s build-up phase.

His movement causes Oscar to deviate from his central position and opens up a 4th passing lane for Darmian who can now play a long pass centrally to Schneiderlin. Instead he plays the ball vertically into Herrera and United keep play moving.


Again United are in the build-up phase and this time they use Schneiderlin as their outlet to bring the ball into the next phase of the attack. Schneiderlin drops onto the same line as the centre backs and receives the ball from Chris Smalling. In doing so, he attracts Eden Hazard towards him and now Schweinsteiger’s passing lane is no longer obstructed by Hazard’s positioning.

As stated earlier, it was not only in the build-up phase where the presence of Man Utd’s most effective double 6 partnership was felt. Schneiderlin, especially often positioned himself in anticipation of the next phase of play.

He often dropped on the same line as the centre-backs, Smalling and Blind, which allowed either of them (in possession of the ball) to drive forward in possession, assured that Morgan Schneiderlin would be on hand to provide defensive cover and maintain their defensive overload.


Both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger make co-ordinated movement to allow Blind to make a foray into midfield with the ball. Schweinsteiger, as seen often during the game, makes a movement away from the centre to drag Oscar with him; this time it creates space for Daley Blind before he moves into midfield.

Schneiderlin drops next to the centre-backs so the overload is maintained (2v1 vs. Hazard).



The next two images are an example of the effectiveness of Schneiderlin’s positioning in United’s defensive transition. In the first image, Chris Smalling is in possession with Schneiderlin and Blind on the same horizontal line. He is looking to play the ball into midfield to Schweinsteiger, however he is in the cover shadow of Oscar and his passing lane is blocked.

In the second image, the ball has been given away with United still constructing their attacking shape. Oscar receives the ball for Chelsea and United are now in defensive transition. He is supported by Eden Hazard attempting to make a penetrative run in behind the Manchester United back line. However what could have been a potentially dangerous attack for Chelsea has been thwarted due to Schneiderlin’s positioning when United were in possession.

Martial superb, Herrera and Mata rotational movement key

United were keen to take advantage of Anthony Martial’s qualitative superiority, he was excellent throughout the game and in my opinion the Man of the Match. He was often United’s main attacking threat throughout the game, hugging the touchline and isolating Ivanovic to run at him 1v1, which caused havoc for Chelsea down their right hand side as it disrupted the compactness of their back line.


United are in possession in the final third with Herrera, who is about to lay the ball off to Martial out wide. Before this, United circulated the ball in central areas, causing the Chelsea defensive block to come narrow, thus leaving plenty of space for Martial out wide to run at Ivanovic. He receives the ball and beats Ivanovic with ease before shooting and hitting Courtois’ near post.

His occupation of the wide areas also opened up the left half-space for Herrera and Darmian at left-back when United had possession of the ball. Ivanovic would often be quick to put pressure on Martial as soon as he received the ball out wide, so as to not afford him the same space to drive at him as before.


Ander Herrera and Juan Mata’s movements in midfield were influential in United’s circulation of the ball in the final third and in the linking of United’s midfield and attack.

Herrera would often be seen dropping deep centrally to receive the ball from both 6s and on occasion would pick up the ball from the centre-backs. This gave United variation in the way they constructed their attacks and played through the phases of the attack. Instead of one primary outlet to aid the team’s build-up and circulation, United could rely on all 3 central midfielders and Juan Mata on the right.


Their movement also took advantage of Chelsea’s man marking, as seen in the image above. Herrera drops off and Matic follows, leaving a gap in the Chelsea defensive block that can be exploited, by Rooney should he drop off and receive possession, or Mata who can drive into the open space.


Mata and Herrera would occasionally rotate positions and they do so in this image, with Mata moving from his 10 position into the right-half space which causes Matic to follow him and yet again leave a gap in the Chelsea block. Schneiderlin is now able to play in Rooney, whose passing lane was previously blocked off by Matic.

Chelsea passive pressure, Hazard false 9

When United were in possession in the final third, Chelsea often looked solid and compact both horizontally and vertically. Despite appearing rejuvenated and performing much better in this game than in any of their recent performances, United did not play through Chelsea as easily as they would have liked.

Had they been up against a team without the same compactness defensively as this Chelsea side, United may have had a field day. Chelsea set up in a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 block with Hazard and Oscar the two most advanced players, positioning themselves in the United 6 space instead of applying occasional pressure to Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger.


However, in the 1st defensive phase, United were able to construct their attacks too easily not only due to the movement of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger but Chelsea’s passive pressure. They would occupy positions high up the pitch but appeared reluctant to apply any pressure to United’s back line, and when they did their pressing was often uncoordinated.
Occasionally one of the attacking players would press based on the access they had to the player in possession but besides that their pressing did very little to unsettle United in the build-up phase.


The defensive nature of their double 6 of Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel made their attempt to press all the more difficult as neither of them were willing to push up and close the space between the lines to compensate for the high positioning of the two most advanced players, in this case Hazard and Willian. As a result the United 6s were able to play through Chelsea’s 1st wave of pressure with ease.

Going forward, Chelsea did cause United problems on occasion. Their main method of attack was through rapid attacking transitions with the attacking midfielders the main outlets. However, in prolonged periods of possession their main outlet was Eden Hazard, who was arguably Chelsea’s most dangerous player in his typical false 9 role.


It did seem peculiar at first, considering that the false 9 is seldom effective when deployed in a 4-2-3-1 system as it clashes with a typical number 10 in terms of their movement and the spaces they tend to occupy in the final third. However, Oscar was on hand to balance out Hazard’s movements to ensure they did not clash in terms of positioning.


In possession of the ball, he tended to cause United problems. They found it difficult to deal with the issues associated with the false 9. There was a reluctance from the United midfielders to put pressure on him when he received the ball so as to not disrupt their defensive shape. Instead he was given time and space to pay one twos and combine with the Chelsea attacking midfield three who would frequently make penetrative runs ahead of him, as seen in the image above.

Where does this leave them?

The result does little for either side in terms of league position, however considering the fortunes of both clubs, a win would have been a real confidence booster. United will be glad to see their preferred double 6 partnership of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger in the starting line-up again but will be desperate for results to start going their way if they stand any chance of keeping their top 4 hopes alive, let alone title hopes.

Written by Miles Olusina

Miles Olusina

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