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Deconstructing Manchester United's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea

Was it really United's best performance of the season?

Ian Walton/Getty Images

Manchester United's run of six straight league wins came to an end with a 1-0 defeat away at Chelsea on Saturday. Louis van Gaal's side dominated possession, but a goal on the break was all José Mourinho's side needed to pick up three points that move them ever closer to the league title. Once again, we're back to have a look at how the Blues won the game -- and why the Reds lost it.


Injuries forced van Gaal into several changes to his first-team. Paddy McNair came in for Phil Jones at centre-back, Luke Shaw played in place of Daley Blind, and Michael Carrick's absence pushed Wayne Rooney back into midfield, allowing Radamel Falcao to come in up top.

Chelsea's most interesting selection was that of young centre-back Kurt Zouma in midfield, specifically to do a man-marking job on Marouane Fellaini. Otherwise, they largely lined up as expected, with Didier Drogba given the nod in attack in the absence of Diego Costa and Loïc Rémy.

Chelsea's deep defending

In the tactical preview, we suggested that Chelsea would come out and look to press United. In actual fact -- and in a fine illustration of Mourinho's adaptability -- their pressing was pretty restricted. They were quite happy to let United's centre-backs have the ball almost on the halfway line, safe in the knowledge that United would struggle to find attacking outlets. Save for a close Rooney effort after just five minutes, Thibaut Courtois was rarely tested.

Radamel Falcao will no doubt be inundated with more "OMG FLOP!"-style criticism, but really, it would have been a very difficult game for any pure striker. Suffocated of service and space by Chelsea's regimented defending, it was a frustrating match.

After the game, van Gaal said: "we played the best match of this season but in football you can lose in spite of whether you are the better team." It wasn't surprising that he thought United were the better side; he has spoken often in the past about football teams having the responsibility to take the initiative and entertain supporters. In this regard he's the exact opposite of the über-pragmatist Mourinho.

However, van Gaal was probably wrong: United weren't the better team; they did everything Chelsea had planned for. It was a superficial dominance, and Mourinho's strategy worked perfectly. That isn't to say United played especially badly -- considering the injury problems they had, it was a perfectly reasonable display -- but they didn't work the ball quickly enough to stretch Chelsea across the field, and chances were few and far between as a result.

Zouma vs. Fellaini

Part of the reason United were able to dominate possession was that Chelsea effectively only had Cesc Fàbregas and Nemanja Matić as free men in midfield -- Zouma was tasked with sticking to Fellaini like glue. It was a perfect tactic, with the big Belgian significantly less influential in United's build-up than he has been over recent weeks. Below is a comparison of his aerial battles in this game compared to his dominant display against Manchester City last weekend:

Fellaini being effectively marked out of the game, combined with Chelsea's deep defence, meant that United rarely played direct. Instead the majority of passing was without penetration; it was invariably in front of the Blues' defence. Fellaini's efficacy -- or lack thereof -- should have resulted in a change before it did; it took van Gaal until the dying minutes to send him up front as a striker, when it would surely have given Chelsea more of a tactical dilemma if a trickier player like Ángel di María had been introduced into midfield in his place at halftime.

Luke Shaw

United's only consistent outlet for much of the match was Luke Shaw. The young left-back, who has been out of favour lately, turned in his most impressive performance in a United shirt, turning several dangerous passes (as opposed to crosses) into the Chelsea penalty area.

He was, of course, assisted in this by Chelsea's defensive weakness down their right side -- the selection of Oscar instead of Willian meant that they had no real right-winger, giving Shaw the freedom to advance down the flank unchecked. It was a much more penetrative display than Antonio 'turn back and pass into midfield' Valencia, though Tony was subject to the more diligent defensive work of Eden Hazard.

It was a performance of energy and quality, and a good omen after a slow start to his United career. He was so dangerous that Mourinho threw on Ramires late in the game specifically to keep him quiet. It, alas, worked a treat, and Shaw himself was oddly replaced by Tyler Blackett late on.

Ander Herrera

The absence of the English Pirlo and the Most Underrated Footballer To Ever Live And Breathe, also known as Michael Carrick, had many flapping in the build-up to this game. As it was, Ander Herrera did his job pretty well -- and with more defensive steel to boot. On numerous occasions, the Spaniard scampered back to make a vital defensive intervention.

The graphic below shows his passing on the left, and defensive work on the right. A key for the symbols can be found by clicking here.

Herrera is a brilliant all-rounder, and, at risk of sounding like Gary Neville, a real player in the United mould. The downside of Carrick's absence was not that Carrick was missing; rather that Herrera filling his role meant his dynamism was restricted to United's own third of the pitch. Can we not clone him?

United's proactive centre-backs

It was a pretty impressive performance from United's centre-backs, who made the most of the space they were afforded by Chelsea sitting so deep. Indeed, their mazy runs out from the back was one of United's most dangerous attacking features in the second half, with Chris Smalling and McNair taking it in turns to try and cause problems for the Chelsea defence. They did so, and the latter gave Courtois something to think about with a powerful shot that required a good save. McNair in particular looks pretty tidy on the ball, and seems to have the van Gaal seal of approval.