Chelsea 2-1 Man Utd: second half turnaround

March 1, 2011

The starting line-ups

A game of two halves – Frank Lampard’s penalty gave Chelsea the three points.

Carlo Ancelotti continued to leave Didier Drogba on the bench, favouring Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres. David Luiz started at the back. The rest of the side was as expected.

Sir Alex Ferguson named an unchanged side for the first time in over two years, so Dimitar Berbatov was on the bench once again.

Both sides played 4-4-2, and the game was open and exciting throughout – generally fast-paced and with lots of clear individual battles across the pitch.

United shape

United’s strategy was shaped by last season’s performance at Stamford Bridge, a game they dominated despite losing, and a game where Ferguson ‘won’ the tactical battle. As is becoming mandatory against Chelsea, Ashley Cole was pinned back by a player specifically looking to stop him (Darren Fletcher, last year it was Antonio Valencia), which meant Nani played on the left.

Ferguson played a lopsided shape last season to counter Chelsea’s diamond, but safe in the knowledge that Chelsea were going to play only two central midfielders here, he could do the same. United played very narrow without the ball, inviting Chelsea into wide areas.

Chelsea shape

For their part, Chelsea were the ‘most’ 4-4-2 they’ve been in recent weeks, with Florent Malouda playing deeper than he has in other matches. They lacked width, though – Malouda still comes inside, as does Ramires on the other side, and therefore Chelsea were unable to take advantage of the space being offered to them on the flanks. With Fletcher occupying Cole, and Ivanovic being allowed time on the ball (because he very rarely is able to harm sides with the ball at his feet, as the fixture last year showed) Chelsea looked clueless when they constructed attacks.

Midfield battle

United rarely use Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick in a midfield ‘two’ (usually one of them are paired with a more hard-working player – Fletcher or Anderson) but the use of both worked well here – they kept the ball well, moved play from side to side, and dictated the play. United threatened much more in open play in the first half.

Chelsea’s only problem against Copenhagen last week (in an otherwise easy victory) was that, as neither Essien nor Lampard are natural holders, there were too much space between the lines. Wayne Rooney started to drop more and more into that space, and Lampard standing off him (even if only briefly) gave him the space to fire into the net to open the scoring, after a sustained spell of pressure.

Chelsea did have their chances – but it was notable that they were generally from set-pieces, furthering the idea that they lacked purpose in open play. Torres had a goal disallowed early on following a corner, and Ivanovic failed to convert the rebound after Lampard fired in a free-kick.

Second half

Chelsea equalised quickly in the second half – and it was (indirectly) from a set-piece. The corner had broken down and therefore stats will show the goal as coming from open play – but the presence of first Ivanovic and then Luiz, who finished excellently, was clearly crucial in getting the goal.

What turned the game? There was little tactical change, but Chelsea showed more strength and determination in the second half. That’s a subjective judgement and difficult to ‘prove’ in empirical terms, but the fact that their tackle completion rate improved – 15 from 30 in the first half, 20 from 34 in the second – hints that something changed:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Striking substitutions

The introduction of Didier Drogba also helped. Chelsea had the pace of Anelka and Torres upfront, but with no real playmaker, they struggled to provide the clever through balls those two need. With Drogba, more of a launch in his general direction can work, and he held the ball up, helping Chelsea move higher up the pitch.

Sir Alex Ferguson also brought on his replacement striker, Berbatov, in place of Hernandez. Berbatov and Drogba are not particularly similar players, but they were being turned to for similar reasons – to hold onto the ball, something Hernandez and Rooney were clearly not able to do:

by Guardian Chalkboards

Chelsea go ahead

Yuri Zhirkov’s introduction, in place of Malouda, was probably because he likes to to go down the line, stretch the play and cross the ball – particularly helpful now Drogba was on. He didn’t do that too often, but did end up winning the decisive penalty.

Ferguson’s approach in the second half was strange. He brought on Ryan Giggs for Scholes, and asked Giggs to play that same position, in the centre of midfield. It would have been more ‘natural’ for Ferguson to move Nani to the right, ask Giggs to play on the left, and bring Fletcher in the centre, but presumably he was too scared of letting Cole off the leash at 1-1. He ended up doing it at 2-1 anyway, but by this point United looked completely disjointed – they impressed with their patient passing in the first half, but that was of little use when they needed a goal. Their only attempt after going behind was a wayward Fletcher shot from long range.


United were excellent in the first half, but were rather overpowered by Chelsea in the second – almost as if they were surprised at Chelsea’s increased tempo and aggression. The Scholes-Carrick partnership was excellent when United were in control of the game in the first half, but maybe their struggles in the second indicates why Ferguson doesn’t play that combination very often.

Chelsea showed they do have togetherness, team spirit and all the other characteristics that have been questioned in recent weeks, and in Drogba and Zhirkov they had two very good substitutes to throw on. In open play they lacked creativity, but managed to get goals from a corner and a penalty. Michael Essien was excellent – he’s still not quite the all-action combative player of a couple of seasons ago, but he played very intelligently with the ball in this game.

by Guardian Chalkboards

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