Tactically Speaking: Manchester United vs Chelsea: The battle might be settled in the wings

Posted on September 18, 2011

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After the mid-week Champions League exertions, it’s time for Premier League action and this week we have the big daddy of battles – Chelsea travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United. Though Andre Villas-Boas denied it, it is inevitable that his future at west London will be scrutinized even more from this weekend onwards. United have won the last 3 meetings between the two sides, in process hastening Carlo Ancelloti’s exit from Chelsea.

Both teams rested key personnel for their respective Champions League encounters as both managers acknowledged that Sunday’s game assumes more importance. United almost fielded a different XI with only Rooney, Evra and Evans remaining from the team that started against Bolton last Saturday. Although Lindegaard impressed sufficiently, Sir Alex Ferguson has confirmed that David deGea will start on Sunday. Rio Ferdinand is fighting a hamstring strain and might possibly not start, with Evans being the likely beneficiary. Tom Cleverly’s untimely injury last week has created a vacancy in the midfield for which Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick would be in contention. Fletcher didn’t have a memorable game against Benfica and Carrick might get the nod.

Villas-Boas might be tempted to start with Fernando Torres in the hope that a visit to Old Trafford might reinvigorate the striker’s lost goal-scoring ability. Torres played really well against Bayer Leverkusen laying on both goals for his team mates but I feel that Anelka might start on Sunday ahead of Torres. David Luiz’s goal scoring display might pose few welcome headaches for Villas-Boas but the Portuguese might not be preferred over the steady Branislav Ivanovic.

Ferguson will revert to 4-4-2 with Rooney and Javier Hernandez leading the line. Carrick and Anderson will man the center of the midfield while Young and Nani will play in the wings. Chris Smalling will play in his new position of RB where he has excelled even more than when he has played at his natural position of CB. Villas-Boas will line up his Chelsea team in a 4-3-3 or to be more specific a 4-1-2-3 system. Raul Meireles will play in front of the defense in the spoiler role in which he was very effective against Sunderland and Bayer. Lampard and the vastly improved Ramires will play along Meireles in the midfield while the attacking troika is likely to be the excellent Juan Mata, Anelka and Daniel Sturridge, who has been impressing on a consistant basis. So the formations in totum hasn’t changed over the years. United have traditionally played a 4-4-2 and Chelsea under Mourinho, Grant and Ancelloti have played different versions of the 4-3-3. But it is the game play style that has taken a major and a telling change for both teams this year. Villas-Boas has Chelsea play possession football and it has worked certainly well against the lesser teams of the league like Norwich, West Brom and Stoke. Another important change in Chelsea’s style of play is the increasing use of their full backs Jose Bosingwa and Ashley Cole as attacking outlets.

Potential Starting Line-ups

Ashley Cole and Bosingwa have strung a mighty 591 passes between them in the 4 PL games they have played. Cole has been more successful of the two completing 87% of his passes while Bosingwa hasn’t been much of a slouch either, completing 75% of his attempted passes. Compare this to United, whose full backs have attempted only 422 passes between them in the 4 PL games they have played at a good success rate of 85%. United have moved the ball through the middle as well bringing Phil Jones’ attacking instincts into play. One thing is for sure – expect loads of passes tomorrow. Manchester United have attempted 2240 passes in 4 games at a success rate of 81.5% whereas Chelsea have attempted 2404 passes with the exact same success rate.

Villas-Boas system depends on retaining majority of ball possession and moving it through the full-backs to the forwards while the midfielders do their best to occupy the attentions of the opposition midfielders. Meireles sits deep and spoils any opposition counter-attack and lately Lampard is also being asked to play a more deeper role than usual. Ramires is being used to create pandemonium amidst the opposition defense with his quick bursts which would enable the forwards to sneak in without much of a hassle.

United will therfore be looking to stifle the service in the wings by asking their wingers to press Cole and Bosingwa and I’m sure Ashley Young and Nani can do it well. Cole, while being somewhat of an attacking outlet, has been poor defensively this season succeeding in only 45% of the tackles he has attempted. Bosingwa has been way better with a success rate of 72%. Though Chelsea play a 4-1-2-3, their forwards have tended to play a bit narrow and this will aid United on the counter attacks. With their wingers pressing Chelsea’s full-backs, United’s full-backs will be afforded the space to dart ahead and to spoil the same, Meireles and Ramires will be pulled out of their positions in addition to Mata and Sturridge requiring to track back and help their full-backs. United have genuine pace in their wings and this will definitely stretch Chelsea. Carrick will look to drop deep linking the defence and attack with Anderson getting the licence to roam forward. If United do manage to cut Chelsea’s supply through the wings, then it would require the ball to be moved through the centre and Chelsea will have the numerical advantage there, but expect Rooney to drop deep and create all sorts of nuisance to Lampard and Ramires.

I believe that the match will be decided in the wings. If Chelsea manage to play wide, they can compete with United on the flanks, but if they do play wide they do not have a good target man and they will end up playing narrow on the top. If United do gain the upper hand in the wings as they have done against Tottenham, Bolton and Arsenal, they will dominate the proceedings. I expect a great battle with the winners being the home team.

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