Notes on Chelsea vs Manchester United

The first meeting between two teams occupying the top 3 this season in Premier League made the headlines this week, not especially for sporting reasons. Not at all, actually. Until the controversial decisions that led the game becoming something of a mess, Chelsea did offer two goals to his host on a silver plates. If those two goals resulted from the odd mistake of what football keeps unpredictable, I’d have been eager to move on and look forward to the close term of what will be a long season for Di Matteo’s men. But it wasn’t, it precisely highlighted several tactical talking points that I already did summarize (that time, in French) after the first couple of games of the season.
The aim of this article wasn’t to be general but to pick precise situations to comment it. I did a more general article in French called “About Chelsea’s current issues” (that you can find here) in which I actually discussed the same points than here…
These are my notes based on charts and screenshots from the game, shared in 4 parts:
  • On Manchester United’s performance
  • On Chelsea’s performance
  • How Chelsea tried to react
  • What can we conclude from the game?

On Manchester United’s performance


4-5-1, two banks of four

Manchester made it hard for Chelsea thanks to his defensive organisation. When the ball was lost, there were two banks of four behind the ball with Rooney to come out on the holder of the ball and Van Persie as a focal point upfront.

Manchester used a zonal marking system where the closest player to the holder came out while his team mates would slide depending of the side the ball is played in or toward.


Rooney and van Persie drops at the same time

Despite featuring a very conventional 4-4-2 shape, regarded by some as an oudtated system due to the alleged lack of movements between the opponents lines ; Manchester perfectly exploited the weaknesses of Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 shape. Mikel kept an eye on Wayne Rooney for the first half, making it a virtual man marking instead of Manchester’s zonal marking. Wayne Rooney having understood he won’t be allowed a lot of space to turn and face the play, he acted like Andrea Pirlo against Oscar in the 2-2 draw two months ago: leaving his position to free space and let the transmissions going through his initial zone of play. If Pirlo allowed then Vidal to insert himself, here, Rooney’s movement allows Carrick to pick Robin van Persie. The dutch’s outstanding first touch combined to the uneasy zone to defend (between the double pivot and the center backs) he asked the ball in didn’t put Luiz in the best conditions to defend. Luiz could either have commited a clear foul or being stroke off consideration easily to let van Persie turn and shot.

Same situation here where the space between the double pivot (blue) and the defensive line (seagreen) which has been exploited by van Persie, forcing a defender to come out (Cahill) and being careful in his defending. In my eyes, Young’s contribution was massive for MU, despite his movements being schoolcase diagonal runs or proper defending close to his full back.

As Ramires was on the brink to come out on Cleverley who asked the ball, Young asks the ball between Mikel and Ramires and the midfield Chelsea line is easily passed through.

Manchester United attack with 4 men

Manchester United was deservedly upfront at half time considering the efforts the wide midfielders Antinio Valencia and Ashley Young did put into the game to contribute defensively by blocking the channels but offensively by keeping a wide position in the back of A.Cole (Valencia) or compensating every drop by the upper striker with a diagonal run (Ashley Young). On a long clearance from the back, Cole is out of position and Luiz is forced to challenge for the ball on the channel despite three MU players eager to exploit the second ball behind the defenders. Hopefully the Brazilian center back will win that header.

On Chelsea’s performance


Chelsea’s attacking players don’t track back

One has to admit that the contrast between Ferguson’s wingmen discipline and Chelsea’s wide attacking midfielders was kind of striking on Sunday evening. If we can make a meal of the constant interchanging of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar on the pitch ; that shouldn’t prevent to keep in mind that every player has his defensive duties when the ball is lost. To say the least, if Juan Mata and Eden Hazard put a bit more efforts to track back than dod Sturridge and… Mata under Villas Boas’ tenure, that’s simply not enough against opponents who’d be happy to sit back in order to counter clinically at the right time. Here, Rafael is easily picked high up and has freedom to roam forward, with the closest attacking player several yards behind him. On the right, there’s a clear illustration of Hazard’s not sufficient enough defensive work as he got past way too easily by Antonio Valencia.

I don’t want to give the impression to jump on the bandwagon here but Hazard has to sort things quickly and be aware he’s not at Lille anymore where no-one would blame him for his lack of defensive work when the ball’s lost.

As often since Ancelotti’s second season, the full backs are over exposed and faces most of the time wingers with their full back overlapping . That’s something to keep in mind in the seasonal conclusions about Cole or Bosingwa’s defending (not saying for all that they didn’t commit mistakes). On this one, I slightly disagree with   the excellent CarefreeChronicles: Cole opted for a proactive approach because Rafael could have passed the ball to Valencia through the interval in between Luiz and Cole. Valencia would run into the box unchallenged, if Luiz came out on him, Van Persie would have been left separated on the penalty spot.

This is precisely where my issues lies when I heard the defenders are clumsy and defend like schoolboys. Actually, on that kind of situation, the wrong is already done because Rafael was able to push forward without being tracked. This leaves few options for the defenders, they’re often forced to chose between the less-worse one considering they can’t manage the inbalance situation they (the remaining defenders) face. Here, the pro-active one was probably the less worse one ; Valencia had the advantage to face Cech’s goal and be onside in his defenders’ back. Whatever Cole would have made, Rafael is good enough to exploit the situation.

Cole did his best, the player occupying the left side of the attack didn’t. For me that’s a sufficient conclusion and I don’t wan’t to hear anything about any free license in the last tier to gather the efforts and lucidity in there. The game would have ended at half time and I would have though Manchester deserved their win considering the work the wingmen put into their defensive duties compared to Chelsea’s.

Defenders challenges duels they would have been supposed to cover instead

I could have evoked it just above but that was arguably the main thing to notice in the first half. On every long ball or clearance from the back, the Chelsea defenders were forced to come out challenging the ball whereas they would have been supposed to cover those duels to pick the second balls. One couldn’t expect a 100% success in those challenges

Ashley Cole being out of position due to him coming back from a wide position (to provide width) made it easy for Valencia to pick the second ball from the Luiz/RvP challenge into a dead zone nobody could cover properly.


Lack of passing options

These are situations the Chelsea team faced a lot the recent seasons with a team giving the feeling to be shared in two parts, one who’d try to make a deep distribution and the other half firmly rooted while never dropping back to make triangles to provide options to the holder of the ball. Triangles is the first step to build up attacks via possession, you keep the ball, you attract opponents by creating a tight interplay zone just before reverse the play with a half length or long pass.

Top left hand corner: Mikel is back to goal with Rooney having triggered a pressing run to close him down. Luiz left aside, there’s no other option than the half boot we can notice on the right hand corner.

Top right hand corner: Cahill has no options to distribute and will give the ball away by attempting an inaccurate long ball which will end in the West Stand

Bottom left hand corner: Ivanovic sees Ashley Young preventing most of the passing options forward, he gives the ball to Mikel.

Bottom right hand corner: Mikel will pass the ball back to Ivanovic who’ll play to Cahill, then Cahill to Luiz…

I though this one was funny when the two screenshots were put aside: a first zone with the Chelsea defenders and the double pivot, a second zone where the players were aligned like toy soldiers in 3 lines: the midfield Manchester line with Valencia deep on ball side, the four defenders and the 5 attacking Chelsea players in between.

Excessive verticality

When we’re speaking about lack of passing options from the back, that often means using direct and vertical play (because there’s no options between the lines). If the long one is quite inaccurate and doesn’t especially endanger the team who uses it straight away (when it’s headed away by the center backs), the short one is risky, especially against a Manchester team congestionned centrally with his wing men doing good job on the channels (allowing midfielders to focus on what happens centrally).  The 1st picture is the build up to Ivanovic’s sending off: Hazard doesn’t drops and tries to control the ball back to goal, unaware of what’s coming on him in his back. Mata is in the same situation and also tries to control back to goal. The ball has been easily lost twice on those two situations, leading to two inbalance situations where as the defenders weren’t ready because they didn’t expect the ball to be lost that early in the passing sequence.

Here’s another example of Young’s diagonal runs as he’s upper than the two centre-forwards, he actually compensates and offers a focal contribution upfront.

Lack of width

Knowing Chelsea would feature three attacking players, virtual central support strikers as his best attacking trio on paper would inevitably led to situations where the team will lack width on offensive phasis. That would prove to be an issue against teams who use to “park the bus”, or simply, asks density in midfield. On Sunday, Young and Valencia’s work was almost superfluous considering their positioning was preventative ; they did not face a lot of situations where they had to defend 2vs2 situations.

Ivanovic receives the ball in the channel after a passing sequence from the exact other side of the pitch, as can be seen on the picture, the Manchester team-block was sliding. But Chelsea lost the slight advantage they could have exploited while the opponents were getting into their new positions on the pitch. Eden Hazard triggers his run too late, Ivanovic manages to find him but just toward the corner flag.

Rare width, not enough movement

Despite using width and overlaps being the crystal clear option to use against organised teams, Chelsea didn’t used that asset enough. And when it was done, movements weren’t fluid enough. Torres’ lateral run carries Evans and opens the interval between the two center backs (red). Mata’s positioning rooted Evra who had as well to be assisted by Ebans coming closer to him.

As we can see Rafael and Ferdinand’s communicating and Carrick looking forward if Valencia tracked back to fill the “dead zone” in Rafael’s back ; Eden Hazard only makes a soft run (seagreen) instead of the sharop run he should have made instead (yellow). Ivanovic will eventually play the ball to Mata because the defensive intervals closed before Hazard was available.

How Chelsea tried to react

Attacking midfielder’s aviability

Mata and Oscar weren’t available enough, still, as well as the use of width ; it did coincide with Chelsea’s best spells in the first hour of play. Chelsea having enough technical quality to move the ball quickly from one side to another, it was kind of frustrating not so see enough situations like that: Cole and Ivanovic are on both sides on the pitch and stretchs Manchester’s block as much as they can (considering they have to be monitored due to Mata, Oscar or Mikel’s ability to pick a diagonal pass). Mata drops and provides an option to Mikel, the ball goes to Ramires which pass was unproperly controled by Ivanovic. Hazard triggered his run soon enough while Oscar was between the lines in the ball-side of the pitch ; Torres holding his focal positioning upfront: MU’s defense was busy.

On this one, Oscar drops to ask the ball to Mikel. The young brazilian was way more available in 2nd half than he was in the first half

Mikel tries to take matters in hand

Despite playing without his most intelligent midfielder – Frank Lampard – John Obi Mikel proved how well he got used to that central midfield role allowing him to use more of his abilities (restricted by his former holding role). As Chelsea lacked width, link up between the lines (and then, couldn’t manage to find his penetrative players) ; other options had to be assessed.

Mikel takes matters into hand #1: After giving the ball to Mata, Mikel resumes his run and tries to position himself at the center of MU’s midfield. The purpose is quite obvious as the most used option to skirt zonal marking defending is to outnumber given zones of the field, what the Nigerian precisely tries to do here. Ramires will play to Oscar which pass toward Torres will be intercepted. Hazard and Torres made appropriate runs and were both available, getting the ball was only a matter of Oscar being able to pass through the line of players.

Here’s where Mikel’s run forward leads (he’s out of the picture, behind Torres): Mata and Hazard makes the same kind of run toward De Gea’s goal several yards away from each others while Torres does the opposite and drops. Mikel’s fixing work upfront (If only I knew I’d say that one day… !) prevents Ferdinand and his defenders to use any offside trap tactic considering they face 4 players and they don’t know when and how Oscar will release his pass.

No doubt that Villas Boas would be proud of that:

Can’t you use your defensive midfielder to introduce a surprise factor in the match? Let’s say, first he passes horizontally and then, suddenly, vertical penetration?

Andre Villas Boas, March 27 2009 (via the Telegraph)

Jonny Evans’ elbow will prevent Torres to touch the ball on that situation.

On this one, Torres will be a yard offside.

Defensive readjustment after the break

Chelsea did operate a readjustment after the break in regard with of the aspects where they lacked organisation. Here, van Persie keeps asking the ball in frond of the double pivot but henceforth this is Mikel who challenges the ball while the three defenders tighten the net like to harvest the apples (the second balls). Mikel will eventually lose this challenge but Cole will be able to pick the second ball.

Five minutes mater, same situation, same net but Mikel wins the challenge. Hazard was quick enough to come into the frame to try to collect the second ball but commits a foul on Wayne Rooney (blue star). We can notice Valencia’s upper positioning (pink) to put more pressure on Cole if he happens to collect the second ball like on the previous situation.

On this one, we see Oscar tracking Rooney’s movements while Mikel opted for a more zonal approach in front of the center backs.

What can we conclude from that game

Fitness declines as the season goes on

That was more or less expected: despite signing – at first sight – a load of young, attacking midfielders (Moses, Hazard, Marin, De Bruyne, Oscar…), experience has been lost and the numerical lacks in the attacking compartment has still not been replaced. Chelsea features virtually the same lineup since the start of the season with Lampard/Ramires challenging for a starting spot beside Mikel, and Cahill/Luiz beside Terry. Expecting so much for such young players is not a viable option for a full season, especially considering that Chelsea’s dominance on games relies on possession that has to be gained and coupled with due pressing.

Victor Moses

Victor Moses deserves a role for rotation purposes considering his tactical and defensive contribution is one of the best among Chelsea’s attacking players. Not only he’s able to link-up with his  full back and provide width but to track back defensively as well. But he has to work on his finished product, despite having given the feeling that he took that away from his game after his two cameos against QPR and Stoke.

Was 4-3-3 the best choice ?

Players aren’t especially to blame considering they did hold the role required in Di Matteo’s 4-2-3-1. But in my eyes, a switch to 4-3-3 wouldn’t have been the silliest choice before or during the game. As Hazard and Mata didn’t provide width, full backs had to and thus, forced the center backs to cover them. It left a zone where van Persie could drop or Young pass through with runs without being tracked properly considering the double pivot featured two players who had to work as a tandem (one provides an option to the wing players, the other covers him).

4-2-3-1 prevented the full backs to overlap because they had to be careful not to be caught out of position (but they still were, considering the lack of offensive/defensive options they had in the channels).

To be fair, I’ve concerns for some time regarding the full backs’ contribution in such a system. Especially considering the lack of width that characterizes most of Chelsea’s games this season. That’s one of the things to keep in mind before expecting Radamel Falcao to save Chelsea’s season in January – if the club eventually proves to be genuinly interested – by running into the team and score loads of goals out of nowhere. And that’s the trailer of my next article on here, about Falcao and the eventual purpose of a move to Chelsea in the close future.

Anyway, KTBFFH & Carefree!



4 thoughts on “Notes on Chelsea vs Manchester United

  1. Tactics Porn haha !

    In RDM’s defence, 4231 is much more flexible than 433 (allows the swapping of positions), and can be played in a very aggressive way as well as a very defensive way. But, of course, having fresh players is crucial. We have a bunch of young, new to the Epl players (or both) for 3 interchangeable positions, and none of them can be expected to start 50-60times in a season. They already seem knackered.

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