A Fascinating Midfield Battleground

Following a victory over Swansea that saw the Red Devils produce a valiant effort, especially in the second half, David Moyes's side is set to travel to Stamford Bridge to face Mourinho who has ever lost there. United will be without the services of Rooney and van Persie, however, a victory isn't impossble

Manchester United under David Moyes has been nothing short of a roller coaster. One half of the season has been characterized by winning streaks and resounding victories, while the other half has been filled with excruciating setbacks and more misery on the Old Trafford faithful. When David Moyes took over as manager the mood was relatively jovial around Manchester. Ferguson personally picked Moyes and this, in the eyes of the fans, had to carry a meaning, one of the greatness that was to resume.

21 games have been played in the Premier League and United sit at 7th, with 37 points, and 4 home defeats, one of which came at the hands of West Bromwich Albion. Let’s be honest, the handover was never going to be velvet, at least in the first season. The Bearsden native’s young regime has inherited of a team whose mediocrity was masked by Ferguson’s genius and the misfortune of arriving when David Gill, the architect of trades, was heading out.

Last Saturday’s triumph over Swansea, a team that knocked United out of the FA Cup a little less than a week before, was a perfect tale of this season. The first half was gloomy, uneventful, and at times worrisome. On the other hand, the second half saw a rejuvenated Kagawa, who was swapped for Januzaj and deployed in the hole, and reveled in the position he’s accustomed to playing in. United took over the game and tormented Michael Laudrup’s for the majority of the last 45 minutes.

At the final whistle, the crowd’s roar might have suggested that the Red Devils won yet another domestic league, but it was only a victory over the 13th team on the table. I am sure ales were consumed and United legends remembered that evening, at least in the red side of town. A victory is a victory no matter the opponent, especially after a three game losing streak. However, regardless of the joy that the second half thumping of Swansea might have brought, it didn’t dissipate the anxiety that has been engendered by the Red Devils upcoming trip to Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The fixture against Chelsea, which will be about two coaching philosophies and different fortunes, has the potential to be another knife twister.

There is no doubt that when the United midfield played well this season, the team excelled and when it sinned, the Red Army sank. The middle of the pitch will be the most fascinating battleground on Sunday and with both Rooney and van Persie unfit, Moyes will need creativity in crafting his lineup. Let’s look at how United can produce an upset at Stamford Bridge.

The Battle of the Middle

Mourinho is unique in that he tailors his squad for each fixture. And although one could argue that every manager does, the Portuguese doesn’t seem to do it to palliate injuries but to stifle an opponent. He rotates his team more often than any other manager around the Premier League and is aided by a squad versatility rarely seen. The Chelsea boss used a 4-2-3-1 formation for the majority of this Premier League campaign but has given a hint of a probable return to the 4-3-3, a scheme that brought him so much success during his first spell at Stamford Bridge, with the signing of Matic.

Mourinho could be tempted to field the trio of Mikel, Ramires, and Lampard, if he is fit, to protect the back four and, play Hazard and Willian on the wings to provide the fullbacks with support and assist Eto’o in creating opportunities. A 4-3-3 allows an extra holding midfielder, usually sitting deep in front of the defense at the expense of a playmaker, and provides a solid midfield — not necessarily in terms of possession, but in holding the opposition at arm’s length and thereby protecting the back four. Mourinho effectively used this formation against Arsenal on December and held Wenger to a stalemate. As illustrated below, Chelsea sat in a compact defensive block and often forced Arsenal to play wide where Willian and Hazard pressured them relentlessly.

Chelsea Defensive Solidity Under The 4-3-3

Ramsey connects with Sagna on the right flank but the France international is forced to pass the ball to Ramsey by Hazard who has sprinted back to close in on him. Ramsey then delivers a pass to Arteta who decides to switch the play to Arsenal’s left flank where he find Rosicky who in turn finds Walcott.

mou 1

However, Walcott is closely watched by Willian and passes the ball back to Rosicky. Moreover, the Chelsea midfield is still compact with Mikel stationed in front of the defense. Consequently, the Gunners are forced back to their right flank.

mou 2

Later during this possession, Ramsey is forced to attempt an aerial pass to Sagna who has started a run, with all the passing lanes occluded, but puts too much power on the ball which goes out after Sagna fails to control it.

mou 3

chelsea 3

Mourinho’s plan worked to perfection as the first half was characterized by Chelsea’s tactical discipline particularly in midfield.The Blues clogged the passing lanes and forced the hosts to spread the ball wide, where Willian and Hazard diligently assisted their full-backs. Arsenal struggled for space, time and fluency; and Ozil, whom Mourinho had in mind when selecting his lineup, was reduced to a bystander while Aaron Ramsey who has been Arsenal’s most prolific scorer was practically anonymous.

The Portuguese is known for his trickeries and could alternatively stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation to gain control of the midfield, given United's inconsistency in that area, and allow Hazard, Oscar, and Willian to torment United’s back-line. Also,the selection of Willian would help minimize the impact of Januzaj and Evra on the left flank, as the Brazilian is known for his defending.

Both Willian and Hazard played to great effect under the 4-2-3-1 and were instrumental in the 2-0 over Hull. Hazard completed the highest number of take-ons (4) as well as passes in the attacking third (23) while Willian was second in take-ons (3). Additionally, Hazard rewarded Mourinho's confidence by scoring the first goal and Willian picked holes in the Hull defense and set up Torres's goal.

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Last Sunday’s second half hopefully served as a lesson for Moyes. The Red Devils were a transformed team as they pressed much higher up the pitch, passing the ball much quicker and attacking in numbers. United are likely to operate under a 4-3-3 that will look more like a 4-2-3-1 at times. Expect Carrick and Fletcher to lie deeper to help win the battle of the midfield and provide the back four with adequate protection. Moreover, Evra and Rafael should be on the flanks while Vidic and Smalling will be paired up in central midfield. Also Valencia will operate the right wing and help contain Hazard and Welbeck will rely on his athleticism upfront t0 hold off defenders as he will look to carve out chances for himself and his teammates and push the defense deeper

The former Everton boss will have to overcome is cautious nature and gamble on Januzaj being able to produce his best in a cauldron against hardened top pros like Branislav Ivanovic and for Kagawa to continue his good form in his favored position if he wishes to come out of West London with at least a point. A teamsheet not featuring Januzaj will be a sign of fear and could pave the way for a Chelsea victory. Mourinho is the master of one nil victories after all (well, second to the Greece team of 2004).

Sunday's mouth watering fixture will be an opportunity for Moyes to finally take a permanent step in the right direction. A win could be a pivotal moment for the Scot at Old Trafford.

TheStretfordEnd writes for

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