“For the neutrals it was fantastic and open. Some of our football was terrific but we were so careless we could have thrown it away. We did OK when we got the ball to Nani and Ashley Young [in the wide positions] but when we tried to be clever in the middle of the field we kept botching it up and Chelsea kept counter-attacking.” – Sir Alex Ferguson summed it up perfectly. This was a weird old game, which will be remembered for the glaring misses by both teams.
As expected Manchester United lined up in a 4-4-2 and Chelsea in a 4-3-3 (or what I call a 4-1-2-3) The only changes from what was expected was Jonny Evans taking field as Ferdinand hadn’t fully yet recovered from his hamstring strain and Darren Fletcher lining up alongside Anderson. For me this was surprising as Fletcher has actually regressed in the last couple of seasons and he looked fairly pedestrian against Benfica and was hauled off at half time. But maybe Fergie wanted someone in the middle of the field who provides a bit of assuredness to accompany Anderson. I still believe Carrick should have started, but hey I’m not the boss. Andre Villas-Boas, seemingly impressed with what saw against Bayer, included Fernando Torres in the starting lineup.
To analyze this match, I think it would be best served if we discern the match into 3 periods of 30 minutes each. The first 30 minutes saw Chelsea dominate proceedings with United playing catch up. United tried moving the ball to the wings and let their wingers cut loose against Chelsea’s full-backs, whereas Chelsea started moving the ball more through the centre. In the first 30 minutes, United had attempted 187 passes with a success rate of 83% and Chelsea on the other hand attempted 150 passes with a success rate of 85%. But the point to be noted here is Chelsea had moved 47% of their succesful passes through the centre of the field whereas United had moved only 36% through the centre. Another point to be noted is 28% of Chelsea’s central midfield passes were in United’s half, whereas a paltry 14% of United’s passes were in Chelsea’s half. 23% of United’s passes through wings were in Chelsea’s half and 27% of Chelsea’s passes were in United’s half. The field was set – United were going to hit the wings, while Chelsea were trying to punch the weak underbelly of United’s central midfield. The first 30 minutes were largerly dominated by Chelsea, not in possesion, but in terms of chances created. Chelsea had 10 shots on goal and United had 1, but the score was United 1; Chelsea 0. Smalling might have been marginally offside but the blame has to be squarely put on Chelsea’s static defensive line. Ramires could have equalized, but his weak shot was saved well by de Gea. United’s central midfielders Anderson and Fletcher had a combined accuracy of 81% whereas Chelsea’s midfield troika of Ramires, Meireles and Lampard had a phenomenal 93% accuracy.
The second 30 minute period saw a furious battle in the 2nd third of the pitch as both teams struggled to impose their dominance. United stroked 192 passes with 83% accuracy and Chelsea attempted 169 passes with only 78% accuracy. This was the period which saw the game yield 3 goals and saw Nani stamp his authority on the match by coasting past Mata as if he was non-existant on the pitch and hit an imperious 20 yarder past Cech. Jones’ lung bursting run resulted in Rooney tapping in his 9th goal of the season. The 2 goals were significant as Chelsea’s defense was happy to let United’s wingers come up to the final 3rd before trying to crowd them out. Maybe this was due to Chelsea not wanting to be sucker-punched on counters while attacking through their full-backs, but the gamble failed and United scored 2 and should’ve had one more only for Rooney to slip while taking his spot kick. Soon after the break Chelsea pulled one back through Torres who ran past Jones to take substitute Anelka’s pass and score.
The third period of 30 minutes was a war of attrition with United refusing to wilt and Chelsea trying to catch the hosts out on their seconds of vulnerability. United’s wingers ran willingly and a mighty 64% of United’s passes were through the wings. Chelsea too did try wing it as Cole found it a bit easy running at makeshift RB Valencia as they passed 52% through their wings. The percentages might sound close but the numbers give you a different picture. United threaded 100 passes through the wings while Chelsea could manage only 53. Torres and Berbatov missed with the former vying for the ‘miss of the season’ award (if there is one anyway).
The overall conclusion could be had both teams, especially Chelsea had taken their gilt-edged chances, the score might have been entirely different. United pressed the Chelsea full backs well restricting them to just 91 passes delivered and this could be put into perspective if we consider their average this season of 148 passes per game prior to this match. United also dominated possession thereby spoiling Villas-Boas’ strategy of possession football. Chelsea’s decision to stand-off the attackers in the midfield cost them dear and the strategy of Meireles and Lampard against Rooney was wrong. Chelsea could have used a Essien or even Mikel yesterday. United out passed Chelsea and their wingers ran well without cutting in as they have done in the previous matches. This was to by-pass Chelsea’s 3 man midfield and to press Bosingwa and Cole into submission. Consider Young, Evra and Nani’s positioning. They clung on to the line more when compared to the previous games when they tended to cut in.
Nani, Young and Evra – clung to the sidelines
Villas-Boas might have lost his first game as Chelsea boss, but there are clear signs of improvement under him. Torres has been linking better with his teammates in the new formation and the introduction of Anelka when the team was 3 down showed real guts on Villas-Boas’ part. Fergie’s team selection was perfect except for the central midfield pairing of Fletcher and Anderson. It’s weird to say that United are missing a young player who has started only 4 games for them, but such has been the impact of Cleverly that Carrick and Fletcher can be viewed as a downgrade. Anderson too has been playing better with Cleverly. The move of introducing Valencia at RB was strange especially considering that Fabio was on the bench. Maybe Fergie has his doubts on the young Brazilian or maybe is he trying out a Barcelona trick of playing a midfielder in defense? Let’s wait and watch. But for now United are the deserving leaders in the Premiership after wins over 3 of the top 6 clubs.