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Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea FC: Tactical Analysis

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Manchester United played in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal and the center-back pairing was Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. John O'Shea filled in at left-back for the injured Patrice Evra and Fabio da Silva was the right-back. Michael Carrick played as a deep-lying playmaker and Ryan Giggs joined in the center of the pitch in a box-to-box role. Park Ji-sung was the wide left player, but the South Korean often tucked in to the center of the pitch. On the opposite flank, Antonio Valencia was the attacking player on the right. Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was the striker and Wayne Rooney played in a withdrawn and playmaking role. 

Chelsea FC played in a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 shape. Peter Cech was in goal and the center-back tandem was David Luiz and John Terry. Ashley Cole played at left-back and Branislav Ivanovic played as the right-back. John Obi Mikel was the holding midfielder; he was joined in the central midfield by Michael Essien and Frank Lampard. Salomon Kalou played in the attacking line in a narrow right position while Florent Malouda played on the opposite side. Didier Drogba got the start over Fernando Torres as the fulcrum in attack. 

In the match preview, three tactical keys to this match were discussed. All three proved to vital reasons why United were successful:

(1) Rooney vs Mikel: In recent matches between the two sides, Chelsea played in either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-2-1 shape, both of which were very flat. Rooney would come deep for the ball in between the defense and midfield lines into open space; from there the United number ten used his vision, range of passing, and finishing ability to hurt Chelsea. In recent matches, the Blues reverted back to a 4-3-3 shape, one in which the three midfielders were staggered vertically. This brought about the re-inclusion of Mikel into the Chelsea starting XI as their holding midfielder. 

Rooney has dealt well in recent months against sides that deploy a holding midfielder. However, just last week at the Emirates, Arsenal's holding midfielder, Alex Songdisrupted Wazza from having much influence in the match. Mikel was looking to replicate the same. The Nigerian failed. 

Rooney actually didn't drop as deep for the ball as he typically has in recent matches. This is because of 2 reasons: (1) He simply wasn't having much difficulty receiving the ball in the space of a striker because of poor defending by Mikel and his center-backs; Rooney's average positioning wasn't much deeper than Chicharito's. (2) Park's narrow positioning from his wide left position enabled space on the the left for Rooney to drift into. 

This space and time on the ball allowed Wazza to distribute effectively; much of his focus appeared to be to provide for Valencia on the right flank:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

(2) United's wingers vs Chelsea's full-backs: This battle won by United on both flanks proved to be very influential on the outcome of the match, but in very different ways. The confrontation between Valencia and Cole was very direct. Quite simply, the Ecuadorian winger destroyed his counterpart. ESPN's Ian Darke tweeted that "Valencia had A.Cole on toast." It was this avenue of attack where United consistently looked most threatening throughout the match. Cole is undoubtedly a world-class left-back, however, Valencia simply went by him at will. 

In Chelsea's narrow 4-3-3/4-3-2-1 shape, Kalou and Malouda play relatively narrow in attack. Therefore, it is imperative that their full-backs get forward and support the attack by providing width. Cole typically offers this as he's generally regarded as one of the better attacking full-backs in football. Valencia effectively erased this threat in two ways: (1) he's a terrific defender so when Cole did go forward, the United winger did well to track back on him. (2) Whilst Valencia continually abused Cole as the match wore on, the Chelsea left-back became wary with his runs forward. 

On the other side of the pitch, the tactics were a bit more complicated. Park, from his position as a wide left player, played much more narrow. The South Korean consistency drifted towards the central midfield to help his side defend. In what has become typical for United in big matches, Park was superb in his tactical awareness, industry, and quality of distribution on the counterattack (e.g. assist on Chicharito's goal). He was arguably the man of the match. Here's a chalkboard that displays Park's ability to effectively link play from near the touchline, but also how his exceptional work-rate enabled him to come to the center of the pitch and do battle. 

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Park's narrow positioning also had one other tactical effect; the daring of Ivanovic to get forward and hit crosses. The Chelsea right-back was the only player on his side that had acres of space to get forward into. In recent seasons versus Chelsea, it appears that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson focuses on pinning back Cole but dares the opposite full-back to join the attack and whip in crosses. With the exception of Paulo Farreira last season, this has played into the Gaffer's hands. Today was no different. Ivanovic failed to send in a cross into the box that found a Chelsea attacker:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

(3) Carrick vs Lampard: In the recent Champions League matches between the two sides, Carrick's ability to outplay his counterpart Lampard proved to be an important reason why United advanced to the sem-final; Carrick was simply superb throughout the tie. In today's match, Lampard was partnered with an extra midfielder in Mikel, this in theory should free the England international to get forward. In the first half hour of the match, Lampard failed to get forward enough. Once again, he was too far away to effectively close down Carrick and the United midfielder was able to distribute the ball around with ease. Once his side fell behind by two goals, Lampard got forward more but he failed to provide the killer pass that could unlock the United defense. This chalkboard below might show that Lampard was fairly tidy with his distribution, but note the lack of successful passes in the attacking third of the pitch; Lampard failed to be the creative outlet in attack that Chelsea needed:

 by Guardian Chalkboards


Despite Chelsea's poor start to the match, I wouldn't put much blame on Carlo Ancelotti's initial tactics. Much credit should be given to United's tremendous quality in the opening 30 minutes. The lineup and shape that the Chelsea manager used is essentially the same that got Chelsea back into this title race. Perhaps though the substitutions and shape change can be somewhat criticized. The Italian made two changes at half; Alex on for Luiz in the back and Ramires on for Mikel. I generally find it puzzling that manager's don't make more half-time substitutions because this is a time where you can make changes and give instruction. So in this regard, I don't criticize Ancelotti. However, I do criticize the nature of the changes. 

As previously mentioned, the number one concern that Chelsea has was the poor quality of crosses they were getting from Ivanovic. Because this is a recurring theme in match-ups between these two sides, Ancelotti should have addressed this prior to the match or quickly during it when he realized the same problem was arising. One change at half-time perhaps could have been bringing Farreira on for Ivanovic or moving Essien to right-back. Both, in theory, could have been a threat to get forward and provide genuine service for Drogba on crosses. 

The other criticism I have is bringing on Alex for Luiz. I concede that Alex was a big upgrade defensively from Luiz in this particular match; in addition, Ancelotti was clearly frustrated with Luiz on the opening goal for his poor positioning on Chicharito. However, when in need of two goals, making a like-for-like change in defense is a wasted substitution when you're limited to only two more. The Italian manager may have been better off gambling with Luiz, who is a good attacker for a center-back anyways, and utilizing those substitutions for both Torres and Nicolas Anelka; the latter was left out because all three substitutions were already used. 

Chelsea did change to a narrow 4-4-2 shape, one that had elements of both a diamond and bucket shape; Malouda (left) and Lampard played high up the pitch whilst Essien and Ramires (right) played deeper. Torres and Drogba once again attempted to partner together up front. Chelsea looked more threatening in this shape despite still not getting width in attack from their full-backs. However, much of that could be explained by Chelsea's desperate ambition for an equaliser and with United being content with a 2-1 scoreline. 

United boss Fergie essentially used his recent preferences for big matches, both in personnel and shape. It's a side that has guided United well to the Champions League final and in important domestic matches in recent months. The starting XI once again rewarded their manager and United were never in need of changing anything tactically in this match. The only substitutions that were made were like-for-like due to injury. United did change to a more compact and narrow 4-5-1 shape to close out the match and preserve the lead. It'll be interesting to see if Fergie uses this 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 type of shape versus Barcelona or if he decides to use a more conservative 4-3-3/4-5-1 sort of shape. 

Miscellaneous thoughts

Most of the main tactical influences have been discussed so I'll comment on a few things that I didn't get to in bullet-points:

* Vidic and Ferdinand were fantastic in quieting Drogba. I don't know if there is another attacker in the Premier League that puts the fear in me like the Ivorian does. O'Shea continued to show his worth as a valuable squad member by adequately playing left-back for the injured Evra. A solid display. Fabio struggled a bit at times but the big match experience the young Brazilian is getting in recent months is invaluable. Kudos to both Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling for filling in at full-back, positions which aren't as natural for them. 

* Ryan Giggs was simply brilliant again in the central midfield. Can the United legend play beyond next season if he continues in this central role? 

* Chicharito was wasteful late in the match but when Park sprung the young striker onto goal inside of a minute, was there any doubt by anyone that he wouldn't finish? The Mexican was also superb again in his movement and some of Luiz's positional trouble came from his counterpart's intelligent movement. 

* Reviewing possession and in particular, shots on goal, is a little surprising because it appeared to me that United were clearly the better side. It may just be that the quality of chances United had were better. A victory by two goals would have been deserved in my opinion. As for the opening 30 minutes to the match, I don't know if the club has played better at any point this season; that was brilliant football. 

* #19.... feels pretty damn good. Let's get Barca now!