clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Manchester United FC 2-1 Chelsea FC (agg 3-1): Tactical Analysis

Getty Images


Manchester United replicated their '4-4-2' shape from last week's match at Stamford Bridge. Edwin van der Sar returned in goal and his center-back tandem was skipper Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. Patrice Evra was the left-back and John O'Shea got the nod at right-back with Rafael unavailable due to injury. Michael Carrick once again shielded his defense in a role of deep-lying playmaker. Ryan Giggs played a bit higher up the pitch in the central midfield with more freedom to get forward. Park Ji-Sung, who was deployed on the left side last week, worked tirelessly up and down the right flank. Nani was the wide left player. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was the striker and his partner, Wayne Rooney, played in a withdrawn playmaking role, essentially as an auxiliary midfielder. 

Chelsea FC manager Carlo Ancelotti threw everyone for a loop (except for perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson) and played his side in a '4-3-2-1' formation, also known as the Christmas tree for it's resemblance in shape. Petr Cech was in goal again and in a slightly surprising move, Alex was at center-back with John Terry. This moved Branislav Ivanovic to right-back and Ashley Cole played in his usual left-back role. Michael Essien dropped a bit deeper than he did last week in the central midfield and this time he played right in front of his center-backs. In the band of three, Florent Malouda played to the left of Essien and slightly higher. Ramires actually played in a similar role as he did last week in a narrow right-sided midfield role. Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka played off of Fernando Torres in the attack; the former two in playmaking roles and the latter as the lone striker.


* '4-4-2' (United) vs '4-3-2-1' (Chelsea): A brief introduction to '4-3-2-1' for those who are unfamiliar with the shape since it is not commonly seen in the Premier League. As previously mentioned, the choice of '4-3-2-1' by the Chelsea boss surprised many when the match started. Perhaps it shouldn't have. Ancelotti's great Milan teams of the past decade played in this shape. However, the big and simple difference is that these Milan teams had creative geniuses such as Kaka and Manuel Rui Costa playing in the band of two as playmakers, or in Italy known as treqaurtistas. Not to disparage Lampard or Anelka, because both have had brilliant footballing careers, but this isn't a role that suits either. I'll get into this a bit more later in this review.

Chelsea looked to play narrow with their 'Christmas tree' shape. The goal is to flood the center of the pitch and gain an edge there by having a sheer numerical advantage, therefore, you hope to control possession. From there, the idea is to get the ball to your trequartistas and let them be the creative force that unlocks the opposing defense. In order to provide some variation in attack, it is vital that you have full-backs that get forward and provide width in attack. When out of possession, the '4-3-2-1' allows you stay compact and organized so it's difficult to quickly be gutted up the middle. 

In contrast, United look to play with width. Tthey have generally, in various ways, always been a club that finds their most creative outlet from their wide players. United's shape tonight could generally be described as '4-4-2', but it had elements of '4-2-3-1' to it with Rooney dropping so deep when his side were both in and out of possession. This helps combat sides that try to flood the center of the pitch with extra central midfielders. The goal is to quickly swing the ball wide and let your wide players provide service in the final attacking third. The other benefit of Rooney dropping deep is to provide another creative outlet, so that United isn't entirely dependent on their wide players. So the simple goal tonight was to swing the ball out wide quickly or look to play through Rooney in the center. 

With two such contrasting tactics, the match was destined to be an open affair. This proved to be true as there were many scoring chances for both sides and the tempo was very quick and intense for long stretches of the match. 

* Where was the space for each side?: So why exactly did the contrasting tactics result in open play? Because there was open pockets of space and channels to exploit due to the different shapes of the two sides. In the diagram below, the yellow boxes indicate the space that was available throughout the match. The giant white box in the middle indicates how Chelsea flooded the middle of the pitch and looked to gain a numerical advantage there. 


For the space on the flanks, it was because of Chelsea's narrow shape and Park's tendency to drift towards the middle from his wide right role. Both sides looked to exploit the space. United did so with both their wide players and their full-backs. Chelsea attempted to do so with their full-backs and with Malouda often drifting to the left. 

There was also space in United's attacking third (Chelsea's defensive third) as indicated by the other yellow boxes. The smart movement by both Chicharito and Rooney is a big reason for this. Chicharito is fantastic at stretching a defense with his movement both vertically and horizontally. The vertical movement leaves more space for Rooney to operate in between the midfield and defense lines, but Rooney found this more difficult today because the flooding in the center of the pitch by Chelsea resulted in their players being more vertically staggered. Therefore, Rooney often moved wide. Chicharito's wide movements often drag markers out of position, thus creating space for midfielder runners. The central midfielders can make a forward run or the wide attackers can make the diagonal run which is more disguised and dangerous. Nani and Park were excellent at exploiting that space today when United broke into the attack. That pocket of space was the result of Rooney's and Chicharito's excellent movement.

In the center, it wasn't so much of a space issue, but as mentioned, Chelsea outnumbered United there. Park, Rooney, and Nani would often drift inside to help defend, but this created space for Chelsea's full-backs to move into in the wide areas. This also resulted in stretches where Chelsea dictated play because their sheer numerical advantage allowed them to simply pass around United. This is why it seemed that Lampard and Anelka had so much time and space on the ball at times; but neither were able to take advantage with the incisive pass.  


* Lampard & Anelka: In their roles as essentially trequartistas in this shape, it was vital that either one or both provide an attacking threat. Neither did this. Lampard was decent at linking play (45/55 passing according to and this generally is just fine in his usual role as a box-to-box type of midfielder, but as an attacker, he wasn't able to unlock the defense by creating many goal-scoring chances for others or for himself. Lampard often found himself time and space on the ball, he just failed to do anything threatening with his opportunities. He's much more comfortable delaying his arrival into attack rather than igniting it. Anelka looked a little more threatening in this role but he too failed to yield his influence. The Frenchman was also wasteful with two opportunities to shoot. Simply, neither showed the vision and range of passing that a more effective trequartista might have (i.e. Kaka, Rui Costa). Perhaps Yossi Benayoun should have been tried in this role?

* Torres & Drogba: Torres didn't do anything. Drogba put me into near cardiac arrest at times. However, I don't necessarily think that Torres is rubbish (he's certainly out of form though). The Spaniard is dependent on service from a creator(s) because he's a player that looks to exploit space. If he doesn't get it, well, he's rubbish like he was in the 1st half. Drogba can create something out of nothing or on just a half chance. Drogba is a more direct player that is less dependent on others. If you're looking to play a patient passing game and build an attack, Torres fits those tactics better. If you want a direct outlet or a player who can a goal by himself out of seemingly nothing, Drogba is your choice. Chelsea couldn't find the killer pass in the attacking third as detailed earlier so perhaps a more direct approach through Drogba would have changed the match. Ancelotti got it wrong with his decision to start Torres. Full disclosure: this writer believed Torres should start as well prior to the match.

Cole & Ivanovic: Both had space to get forward into and exploit. Neither were effective. Cole is a terrific footballer, one that many argue is the best left-back on the planet (I argue for Evra), but he simply was erased from the match by Park. Fergie seems to have made it a tactical priority to occupy Cole in matches: he did last year with Valencia in both league matches, this year with Fletcher in a league match, with Valencia again last week, and with Park tonight. Even on the few chances Cole did have to contribute to the attack, he was mostly wasteful with poor service. Ivanovic had the dual responsibility of containing Nani and getting forward into the open space. The right-back did decently well in selecting in his runs forward, but he too was wasteful with his poor crossing. 

* Chelsea's central midfield: A big problem last week for Chelsea was that the two-man midfield of Lampard and Essien was exposed as neither effectively dealt with United's movement between their lines. Essien played deeper tonight and did well to foil Rooney at times forcing the United playmaker to go wide in search of space. Malouda broke out wide whenever he could, much of that is likely instinct and due to the space on the flank. Ramires essentially played his same "shuttler" role as his work-rate enabled him to cover vast amounts of the pitch. It was more positive this week, but it's hard to say they won the battle versus United. 

* Park: My man of the match. The Korean was tremendous in all phases of the game. He completely nullified Cole and even troubled him in attack. Park's whole game is underrated but at least he receives praise for his work-rate and his defense as an attacker. However, one aspect of his game that isn't spoken enough of is his intelligent movement off the ball. His football IQ is off the charts; he's a tactical genius. His choosing and timing of runs exposed Cole all night long. I may need to write a piece on Park. Oh yeah, he also scored another goal in a big match. 

* Giggs: I'd probably also argue that the ageless Giggs should be co man of the match. My fear with Giggs in the middle at times is that he can get a bit loose with his passing; much of this is due to his direct nature (riskier passes) as a winger. However, he was both direct and accurate tonight. He assisted on all three United goals in the tie versus Chelsea. The 37-year-old was tireless in his role as a box-to-box midfielder. According to, he covered more ground tonight on the pitch than anyone else on United. Here's a chalkboard of his fantastic and direct distribution courtesy of the Total Football iPhone app:


* Rooney: He may not cure cancer one day, he may not design the next remodel to Old Trafford, and he may not even be bright enough to not cheat on his beautiful wife Coleen.... but like Park, he has a brilliant football mind. He's capable of being world-class in a number of roles: on the flank in a '4-3-3', leading the line in a '4-3-3', or as the playmaker in United's current '4-4-2/4-2-3-1' hybrid. He wasn't able to find the same space tonight that disrupted Chelsea in their prior two match-ups this season, but he still found some when he drifted to the flanks. He thought and willed his influence on the match. In my humble opinion, Wazza is a class above anyone else that was on the pitch tonight at Old Trafford. This obviously includes many of the world's best footballers. Wazza is in top form again. 

* Carrick: I basically wrote a love letter about Carrick's brilliance at Stamford Bridge last week, and although he wasn't quite as dominant, he was still very good. According to, he was 40/46 (87%) with his passing tonight. He kept it simple and swung the ball around the pitch and his central midfield partner Giggs provided the direct passing higher up the pitch. Carrick once again did well to shield his defense with his positioning, interceptions, and tackling. Due to Chelsea's staggered midfield, he had less time on the ball but he still did well to maintain possession for United. 

* van der Sar: Reader 'Useful_Idiot' rightfully pointed out that I wrongfully excluded VDS from our "Man of the Match" poll in our post-match thread. He's useful, I'm the idiot. Once again, the Dutchman came up big. He even had the tackle of the match possibly on Anelka just outside the box! He will be sorely missed; he's physically capable it appears to give us another standout season but who are we to judge when his desires are to be with his family. He's given us so much and I'll always be thankful. 

* Ferdinand: Warrior.