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TACTICAL REVIEW: Manchester United 3-1 Chelsea FC | Brave & Bold Villas-Boas

David de Gea was brilliant for Manchester United in their 3-1 defeat of Chelsea FC
David de Gea was brilliant for Manchester United in their 3-1 defeat of Chelsea FC


Manchester United played in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape. David de Gea was between the posts at Old Trafford and the center-back pairing was Jonny Evans and Phil Jones. The center-backs were flanked in defense by Patrice Evra on the left and Chris Smalling on the right. In the center of the park, Anderson and Darren Fletcher were the duo and each played a box-to-box type of role. Ashley Young was the wide left player and Nani was the wide player on the right. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was an out-and-out striker and Wayne Rooney was slightly withdrawn from him. 

Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas played his side in a 4-1-2-3 shape. Peter Cech was in goal and the center-back duo was captain John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic. Ashley Cole was at left-back and Jose Bosingwa was chosen at right-back. Raul Meireles was chosen over John Mikel Obi for the holding role and just ahead of him in the midfield triangle was Frank Lampard and Ramires. Fernando Torres led the attacking line and he was flanked by Juan Mata on the left and Daniel Sturridge on the right.

Meireles' selection as the holding midfielder over Mikel

Villas-Boas selected the lineup that was mostly expected -- the one exception being Meireles as the holding midfielder over Mikel. In general, Mikel does well to cover his marauding full-backs and despite some criticism that he receives for his supposed high number of square passes, he is tidy in distribution -- this is pretty much what you want from your holding midfielder. Meireles' selection was surprising but the holding role is not one that he is unfamiliar with -- the Portuguese midfielder has played the role for his national side and also for Chelsea last week versus Sunderland

In the Guardian's most recent football podcast, one of their podcasters (I forget which -- perhaps Barry Glendenning?) mentioned the high number of shots that United has surprisingly faced this season. In fact, de Gea has already been forced into making 28 saves this season in just five league games (5.6 saves/game). Last season, Edwin van der Sar made 82 saves in 33 league games (2.5 saves/game). Nearly all of United's matches this season can be described as open affairs and the youth injection may be the reason for the increased tempo of play. There have been an incredible number of goal-scoring chances in these matches -- for both United and their opponents. Perhaps Villas-Boas made a bold and wise move by selecting Meireles over Mikel. Perhaps the young manager's intent was to win a shootout. 

Prior to Chelsea's match versus United, both Mikel and Meireles each played a game as Chelsea's holding midfielder in their last two league matches. This chalkboard below compares their two performances. In the tie versus Norwich City, Mikel was tidy with his distribution -- 49/56 passing (88%). He safely played the ball wide to his full-backs as they began to join the attack or he safely advanced the ball to Lampard or Ramires through the middle. In Chelsea's match versus Sunderland, Meireles distributed just as accurately at 88% -- but his 74 passes completed was not only a higher number, but his range of passing was more adventurous as well -- the best example being his brilliant assist to Daniel Sturridge. Meireles is not nearly as good of a defender as Mikel but his range of passing is better and it also appears that his ability to find space so that he can receive is better as well.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

If Villas-Boas may have made this move with the intent to win a shootout, one could possibly point out that the threat of Rooney operating between the lines, which is generally the same space that the opposition's holding midfielder occupies, makes this a bold and possibly foolish decision. However, it's worth pointing out that Mikel struggled to contain Rooney last season in both Champions League and league play. Because of this, I would argue Villas-Boas possibly made the decision with sound logic. Meireles was not influential though with his distribution (chalkboard below). Nonetheless, it was an interesting selection decision that likely had a clear tactical purpose. 

 by Guardian Chalkboards 

Winning with width

For the outfield players, there was one clear man of the match -- Nani. A pattern is starting to come about in these fixtures with Chelsea-- United's wide right player in attack continues to get the best of Ashley Cole. Nani certainly did in this match but Antonio Valencia, Park Ji-sung, and even Darren Fletcher have all had strong games against Cole in recent seasons as right-sided players.  

United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has had many great sides and many great players -- the constant in attack has always been that the creative outlet comes from a player who plays between the lines (e.g. Rooney, Eric Cantona) and also from the wingers (e.g. Nani, Valencia, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs). The role of the deeper-lying players has always been to play the simple pass into these players or play brilliant diagonal balls for the wingers (e.g Paul Scholes, a few from Ando on Sunday). Even the central player who drops from the attack and into the space between the lines, such as Rooney these days, has done well to play diagonal balls that split the defense and supply the wingers. Rooney in particular is superb at either splitting the channel between the opposition's center-back and full-back so that a winger can run onto the ball in space near the goal or playing to the feet of the winger so that he can have a go at his opposing full-back. 

Against Chelsea, it was United's central-midfielders, center-backs, and right-back who all played simple and accurate passes to the wide players. -- A closer look at the statistics versus Chelsea reveals this. When Nani received, he was simply sensational with the ball at his feet. In the comparative chalkboard below, it can be seen how Nani terrrorized Chelsea with his dribbling -- his 7 successful take-ons led to continual and dangerous excursions into the attacking third. The visitors simply failed to tackle him. 

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Nani was quite clearly the man of the match but Young had another solid match on the left side. He linked well with Evra as each combined to provide width down their side and stretch play. Young typically cuts in more, as Nani often did on Sunday, but in this match, the England international stayed closer to the touchline. This chalkboard below shows that Rooney also was coming towards the left to link play and combine with both Young and Evra. On the right, United played simple balls into Nani and let him individually create goal-scoring chances. On the left, United played with more width and linked play near the touchline. It provided a nice balance in attack.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Mata's free-role

In the 1st half, Mata played the same role that he has in his brief time with Chelsea -- a license to roam free from the left side. The Spaniard doesn't play the role of a classic number ten -- rather than playing in the space between the lines from a central position and perhaps drifting wide on occasion, he plays between the lines and mostly drifts into the center from a wide position. This is not very different from the role that David Silva plays for Manchester City. In the 2nd half, with Chelsea down three goals, Villas-Boas brought on Nicolas Anelka for Lampard and switched his side into an attacking 4-2-1-3 sort of shape. In a very basic description, Torres, Anelka, and Sturridge were the forwards and Mata had a number ten role in behind them. Mata played well in both halves but this chalkboard below interestingly displays that his passing -- in the number of attempts, accuracy and the area of the pitch -- are incredibly similar in each half despite the change in shape for Chelsea. Essentially, when his side is in possession, Mata will wander into whatever space he can find between the lines -- no matter if he is supposed to be a wide player or a trequartista. 

 by Guardian Chalkboards

United defend with two flat banks of four when they play in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape. Thus, they often struggle to defend against players that play in behind their midfield and in front of their defenders -- they simply are not compact enough there when Michael Carrick doesn't play. With Mata's ability, it was not surprising to see him have a good game. His 6 key passes (defense splitting passes) were twice more than any other player had in the match from either side. 

Chelsea 4-2-1-3?

Chelsea looked quite bright at times in the 2nd half when they brought on Anelka and switched shape (from 4-1-2-3 to 4-2-1-3). It only took seconds for Anelka to play a brilliant ball in behind Phil Jones and Torres expertly finished after running onto the through ball. Much has obviously been made of Torres' struggles, and he didn't do himself any favors by missing the sitter of all sitters late in the 2nd half, but it is quite clear that his strength is running onto balls into space -- he specifically seems to do well with balls played through that split the center-back and full-back. 

Last season, it could be argued that Chelsea lacked a true incisive playmaker that played between the lines. Chelsea have been a direct team in recent seasons and much of their success has been due to the brilliant play of Didier Drogba -- his teammates could simply play to him in a direct fashion and he often would create something from it. But Torres needs service into space by the way of defense splitting passes so that he can run onto balls and finish (something he is rightfully criticized for not doing enough of). During the past season, I found it ironic that Chelsea were in pursuit of Luka Modric while United were supposedly in pursuit of Wesley Sneijder. It was Chelsea that needed a number ten in the mold of Sneijder or probably a more prudent buy, Javier Pastore, to play in the advanced midfield space and supply defense splitting passes for Torres to run onto. It was United that needed a dictating playmaker in a deeper position, like Modric, to  link play from the midfield to the attack -- by simply playing the ball to Rooney between the lines or supplying the wingers by swinging the ball out wide to their feet or for them to run onto with diagonal passes. 

For United, Anderson has been the answer to this thus far. Who knows if he can maintain this high level of play. For Chelsea, it has been Mata but from a wandering wide position. It would be quite interesting to see Villas-Boas use a 4-2-1-3 sort of shape from the onset of a match -- use Mata in a free role behind three forwards and see what kind of attack could be generated. This could be supplemented by their marauding full-backs Cole and Bosignwa and covered in a double pivot by the likes Mikel, Meireles, Ramires, and youngster Josh McEachran. No, I didn't forget about Lampard...


Tactically, it was quite boring from a United perspective. They simply played 4-4-2 and did their usual in swinging the ball out wide to their talented wingers and allowing them to create. The movement was not as fluid as either in comparison to earlier performances this season. On this day, Nani was simply brilliant. From a Chelsea perspective, the use of Meireles from the start signaled Chelsea's intent -- let's have a go. The change to a 4-2-1-3 was quite interesting as well and Chelsea looked bright at times with it. The game was a bizarre one and countless chances were flubbed by both sides. The scoreline could have had various possibilities and each would likely have fit the pattern of this wild match. Quite honestly, United did not play brilliantly but they were not poor by any means either. In turn, Chelsea were actually quite good at times. United continue to play open affairs and while this is perhaps enough to win England again this season while playing attractive football, it may prove to be a hindrance going forward in Europe. Time will certainly tell. The season is young but it is already incredibly interesting -- the Reds continue to demolish opponents but if one is being honest, they also appear vulnerable. It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out.