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A tactical look at Chelsea FC

Juan Mata likes to come inside from the left and operate between the lines.
Juan Mata likes to come inside from the left and operate between the lines.

Chelsea FC is a side that Manchester United and their supporters are very familiar with. Just last season, the two sides clashed five times -- once in the Community Shield, twice in Premier League action, and twice during the quarter-final of the UEFA Champions League. During the latter four matches, in league and Champions League, then manager Carlo Ancelotti deployed various formations -- whether that be an asymmetrical 4-4-2, a 4-3-2-1 'Christmas tree' shape, or 4-1-2-3. For each of these matches, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson countered with some form of 4-4-2 -- whether that be 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. 

In the current season, new Blues' manager Andre Villas-Boas has mostly played his side in a 4-3-3 shape, one that is very similar to Chelsea's formation at Old Trafford in the Spring for the title-decider. I watched Chelsea's league match versus Sunderland last weekend and their midweek Champions League tie versus Bayer Leverkusen. Here are some observations that I had.

vs Sunderland (away)

Much was made of Daniel Sturridge being selected ahead of Fernando Torres for this match at the Stadium of Light. Nicolas Anelka led the attacking line in the center while Sturridge was a wide forward on the right side. Anelka often came deep for the ball and he resembled a false nine. Sturridge looked to make movements that were mostly diagonal -- whether that be off-the-ball movements where he would make runs in the channel between the left-center-back and left-back or whether that would be dribbles at the defender in a diagonal direction so that he could look to shoot with his stronger left-foot. 

Summer signing Juan Mata had a free role from his position as the wide left forward. Much like Manchester City's David Silva, Mata likes to come from a wide position and towards the middle so that he can operate in the space between the opposition's defense and midfield -- from this space, he is a creative force with his technical ability and vision. Out of the Chelsea attackers, it was Mata that had the most touches (76) and he completed 58 passes at a 90% accuracy rate -- 4 of those passes were defense splitting ones (key passes). He freely roamed in from the left and looked throughout the match to be Chelsea's incisive playmaker in their attacking third. 

Frank Lampard was deployed in his usual role in the central midfield and he often linked play with Mata, Anelka, and left-back Ashley Cole. Chelsea spent more time on the left side of the pitch than any other -- 39% on the left, 28 % in the middle, and 34 % on the right. The left side was their creative outlet and more dangerous side. Lampard did what he has done over the years in this match -- he often came into the box with late arriving runs. 

Ramires was in the center as well, just to the right of Lampard. The industrious Brazilian looked to make overlapping runs on the right when Sturridge cut inside. He also worked hard in getting back and provided bite in the center in support of the deep-lying Raul Meireles. This holding role is typically John Obi Mikel's but Meireles was probably looked at there as possible cover for the future -- especially with Michael Essien's long-term injury. The Portuguese midfielder has played this role in the past for his national team side and he ably played the role versus Sunderland. 

Neither full-back marauded forward as much as one might expect with the two wide forwards continually coming inside. Cole certainly did at times and provided width in attack on the left, but Bosignwa, who is most certainly was chosen at right-back for his attacking rather than his defending, was conservative on the right. As mentioned, it was actually Ramires that often over-lapped when Sturridge cut towards the middle. 

vs Bayer Leverkusen

For the European tie, Torres was chosen to lead the line in attack. The out-of-form Spaniard worked the channels in this match and was able to provide two assists. Sturridge played similarly as he did versus Sunderland by cutting in the right and looking to shoot from his stronger left-foot -- something the youngster did quite well. 

Mata played similarly by freely roaming in from the left and operating in the space between the lines. He actually looked to have even more of a free role in this match, in comparison to the Sunderland game, as Florent Malouda often drifted wide to the left and joined the attack from his central-midfield position. Malouda was much more adventurous in going forward in comparison to Lampard, particularly down the left side. This would often result in a shape that looked like 4-2-1-3 -- with Malouda, Torres, and Sturridge in attack and Mata playing in behind them as a number ten. 

Cole was bombing down the left flank as well to move into open space when Mata drifted inward. Once again, the Chelsea attack was concentrated down the left side. In this match, Chelsea spent 46% of the time down the left side, only 24% through the middle, and 30% on the right. 

Mikel returned to play his usual holding role and he did well to cover both of this full-back when they marauded forward, particularly Cole. He contributed with 2 tackles and 3 interceptions on the night. Meireles was deployed in a box-to-box sort of role for this match, a role that was similar to Ramires' from the Sunderland match. However, Meireles was much more conservative with his positioning and he often covered for Bosignwa when he went forward for overlapping runs. 

Just as we have witnessed in the past, center-back David Luiz made selective runs forward. The Brazilian is quite comfortable on the ball and he was adventurous getting forward -- this was evident from the superb goal that he scored. Ivanovic was disciplined with his positioning.

What to expect vs United?

Villas-Boas is almost certain to line up his side in a 4-3-3 (4-1-2-3). In defense, the selection choices will likely be who will partner John Terry at center-back and who will be the right-back. At center-back, look for either Ivanovic or David Luiz -- the latter was brilliant in the first league match versus United last season but he was poor at Old Trafford. At right-back, Ivanovic may be selected if Villas-Boas feels the need to fortify his defense against the in-form Ashley Young. This is often an area of pitch in these games where United manager Sir Alex Ferguson appears to intentionally give the Chelsea right-back space to get forward into -- the Chelsea right-back, whoever it has been, has generally been poor in taking advantage of this. Bosignwa is more of a threat in getting forward, but he can be inconsistent with his crossing. 

Cole is a foundation piece for Chelsea and his match-up with whoever United's right-sided attacker is always an interesting one. In the past, Antonio Valencia has had much success against Cole by pinning him back and having his way in the attack. However, it appears the Ecuadorian winger is not sharp enough to start the match. Nani, Park Ji-sung, and Darren Fletcher have all been used recently here as well -- it is likely Nani that gets the start on Sunday. The portuguese winger has improved immensely over the the past two years in tracking back and defending. His likely match-up with Cole will be a key one.

Michael Carrick was superb last season versus Chelsea in Champions League -- his counterpart for those matches was often Lampard. The Chelsea midfielder failed to close down Carrick and as a result, Carrick dictated the games from the center of the park. If Carrick does start alongside Anderson in this match, he'll likely play a holding role and Lampard will have to be better in closing him down.

The other selection issues for Chelsea will likely be up front. Didier Drogba is unavailable due to the nasty collision he had versus Norwich City -- a concussion was the result. Leading the line will likely be Torres but Anelka is a possibility. On the right, the selection choice comes down to either Anelka or Sturridge. 

Mata will be a key player in this match and United must do well to track him when he wanders into the space between the lines -- often an area of vulnerability for United in the past 13 months. Carrick may be the best choice to start alongside Ando because he provides positional awareness in this space. Whoever the right-back is for United --whether that is Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, or Fabio -- they must communicate well with United's deepest-lying central midfielder in passing off Mata when he drifts into the middle. 

Archive of our match reviews from last season's Chelsea clashes:

Chelsea 2-1 Manchester United (Premier League)

Chelsea 0-1 Manchester United (Champions League) 

Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea (Champions League

Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea (Premier League)