After going nine years without being able to earn a victory at Stamford Bridge, Manchester United FC reversed their fortunes on this European night with a 0-1 victory over Chelsea FC in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie. The lone goal in the match came just inside the 24th minute; Michael Carrick played a superb diagonal long-ball to Ryan Giggs on the left flank and the Welshman used a sublime first-touch to set up a well-aimed cross to a trailing Wayne Rooney for a far-post finish. United have positioned themselves well for the return leg next Tuesday at Old Trafford.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
United played in what generally could be described as a '4-4-2' shape, although it had elements of a '4-1-4-1' and '4-2-3-1'. Edwin van der Sar returned in goal for United after sitting out the match versus West Ham United this past weekend. The match also saw the slightly surprising return of Rio Ferdinand, who paired with captain Nemanja Vidic as the center-back tandem. Rafael was featured at right-back and Patrice Evra as the left-back. Michael Carrick shielded the defense in a deep-lying playmaking role while Giggs joined the Englishman in the center of the pitch, but in more of a box-to-box role. Park Ji-Sung got the nod again as he typically does in an away European night fixture on the left-flank while Antonio Valencia was deployed on the right side. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was the striker while Rooney supported him in a deeper and withdrawn role.
Chelsea played in an asymmetrical '4-4-2' shape. Petr Cech was in goal and his center-back tandem was Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry. Ashley Cole was at left-back and Jose Bosingwa was a wing-back on the right side. Michael Essien and Frank Lampard were deployed in the central midfield; the former played in a deeper role while the latter had more freedom to join the attack. Yuri Zhirkov got the nod over Florent Malouda as the wide left player and Ramires played in a narrow right-midfield role. Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres were the striker pairing.
* Though not shocking, it was a slight surprise to see Ferdinand in for Chris Smalling and Park in for Nani. The youngster Smalling has been very good deputizing and a match this big is tough one for Ferdinand to return in. The use of Park and Valencia as the wide players showed intent on occupying Chelsea's full-backs; Park to track Bosignwa and Valencia to pin back Cole.
* There was acres of space on Chelsea's right side/United's left side for both side's full-back to get forward into as Ramires played narrow on the right-side and Park tucked in centrally when United were in possession. Because Ramires was a shuttler on that right side, Bosingwa bombed forward and played as a wing-back. Park had difficulties at times keeping the Portuguese contained as Bosingwa's ability to get forward was Chelsea's most dangerous point of attack in the opening half. Fortunately from a United perspective, Bosingwa was inconsistent with the quality of his service. Evra was getting forward as well with overlapping runs, but the United defender did much better at getting back and defending in comparison to Bosignwa.
* On the other side of the pitch, Cole was getting forward early in the match but as the match wore on, he began to stay back more because of the threat that Valencia posed. Rafael generally stayed back and defended and his counterpart Zhirkov was a complete non-factor in this match. A solid defensive job by the Brazilian.
* Surprisingly, it was Chelsea who showing better in the wide areas of attack and United that showed better through the middle. For Chelsea, it was mainly because of what Bosingwa was providing down the right flank. For United, Carrick and Giggs were fantastic and Rooney caused trouble when he came deep for the ball and drifted in between Chelsea's defense and midfield lines. Rooney would start high but when Carrick and Giggs had the ball, he came deep and often gave United a 3 v 2 advantage in the center of the pitch. Thus, this enabled United to control that area of the pitch through a sheer numerical advantage. When Chelsea were in possession, Rooney was consistently tracking back and getting goal-side of Essien. Lampard was continually closed down by either Carrick or Giggs.
* The lone goal combined some of United brilliance and Chelsea's weaknesses. As described in this review's opening paragraph, Carrick played a great diagonal ball to Giggs on the left flank. Rooney again found space in between Chelsea's defense and midfield bands and he was serviced by Giggs for an open shot attempt. Bosignwa, who is generally regarded as weak in defense, was positioned much too narrow and he unnecessarily doubled up on Chicharito. Carrick was able to hit the open space on the left flank because of this poor positioning by Bosignwa and the intelligent run by Giggs. In general, Carrick was sensational tonight in both defense and with his passing. He had 7 interceptions on the night according to Opta, 3 more than any other player on the pitch. Here's a chalkboard of Carrick's distribution courtesy of Total Football's iPhone app:
* There were stretches of high tempo in this half and during the early going, the two sides traded attacking flurries. However, United grew into the match and slowed things down by staying organized and compact in defense and with patient passing. Ferdinand and Vidic were very solid all evening in both organization and in combatting Torres and Drogba. Torres' movements were horizontal while Drogba's were vertical. United generally kept a deep defensive line and took selective chances at being direct with a counter-attack. For the last 20-25 minutes of the half, it appeared that United were more focused on slowing the tempo down by swinging the ball around patiently.
* Chelsea half-heartedly tried to play with a high-line and Chicharito was caught a few times being offsides. I say half-heartedly because it was clear that Chelsea were concerned that when Chicharito sat on Terry's shoulder, they knew the Mexican striker could exploit the defender's lack of pace if the right incisive ball got played into space. But when Chelsea were organized and sure, the defense pushed high up the pitch in unison. The goal of this likely was to compact the space between the attack and defense, thus allowing less space for Rooney to operate in when he drifted in between lines in search of the ball. Chicharito didn't get many scoring chances or touches on the ball, but he indirectly opened up space at times for Rooney due to the threat of his pace and his ability to drag a marker with him in his movements.
* No substitutions or change in shape at the start of the new half. However, it was noticeable how much the tempo of the match slowed down in the opening 5-10 minutes. In general, nothing was really happening.
* After Rafael was forced to be subbed off due to injury, Nani came on and played in the attack as the wide right player and Valencia moved to right-back. Interesting that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson included two center-backs (Jonny Evans, Smalling) in his 18 but not Fabio. I was very impressed by Valencia's football IQ. He was smartly positioned and disciplined in his 40 minutes or so at the unfamiliar position of right-back. Again, Chelsea were largely ineffective attacking down that side of the pitch.
* About the 55th minute mark or so, it appeared that Chelsea consciously sought to increase pressure and press United high up the pitch. The tactic was largely ineffective because Carrick and Giggs were terrific at moving the ball around the pitch. In last month's league clash between these two sides, this changed the game as it appeared that Paul Scholes and Carrick fatigued. United dealt with the pressure well this time and the match became slow and dull.
* Things changed dramatically when Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti brought on Nicolas Anelka and Malouda for Drogba and Zhirkov. The home-side changed their shape to a '4-3-3'. Torres was the fulcrum of the attack line and he was flanked by Malouda on the left and Anelka on the right. John Obi Mikel soon came on as well and he played in a holding role in support of Lampard and Ramires in a central midfield triangle. Combined with this tactical change and with their eager intent on getting the equaliser, this was the reason that United were on their heels for the remainder of the match. After United began to get overrun in the midfield, Fergie changed his tactics as well and put United in a somewhat matching compact '4-3-3' shape. Carrick continued to shield the defense but he was joined in the central midfield by Park and Giggs. Rooney moved to the left-flank. Chelsea looked much better having one-central striker as opposed to two.
* Dimitar Berbatov was brought on in the 78th minute for Chicharito. At this point the intent was clear; Fergie and United seeked to hold onto their 0-1 lead. The away side was sitting back, absorbing pressure, staying organized, and looking to relieve pressure by sending long-balls to the lone striker. Berbatov likely was introduced for a sole purpose; to provide an outlet to relieve pressure by using his strong hold-up play to allow others time to join him in attack. It was quite different than Chicharito's role of using his pace and movement to stretch the defense. I believe that Fergie got it right with the use of this strikers today.
* Park really grew into this match in the 2nd half. After being somewhat poor in the first half, I thought the South Korean was very solid in the 2nd half. Bosingwa's threat of going forward was nearly non-existent this half and this was due to two reasons: (1) Park simply was playing and tracking Bosingwa better. (2) Anelka's introduction and Chelsea's shift to '4-3-3' didn't allow the space in attack for Bosingwa to move forward into as he did in the first 71 minutes of the match. Ancelotti likely recognized this and took off Bosignwa in the 78th minute. Park was also quite effective when he moved into the center of the pitch as his tackling and ability to intercept passes disrupted Chelsea's central midfield.
* Man of the match: Carrick; he bossed the match in the center of the pitch with his solid defense and silky distribution. I also thought Rooney, Giggs, Ferdinand, Vidic, Valencia, and van der Sar were all excellent.
* The Drogba/Torres pairing and use of two strikers; to put it bluntly, it wasn't effective today. Chelsea looked much better when they played in a '4-3-3' and had a single striker. I think this is the shape the Blues should bring to Old Trafford next week. They simply don't have the right personnel for a '4-4-2.' Chelsea can gain two big benefits by switching into a shape with a three-man central midfield: (1) Have a true holding player that naturally occupies the same space that Rooney likes to drift into. (2) They can help prevent from being overrun in the midfield by not only having two central midfielders to combat three United players in the center of the pitch when Rooney drops deep. Ancelotti got his tactics wrong in my humble opinion.
* Evra was both brilliant and shocking at times. He was very strong in tackle but he nearly (maybe it would have been deservingly) conceded a penalty with late challenge on Ramires in stoppage time. The general consensus seems to be that a penalty should have been called, however, there are some who are arguing the first bit of contact occurred just outside the box. Either way, United were fortunate to not have had a penalty called against them. There are many who feel too many decisions have gone against United in recent clashes versus Chelsea. United certainly had this key decision go in their favor today.
* Mr. van der Sar... you can't retire, you just can't...
* I was a bit concerned to see Giggs in the middle as opposed to Scholes but the decision by Fergie worked out brilliantly. If Carrick had a shocker, Scholes likely would been brought on ASAP. Giggs can be somewhat loose with his passing at times, which is more detrimental in the middle as opposed on the wide left, but he was very effective in the center of the pitch and complemented Carrick well. Giggsy also did well to track back in defense.
* 0-1. That's a dream result. I would have been thrilled with 1-1 or 2-2.