The thrilling and controversial (*) 3-2 victory by Manchester United over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was a whirlwind of events. There was the lightning start by the Red Devils in the opening half-hour, a tremendous response by the Blues in the next half-hour, and then the final stages of the contest were a confused rush due to two Chelsea players being sent off and a Javier Hernandez (off-side) winner -- there was even a steward that had to be hospitalized following the madness. Here's an analysis of those events (well, not of the steward's injury).
(*) It may have been controversial but you won't find any apologies from me.
Opening Lineups & Formations
United: When United's starting XI was announced, it was assumed by most that the team's shape would be 4-4-1-1 due to the personnel. However, it ended up being more of a 4-1-4-1. David de Gea was between the posts at the Bridge and the center-back duo ahead of him was Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Patrice Evra wore the captain's armband at left-back while Rafael featured at right-back.
In midfield, Michael Carrick was stationed deep in a holding role, Tom Cleverley had a more vertical box-to-box sort of role, and Wayne Rooney continually dropped deep and ended up being the most advanced central-midfielder.
Up front, Robin van Persie was the lead striker, Antonio Valencia hugged the touchline as a right-winger, and Ashley Young played a narrow role in the left side of the attack.
Chelsea: Roberto Di Matteo (RDM) named the expected starting XI in his attacking 4-2-3-1 system. Peter Cech is his No.1 and Gary Cahill and David Luiz were the obvious central-defender choices with John Terry being suspended. Ashley Cole was the left-back and Branislav Ivanovic was opposite of him on the right.
In the double-pivot, Frank Lampard's injury left no dilemma as Ramires and John Obi Mikel were chosen. In the attacking-midfield band, the fluid and tricky trio of Juan Mata, Oscar, and Eden Hazard were selected -- although they frequently interchanged, the base positions were on the right for Mata, in the middle for Oscar, and on the left for Hazard. Fernando Torres was the No.9.
Diagram 1: The starting XI's and general shapes of both sides.
United concede possession and look to break down Chelsea's left-side
Goals change games and besides the obvious effect they have on the scoreline, they can often alter approaches as well. Because of this, there has been some debate as to what United's initial approach was in this game because the opening goal came so early. To me, though, there appeared to be enough evidence to have a good idea as to what Sir Alex Ferguson instructed his side to do: let the Chelsea central-defenders -- Cahill and Luiz -- have time on the ball and when the ball is distributed to the full-backs positioned high up the pitch or to the midfielders near the halfway line, immediately close down. In general, Rooney got goal-side of Mikel, Cleverley marked the mobile Ramires, while the wingers -- Valenica and Young -- did well to track back and support their full-backs.
United's backline didn't sit deep and they kept the overall shape compact by staying near their own midfielders. Ferguson was looking to absorb pressure and then quickly break down the flanks when the home side's wide players were caught out too high up the pitch-- particularly Chelsea's vulnerable left-side. (Read this from We Ain't Got No History for more on the Chelsea tactical flaws that United astutely exploited -- their full-backs are mental in their current system).
Over the past few years, Valencia has got the better of his counterpart Cole in these match-ups. In this particular game, the left-back's nominal partner, Hazard, did him no favors. On United's opening goal, a wayward pass by Hazard and his failure to track back afterward led to a quick transition down the right touchline. On their second goal, just eight minutes later, Hazard's lackadaisical defending led to a 2 v 1 situation on the right (Valencia and Rafael vs. Cole) and Cole's own poor defending in this situation led to Valencia being able to pick out RvP for the finish. For detailed breakdown of both these goals, check out this fantastic analysis by Chelsea fan @CareFreeChronic.
Young was the other outlet
An underrated aspect of Young's game is his off-the-ball movement and whether it was by design or because of his own tactical intelligence -- or perhaps both -- he kept finding himself open in central positions. This was obvious on the opening goal, somewhat, but his central position here had to do more with an interchange with RvP in a move that had previously occurred in a failed attacking move. The space that Young kept popping up into was in the inside left areas of attack -- inside of Ivanovic, behind Ramires when he moved forward, and across the pitch sometimes when Luiz was forced wide to cover for Chelsea's left-side. Space was often further available to the left of Rooney because of his own runs from midfield into the channel between Luiz and Cole. On the counterattack, United's most direct approach was down their right side through Valencia and Rafael. Young, though, was an outlet as well through his central-ish position and he was key in combining with RvP and United's midfielders.
United increasingly stand-off and Chelsea adjust
In the 24th minute, Luiz struck a dangerous free-kick towards United's goal and de Gea came up with a tremendous kick-save. This perhaps signaled change. Chelsea still had some of the same problems -- for example, Valencia burst free down the right touchline with Cole ten yards behind him in the 30th minute to win a corner -- but they were growing into the match. The territory in which the battle was happening was increasingly nearing the United goal. In the opening ten minutes, the visitors were engaging the home side when they began to get near the halfway line. However, by the 40th minute, this confrontation was occurring 10-15 yards deeper into the United half. With a two goal lead, United were not tempted to come out and play.
Even as the Red Devils receded, they were difficult to break down because they did well to limit the space for Chelsea's attackers as it was difficult to create attacking moves near the box due to the congestion. However, both Mata and Oscar began to drop deeper and Hazard drifted more inside -- this resulted in it being easier to combine for short-passing sequences and eventually Chelsea's passing tempo increased as they found a bit of rhythm in the space in front of Carrick. Cleverley and Rooney were marking Ramires and Mikel so they couldn't really drop off to help. Torres began to drift out wide more and because this often dragged a center-back wide -- particularly Evans -- Carrick may have been hesitant to step out higher because of the fear of leaving Ferdinand with too much space to defend in. RDM's side began to methodically find space and create openings.
Chelsea's full-backs -- particularly after half-time when they perhaps got more detailed instructions -- began to be more conservative with their positioning. By keeping their shape more structured, RDM's side were no longer as vulnerable to United's rapid counterattacks and he left it up to his front four to provide consistent pressure in order to eventually find breakthroughs. United no longer had as direct of an outlet to exploit down the right-side with Cole's positioning improving and with their own lines increasingly receding, RvP was beginning to be stranded up front. The striker had no one near him to consistently combine with. Whenever United won possession, the pressure was typically back onto them quickly because they had no viable outlets. By the time Ramires equalised in the 53rd minute, the momentum was clearly with the Blues and most wondered if United could hold for another 40 minutes in order to earn a draw at the Bridge -- a ground they've failed to win at in league since 2002.
Ivanovic, and Torres, are sent off
In the 63rd minute, United got an increasingly rare break when Cahill got caught out too high when RvP dropped deep to receive a pass. The Dutchman was able to turn past his counterpart and slide a pass into the space he just vacated for a central run by Young. The England international was able to get inside of Ivanovic and was clear to goal until he was tripped up by the Chelsea right-back -- the Serbian was subsequently sent-off.
Chelsea were now down to ten men just ten minutes after scoring the equaliser. RDM quickly switched to a 4-4-1 shape and Oscar was substituted off for replacement right-back Cesar Azipilicueta. The dynamics of the match had changed and now that ten-man Chelsea had one less player in the center of the park, Ferguson decided to withdraw a midfielder for a striker -- Cleverley for Chicharito -- and switch his side's shape from a reactive 4-1-4-1 one to a more proactive 4-4-2. Neither side had really settled, though, into their new changes when in the 68th minutes, Torres was also sent off for a second booking.
Chelsea were in a dire situation obvioulsy with just nine men and RDM switched his side's shape to a 4-4-(we have nobody else left). Another playmaker, Mata, was eventually withdrawn for the more defensive Ryan Bertrand and RDM clearly hoped to hold out for a point. Chicharito soon scored though and you know the rest. After the winning-goal, Hazard was withdrawn for Daniel Sturridge.
Even though United had two more men, they simply tried to slow the tempo, keep possession, and calmly close out the match after they went ahead. They weren't convincing though and Ferguson may have been better off bringing on Paul Scholes as a substitute rather than Ryan Giggs. Sturridge's fresh legs and Ramires' burst from the middle provided a few slight worries but United did see the match out.
Ferguson got it right from the start by using width to exploit Chelsea's weakness in being able to defend against it. United had no desire to play in the center of the park and after absorbing pressure in their structured shape, they looked to break down Chelsea's left-side. It worked. RDM's side adjusted though and this mainly occurred when Oscar began to drop deeper and the resulting short-passing sequences allowed them to find their rhythm. Chelsea gained control, pushed United back, and deservedly got level in the match. There were questions on how Ferguson might adjust to his team's dire situation but he never had to because of the players soon sent off after the Ramires equaliser. It wasn't pretty, but United eventually got the winner through Chicha's controversial winner.