OPENING LINEUPS AND FORMATIONS
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson deployed his side in a 4-4-1-1ish shape. David de Gea was the goalkeeper while the center-back pairing was Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Rafael was selected at right-back. Chris Smalling was unavailable due to an apparent knock sustained in training last week. In central-midfield, Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs were the duo and they were flanked by Antonio Valencia on the right and Ashley Young on the left. Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney were up front with the latter playing in a withdrawn role.
Chelsea manager Andres Villas-Boas had his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape -- rather than the usual 4-3-3 the Blues have played in under their new manager. Peter Cech was in goal and with captain John Terry injured, the center-back pairing was David Luiz and the newly acquired Gary Cahill. The latter was making his debut at the club. Jose Bosignwa was chosen over Ryan Bertrand to deputise for the suspended Ashley Cole at left-back and Branislav Ivanovic was at right-back. In the 'double-pivot' roles, Michael Essien and Raul Meireles were selected while Juan Mata was deployed in a 'number ten' role behind lead striker Fernando Torres. Daniel Sturridge was the wide right attacker and Florent Malouda was the wide left attacker.
Rather than using his typical 4-3-3 system -- one that he used last season with great success at FC Porto and also his predominant shape at Chelsea -- Villas Boas elected to deploy his side in a 4-2-3-1 shape in this match. The 4-2-3-1 is a shape that the Portuguese manager shifted his side to in the 2nd half during their last match versus Swansea -- a half in which they were much more effective when compared to the 1st half when deployed in a 4-3-3 shape. In addition, during the reverse fixture at Old Trafford in September, Villas-Boas shifted his side to a similar 4-2-1-3 shape when his side had a three-goal deficit. Had Torres not missed the sitter of all sitters in from of the Stretford End, Chelsea may have claimed a similar three-goal comeback after shifting shapes.
The biggest change in this shape shift occurred in the center of the park. Mata -- Chelsea's chief creative force in attack -- moved in from the flank and into a central role. Also, a true holding-player -- a role that Oriol Romeu or John Obi Mikel typically are used in -- was no longer used and it was Meireles and and Essien that operated together in a double-pivot.
Quite simply, Mata was superb on Sunday. The Spaniard provided the spectacular with his smashing volley, surgical defense-splitting passes, and also sensationally curled free-kicks -- the latter nearly resulted in a winner at the death while it also provided accurate service for Luiz's goal. Beyond this though, Mata helped dictate play in a number ten role for the first 71 minutes of this match. The playmaker took up intelligent positions as his clever movements continually allowed for him to find space between United's midfield and defense lines. From here, he was the architect for Chelsea in the final attacking third of the pitch. The chalkboard below displays how Mata did well to provide both incisive distribution from the space between the lines. It also displays how he calmly brought others into attack with calm passes swung wide for Chelsea's wide attackers.
United's right side vs. Chelsea's left side
It could certainly be reasonably argued that Malouda was Chelsea's poorest player on Sunday. The Frenchman did have a few moments where he able to provide a few key passes but for the most part, he hindered his side. In a broad sense, Malouda often slowed down attacking moves for his side and disrupted their rhythm in attack. When looking at it from an individual match-up perspective, Rafael -- and later on Valencia -- had the Chelsea attacker in his pocket. During Rafael's 64 minutes on the pitch, he impressively won 9 tackles. Valencia moved to right-back when the Brazilian went off and he too had 9 tackles in this match. Malouda was dispossessed an alarming 7 times while also turning the ball over an additional 2 times. As previously mentioned, Mata's move to a central role was a positive one for Chelsea but they missed his quality on the left-flank. The chalkboard below helps exhibit United's right-back dominance on Malouda -- it shows Rafael's tackles near the right touchline while also showing 6 tackles won by Valencia during the final half-hour of the match when he was deployed at right-back.
Prior to the match, who would deputise for Ashley Cole at left-back -- whether that be Bosingwa or Ryan Bertrand -- was a concern for Chelsea. However, Bosignwa -- who was played out of position -- was very solid defensively. Especially for a player that has a poor reputation in regards to his defending, his 6/8 aerial duels won and 6 interceptions were very impressive. Valencia has mostly been unplayable for the past month and while he still had his threatening moments, Bosingwa did well to contain his counterpart.
United's left side vs. Chelsea's right side
United were not nearly as effective on this side of the pitch. Evra was once again poor positionally in this match while his one-on-day defending was suspect as well. The latter was highlighted when Sturridge easily went past Evra just prior to the Englishman's deflected cross going off of Evans for an own-goal. However, Evra did do well getting forward. On the television feed that I had for this match, the commentators reported that Vilas-Boas was shouting instructions for Sturridge to drop deeper when Chelsea were out of possession. Moments after that, it was Sturridge that brought down Evra in the box for United's first penalty.
Higher up the pitch for United, Young lacked a consistent final product in attack. While he did continue his good understanding with both Evra and Rooney, and while he also did force Cech into a save on his trademark far-post curling attempt late in the 1st half, the United winger provided very little before he came off during the 53rd minute. So far this season during Premier League action, Young has only successful crossed the ball 17 times and at a disappointing 18.5% crossing rate. In this match, only one of his six crossing attempts found a teammate. Had Park Ji-sung not started two matches during the past week, or had Nani been fit, these two alternatives likely could have provided more for United in this match. It should be noted thought that was Young's first match back from his recent injury. Thus, rustiness may have been a factor.
Rooney runs riot
Three players that enjoyed time on the ball for most of this match were Rooney, Essien, and Meireles. As mentioned earlier, Chelsea did not deploy a true holding-midfielder from the start of this match. In addition, Essien and Meireles were relatively deep as double-pivots but nearly as deep as they would have been had one been a true holding-player. Thus, Rooney continually was able to find space between the lines and pick up the ball from there. Our talisman ran riot.
In a tactical piece for the Guardian, David Pleat explains how Rooney used his industry to rock Chelsea. Wazza's movement is phenomenal and even when he is often up against a holding-midfielder as a natural foil, he does well to slip his marker. As he does this, he becomes United's chief creative force in attack through the center. Against Chelsea, he continually picked the ball up behind their midfielders and from here, he used his drive to wreak havoc. Rooney was the engine for United's attack.
Essien and Meireles had time on the ball as well as both of them were slightly too advanced to have Rooney as a natural foil when Chelsea had possession. In addition, Carrick was positioned somewhat deep for United so as a result, he wasn't positionally available to close down his midfield counterparts. Fortunately for United, neither Essien or Meireles operated effectively enough as deep-lying playmakers for United to be hurt by them having time on the ball. Each Chelsea midfielder was tidy in distribution but neither made it necessary for United's midfielders to come higher up the pitch in order to close them down. Had either shown more range of passing, then this may have been necessary by United and more gaps may have opened up in attack for Chelsea.
Late changes define the final half-hour of the match
The introduction of Paul Scholes in the 64th minute and the introduction of Oriol Romeu in the 71st minute both changed the complexion of the match -- but in different ways. Scholes has been stellar since coming out of retirement in January as he's done well to dictate matches and help further restore calm into the United midfield. When the United legend came on, United trailed 3-1. Chelsea were beginning to defend deeper at this point and this only allowed Scholes time and space on the ball. From here, the maestro pulled the strings as a deep-lying playmaker. Scholes upped the tempo when needed with surgical long diagonal balls or with quick touches -- but he brought calm by as well when he often swung the ball side-to-side so that United could continually look for more probing routes of attack. In contrast, Chelsea simply gave the ball away too easily at this stage in the match and could not close it out. What they needed was a deep-lying playmaker like Scholes to restore calm with tidy possession.
Romeu's introduction shifted Chelsea into a 4-3-3/4-5-1ish shape soon after Rooney scored his second penalty. Romeu played as a true holding-midfielder while both Essien and Meireles moved higher up the pitch and completed the midfield triangle. Perhaps the most important result of this change was moving Mata out wide to the right and away from the center of the pitch -- where he had been so effective throughout the match. Sturridge -- whose defensive positioning had worried Villas-Boas throughout the match -- was taken off and the ineffective Malouda was left on as a wide attacker.
Scholes coming on allowed United to get a firm grip on the match while Mata's move to out wide had the contrasting influence for Chelsea. Villas-Boas tried to close out the match with more defensive bite but more calm possession would have served his side better. It could be argued that he simply didn't have that option on his bench due to personnel.
The match opened up as time went by. Chelsea shockingly went out to a 3-0 lead and judging by the run of play, they certainly were not deserved of that scoreline. Nonetheless, poor defending by United and quality opportunistic attacking was the cause of these goals. United were fortunate to pull a goal back quickly and from here, they dominated the match. Scholes' introduction brought United calm control while Villas-Boas defensive tactics only resulted in pressure being invited. Had Chelsea had an effective deep-lying playmaker, they may have better closed out this match and earned a needed 3 points. United were slightly the better side in terms of run of play but defensive mistakes cost them. A draw feels like a deserved result for both sides.