The Premier League's top two sides, at least according to the current table, clash on Sunday when Manchester United face Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge. These two clubs, in the past decade or so, have had many grand encounters -- the biggest being on foreign soil in Moscow during United's triumph in the 2008 UEFA Champions League final -- and this weekend's upcoming one is another anticipated event. Roberto Di Matteo's (RDM) side, though, is evolving into a much different Chelsea in comparison to the past physical and disciplined ones and that includes the cautious and somewhat fortuitous side that conquered Europe this past May.
Chelsea are developing into a more proactive side and the foundation of this involves summer signings Eden Hazard and Oscar, along with last summer's marquee signing Juan Mata. This trio of playmakers have increasingly been deployed together as of late in the attacking-midfield band of RDM's 4-2-3-1 system. Oscar generally plays through the middle and he's been lauded for his maturity, tactical awareness, and willingness to defend in a No.10 role (he was particularly impressive versus Juventus' Andrea Pirlo and Arsenal's Mikel Arteta). Hazard, who is only 21-years-old, was Ligue 1's Player of the Year the past two seasons and he offers incisiveness while cutting inward from the left with his dribbling, passing, and directness. Mata once again is showing his class with his carefully threaded through-balls and clinical finishing. For Chelsea fans and the neutral, it's been delightful football thus far.
The attacking-midfield trio are interchangeable and they continually pop up all across the pitch in the space between the lines. Mata often drifts inside while attacking moves are building from deep while Hazard, as of late, tends to wait in the wide areas a bit longer before darting inside to combine in quick-passing attacking moves. If all goes well, what often results is a penetrative through-ball for one of the three to run onto in the box or for striker Fernando Torres to get on the end of when he makes his usual runs through the channels.
This all is a bit concerning for United ahead of Sunday's tie at the Bridge. However, there is a possible weakness to exploit. All of this fluid and varying movement by Oscar, Hazard, and Mata often comes at the expense of their team's shape when possession is lost (somewhat similar to United's own trouble in trying to find balance in their attack and defense). Chelsea have been prone to being exposed on the flanks and when the opposition's full-backs get ahead of their marker -- which often occurs when one of Mata or Hazard are caught high up the pitch in a central position due to their movement when attacking -- it often stresses the full-backs and the two holding-midfielders.
RDM does have options, though, in order to combat this concern as he can deploy Ramires or Ryan Bertrand as defensive wingers -- not all too dissimilar to the role Park Ji-sung played at United. In Chelsea's four biggest matches this season -- away to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in league and versus Juventus and Shaktar Donetsk in European ties -- he decided to deploy Ramires twice on the right-flank. This probably won't happen on Sunday though as Frank Lampard's injury makes it very likely that the Brazilian lines up next to John Obi Mikel in the double-pivot. It's possible, though, that Bertrand could be selected on the left in support of Ashley Cole when one considers the latter's recent struggles with United right-winger Antonio Valencia. Mikel will sit deep and provide structure to Chelsea's shape while Ramires will be eager to get forward and use his impressive energy to make an impact up and down the pitch.
Diagram 1: Chelsea's anticipated starting XI for Sunday's match
So, with this basic description on how Chelsea might be deployed and how they generally function in their system, what approach might be best for Sir Alex Ferguson's side? Will the gaffer go with a familiar 4-4-1-1-4-2-3-1 system, a 4-3-3, or with the diamond that he's been experimenting with as of late? Below is a discussion on how each of these systems might function against the Blues.
This is the system that United's players and fans are most familiar with -- it deploys two somewhat deep-lying central-midfielders, two wingers that provide width and are expected to create chances from out wide, and the use of a secondary striker or playmaker that creates from a central position in the space between the lines. The obvious strength in using this system is that United could have proper width and as previously mentioned, this might be troublesome for Chelsea. In addition, as previously mentioned again, it would allow for the Valencia versus Cole match-up that has been advantageous for United in recent seasons. Furthermore, Wayne Rooney has generally played quite well versus the Blues as of late and Mikel has had trouble marking him in the spaces between the lines.
The weakness or concern with this system is that United will struggle to defend in the center of the park -- particularly against an attacking-midfield trio that looks to get into the spaces between the midfield and defense lines. When out of possession, this shape for United is generally two banks of four with Rooney, or another secondary striker, dropping back at times. Even if the shape is compact in this situation and even if it can get organized quickly enough so that there isn't a numerical disadvantage, it can easily be pierced with one clever pass beating an entire flat bank of four. With Chelsea's movement and ability to thread these sort of passes, United would likely become very vulnerable.
This has been the experimental system used by Ferguson this season and the results have been mixed. It was successful in the Capital One Cup tie versus Newcastle, again versus the Magpies in the first-half of a league match, and versus CFR Cluj in a Champions League contest. However, it struggled in the second-half away to Newcastle and in the first-half this past midweek in another European game versus Braga.
The congestion of the middle of the pitch often allows a side control there. There is a lack of natural width but it can be provided by full-backs getting forward. If the two strikers and the playmaker at the tip of the diamond are versatile enough, they can provide enough variation in attack through their interchanging movement -- this is something Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Danny Welbeck have impressively provided. Against sides that stagger their vertical shape by not having more than three players in a band -- like Chelsea does in a 4-2-3-1 or like some other sides do in a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3), the shape of the diamond offers up more protection.
Ferguson is almost certainly wanting to involve Valencia in this match. He could try the Ecuadorian in a unfamiliar shuttler's role narrowly wide right in the diamond. However, this is a role he's yet to be deployed in. This seems like a bit of a risk against such a formidable foe. The diamond allows the opposition full-backs to get forward into because there are no wide attacking players to act as a natural foil. Cole is very good at going forward and he will certainly take the invitation to get forward and provide overloads down the left side. This could be troublesome for United.
This isn't a shape that Ferguson has used much in recent seasons and it's one he's only used in the second-half away to Newcastle. He made the switch to this shape from a midfield diamond due to left-back Shane Ferguson causing problems with his unchecked marauding runs. Perhaps the United boss is considering using this shape because a midfield trio can theoretically offer up enough stability in central-midfield while two wide attackers flanking a lead striker can account for Chelsea's full-backs.
United, though, have steered away from this system lately because their attack usually becomes predictable and stagnant. Valencia is a tremendous player, but he's rather predictable in hugging the right touchline. With a front three, as opposed to a front four in other systems, more unpredictability is required because fluid movement between the attackers helps provide enough variation in attack. A 4-3-3 could potentially offer up the necessary defensive shape to account for Chelsea's dangerous players, but it likely would result in United playing in a reactive approach. This isn't necessarily a bad thing but there would be concern that the attack would become too boxy and functional.
A 'hybrid' what? This is a hypothetical thought and suggestion. It's not really radical if you think about and it's merely a lopsided shape. I think we all agree that we'd prefer to see Valencia on the pitch so that he can push back Cole and not allow him to get forward. In addition, if Bertrand isn't deployed as the left-sided attacker and if it's Hazard as expected, Cole will be stranded to deal with Valencia 1 v 1 and possibly 2 v1 when Rafael gets forward. We want this.
The attacking threat of Chelsea's playmaking trio needs to be addressed. United could deploy a holding-player to sit in front of the back four -- such as Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher -- while mobile central-midfielders like Tom Cleverley and Anderson could be positioned just ahead. RvP leads the attack line and Valencia could offer width in attack and protection against Cole by being a right-winger. Rooney could have a free role in behind RvP and this would be similar to his playmaking role in the midfield diamond. Essentially, United would be playing without a left-sided attacker and daring Branislav Ivanovic to get forward.
Diagram 2: A hypothetical '4-3-3/diamond hybrid' system and starting XI
Baiting Ivanovic to get forward and send in crosses has actually been a tactic used by Ferguson many times in recent years -- and with success. Despite the Serbian clearly being improved with his crossing, this still might be a calculated dare -- if no left-sided attacker is used in this suggested hybrid shape -- because neither Torres nor the playmaking trio are major aerial threats. Quite obviously, Rooney would still be asked to drop deep and defend when possession is lost and this would eventually result in him, and another central-midfielder, picking up both Mikel and Ivanovic in slow build-ups. However, in quick transitions, this won't always be possible right away and leaving the right-back as the free man might be the wise move.