Tuesday, 16.04.2024

Manchester United – Chelsea 1:1

The Portuguese tactician meets his Dutch mentor. A battle of football giants. Jose Mourinho nearly took all 3 points against Van Gaal in Manchester after Didier Drogba scored his Premier League opener. Robin Van Persie managed to save his team a point with a last second goal off of a set piece. It was interesting to see how Mourinho’s men have developed and how the Red Devil’s positional play has been under Louis Van Gaal.

United performs man-to-man defense?

The starting lineups. Oscar, Willian, and Cesc had very fluid and interchangeable positioning.

The starting lineups. Oscar, Willian, and Cesc had very fluid and interchangeable positioning.

Blind dropped between his central defenders very often as expected. United did manage to create a 3v2 and even used De Gea situationally to form a 4v2, yet they were isolated and forced into inaccurate long passes for most build up phases. De Gea had one scene where he led Blind through Chelsea’s first line of pressure but Blind wasn’t quite able to escape the reach of Oscar’s acceleration quickly enough. Ultimately the Red Devils didn’t use the goalkeeper-chain often or correctly enough to create penetration of the first line. In addition to that, Manchester’s midfielders and striker were all quite far from the rest of the team in the buildup phase. This worsened the isolation of the defense and played a part in causing the continuous loss of possession out of defense.

An early scene saw Chelsea force United to the flank and isolate them very well. They were quite compact (not including Hazard lingering on the far side) and prevented United escaping the pressurized zone. They maintained access to the ball while blocking any passes out of pressure and were able to create a dangerous break. Hazard used his dribbling ability to exploit the quickly-closing spaces opened in transition. On the other hand, the Red Devils played a mainly man-oriented defense. I believe now would be a great time to remind you all of my favorite Ernst Happel quote:

“If you mark man-to-man, you’re sending out eleven donkeys.”

In essence, man-to-man defense is a reactionary sort of defense. The defensive player is told where to go and what to do only in reaction to his opponents movements. This immediately creates a problem vs. somewhat competent teams. Chelsea were especially fluid which caused United leave spaces open for Chelsea to easily bridge connections across the field. This orientation of defense also led to United having poor positioning to escape Chelsea’s counterpress once the ball was lost, because Chelsea was acting while United merely reacted.

Cesc and Matic dropped into the defensive line numerous times in order to create a clean progression of the ball past the first line of United pressure. This caused Fellaini and Mata to follow their men very deep and ultimately leave Blind alone in midfield. Chelsea’s players simply thought “Wow, this guy is following me! Let me see just how far away from the game I can take him!” Oscar was mainly covered by Blind. When Oscar dropped very deep, Blind didn’t follow as he valued his zone more than following Oscar. This already creates a man advantage for Chelsea in the build up because the other players are man marked while he isn’t.

Many times Mourinho’s midfielders would move towards the ball near side (usually on the left due to Matic’s orientation between the left central defender and left fullback) while Cahill remained open on the far side. RvP oriented himself towards whatever central defender was closest to the ball. Cahill would receive a switch and sprint up the pitch to create an overload, but the Blues were ultimately unable to take advantage of this.

Blind is disconnected from the space with highest potential value in this scene.

Blind is disconnected from the space with highest potential value in this scene.

While the Red Devils were in possession of the ball they had problems in their positional structure. They struggled to progress against the Blue’s defense with short passes so they attempted many long passes towards the vertical movements of Fellaini as well as RvP. If they were able to progress, United forced Chelsea into their usual 6-3-1 shape with the man marking of the opponent fullbacks. This leaves large spaces in the midfield to be controlled of course. The Red Devils had to shift the play through the defensive line rather than the midfield because no Manchester midfielders would connect the team across the field. Mata did it situationally, but he was most often in higher attacking positions.

They were easily isolated down the flanks due not only Chelsea’s defense, but also because of their own positioning. Januzaj and Di Maria were the ones who received the ball most of the time, so this wasn’t as bad as it could have been, even though more crosses were attempted than there should have been. Robin Van Persie had an excellent game. He trapped nearly every ball that was played into him before dishing it out towards a teammate and moving into the penalty box to finish the attack.

Due to this isolation down the flanks and Chelsea’s affinity for local compactness rather than team compactness, there were many scenes that relied on the group tactical work of local players on the flanks. Most of the movements of United were to create spaces and leave the decision-making in the hands of either Januzaj or Di Maria. Januzaj had a great attitude on the ball with a direct mindset and quick rhythm of dribbling. He even created some very nice chances. A large amount of the Red Devil’s attacks ended in shots regardless of if they were the best shots available or not. It was clearly a goal of theirs to finish off all attacks. This also helped lessen the amount of counter attacks they conceded. Even though Manchester United had some nice moments from these local scenes, it is asking for a large amount of valuable play to be created from a small group of players in regards to a match including 22 players.

Mourinho tries to seal the win

The buildup of the London team seemed forced and hastened when it did not need to be. They had clear numerical advantage in the build up yet they still opted to force the ball long down the sidelines early in the second half. On the other side of the field, Chelsea forced United’s players wide quite well as they were isolated and needed to be shepherded and harried. United pressed their 2nd balls well though. They pushed Mourinho’s men wide where they played in a quite non penetrative manner. When the ball was played onto the right flank, Ivanovic had excellent direct movements towards goal. Drogba would swerve out wide and Ivanovic’s runs would either create space or provide a dangerous pass option.

Fellaini and Mata began to drop deeper in the build up phase which allowed United to progress a bit better than before. They were still unable to truly control and dominate Chelsea so they resorted to long passes again, just from higher up the field this time around.

What eventually led to Chelsea’s goal was the team’s ability to find Hazard early on the flank, usually via a switch of play. Finding him early in the buildup meant that Chelsea had progressed further up the pitch moments before so United were in a small transition phase within their defensive organization phase. Due to Hazard’s deeper positioning earlier in the in the attack, he was in a better position to attack the goal diagonally. He was usually too high or created too steep of an angle for himself due to his offset positioning in regards to the goal. Hazard dribble diagonally inside eliminating many players at once before combining with Drogba to move through on goal and miss a 1 vs. 1. Drogba scored from the resulting corner.

After Drogba’s goal, Chelsea dropped much deeper. The forward line of pressure was now much closer to the midfield line and were not nearly as aggressive. United then had a much easier time progressing forwards on the field. Around the 60th Minute Di Maria and Januzaj swapped wings. When the Van Gaal’s men were able to switch the ball quickly they had better moments of group tactical movements to create dangerous opportunities due to the advantages of a shift of play. Though they were still unable to connect their possession across the field for the entire game. Chelsea established a calmer rhythm on the ball when in possession and were even able to create some nice situations late in the game due to this enforced rhythm. Though their counterpress had worsened due to the fact that Mourinho wanted more men behind the ball rather than pressing in transition.


In the last moments RvP managed to score off of a loose ball in the box after the 93rd minute set piece by Di Maria. This sealed what was probably a fair result. United played very bravely but have some very basic problems in their game as of now. Mourinho probably would’ve won the game if put in such a situation again 9 times out of 10. His team showed some nice adaptations and continue to improve from game to game. Chelsea are looking more like EPL Champions and heavy-weight Champions League contenders.


Gabriel November 26, 2014 um 6:37 pm

I really enjoy your Analysis. You go even more in depth than Michael Cox.


AO March 11, 2015 um 2:38 am

:O Thank you!


Danton October 31, 2014 um 11:31 pm

What are your thoughts on Chelsea herding the ball to the flanks after the Drogba goal? It didn’t seem like a smart way to defend to me considering the Chelsea midfield didn’t form a wide line often.

I was surprised that Chelsea weren’t looking/able to retain the ball and actually control the game after going up. In terms of open play they really did not dominate as they should have, and for me drew questions of how they would cope against Spanish sides who press and pass more precisely in the midfield.


AO November 21, 2014 um 4:31 am

In general, I think Chelsea could improve with their support of players who are pressuring. They become ‘locally’ quite compact with access to the ball, even though sometimes they have difficulty establishing access – while the far side of the team stay in relatively same positions as if the ball were in the center or on their flank!
As you saw, this leaves massive spaces in midfield. This is always there to exploit but not many teams are competent enough to do this, and Mourinho has had a problem with this aspect of defense at times through out his career. That being said, their compactness is not THAT bad, probably still within the top 20 or 15 in Europe. Whether that’s a good place for them is for others to judge 🙂

Yes, it was quite interesting. As they normally establish superiority in numbers out of the defense to have a stable possession, but with certain changes in psychology after leading and poor connection throughout the team it was more difficult.

I could see them having a particularly tough time against sides who are excellent in these aspects: BVB, Bayern, Atletico, and depending on how Real Madrid/Barcelona develop further.


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