Manchester United 1-2 Chelsea: Ancelotti gets it right with his strikers

April 3, 2010

A tight game that was won the better side. United looked tired after their midweek game in Munich – Chelsea were fresher, brighter and created more goalscoring opportunities. They are now in the driving seat.

Sir Alex Ferguson would have gone with a 4-5-1 regardless of Wayne Rooney’s absence, so it was essentially a straight change, with Dimitar Berbatov in to replace him. Michael Carrick was dropped after his poor display midweek, so Fletcher and Scholes played deep, with Park Ji-Sung in the central role he played so well against Milan.

There was certainly a surprise in the Chelsea line-up, in that Didier Drogba was left on the bench, with Nicolas Anelka preferred. Drogba apparently had a slight groin strain, but one feels he would have made the game had Ancelotti wanted to play two upfront. In recent weeks, however, Chelsea have played better with one striker. Indeed, there have been suspicions since Anelka arrived at the club that he and Drogba are not a great partnership – although they’ve played well on occasion together, their best displays seems to have come when the other is either out of the side, or out of form.

Today, playing Anelka worked brilliantly from the outset, as he dropped deep into positions in a role not dissimilar to a false nine, allowing Malouda and Cole to venture forward and become the highest players up the pitch. Those two played from out to in, with significant wide support from the two full-backs, who both ventured forward regularly.

Park played very close to Berbatov for the first half hour, and United’s shape was almost a 4-4-2 at times. In particular, when Edwin van der Sar had the ball, Berbatov would come deep for the flick-on, and Park would become the furthest forward player.

Chelsea dominated possession in the first half, partly because Park was playing so high that Chelsea often had an extra man in midfield. Cole and Malouda also played brilliantly fluid role – Ferguson seemed to instruct the full-backs to mark them tightly, but this often resulted in Evra and (in particular) Neville being drawn into the centre, opening up space on the flank.

United were toothless – they failed to create any genuine chances in the first half, and Ferguson switched things around on the half-hour mark, by moving Park to the left and pushing Giggs forward to support Berbatov.

Perhaps surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson made no substitutions at half-time, but United’s approach did change – they pressed higher up the pitch, their defensive line was higher up the pitch, and they looked quicker and more determined to win the ball back. They dominated possession in the second half and were unfortunate to go another goal behind.

Credit should go to Ancelotti for his team selection and substitution upfront, however. Anelka was the right man for the first hour – drifting around and causing United’s centre-backs problems, but when United started to dominate the game, Drogba’s more physical, powerful presence was more effective in holding the ball up and waiting for midfield runners. His goal was plainly offside, but Drogba’s impact was nevertheless a key feature of the game, as Anelka was tiring.

Ferguson’s substitutions were logical moves, introducing the in-form Nani for the relatively subdued Park, and bringing on the tall striker Federico Macheda since United were mainly a threat when they got into wide areas and got crosses in, but it was surprising he left it until 72 minutes to bring them both on. It was also strange that he left Michael Carrick on the bench when United’s passing was so poor throughout the game, especially considering he took Paul Scholes and then Darren Fletcher off. Fletcher (along with Park) failed to turn another of his excellent big-game displays. There have been suspicions that Fletcher’s energetic, hard-working style means he struggles to perform well in two consecutive games, and perhaps that school of thought was given added credit today.

A final key part of the game was the role played by Paulo Ferreira. In the game between these two at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, Ryan Giggs played very narrow on the left-hand side, and United were happy to allow Branislav Ivanovic forward as he isn’t the best on the ball. Today, however, Ferreira played at right-back and constantly explioted the space left by (a) Giggs playing relatively centrally and (b) Cole drifting inside and bringing Evra with him. On the opposite flank, Zhirkov was tracked all game by Valencia, but Ferreira was constantly an out-ball for Chelsea and could have grabbed his first-ever Chelsea league goal had his finishing been slightly better.

Ancelotti defeated Ferguson today, and it will be interesting to see what he does for the rest of the season – Chelsea clearly play better with one striker rather than two, will he continue to leave either Drogba or Anelka out? They are unquestionably the favourites for the title now, and it’s theirs to lose. Only once in Ancelotti’s ten seasons in charge of Juventus and Milan did he win the title – that was in 2003/04 when Milan lost just once all season and won the title by 11 points. He has never emerged from a genuinely close title race on top, and the pressure is now on him to make brave decisions to ensure Chelsea triumph.

Chalkboard analysis here

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