Chelsea 0-1 Manchester United: first half Rooney goal gives United the lead in the tie

April 6, 2011

The starting line-ups

A tight game at Stamford Bridge saw only one goal.

Carlo Ancelotti chose to leave out Nicolas Anelka, starting Didier Drogba alongside Fernando Torres upfront. There was a surprise on the left, where Yuri Zhirkov played over Florent Malouda.

Sir Alex Ferguson welcomed back Rio Ferdinand. He also gave starts to Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung, in a surprise midfield four. Javier Hernandez played just ahead of Rooney.

The game took a while to settle down into a pattern. Both sides made too many errors in the opening minutes, with misunderstandings between teammates and possession conceded too cheaply.

4-4-2 v 4-4-2

The match-ups across the pitch here were fairly obvious, and similar to the recent game between the two sides at Stamford Bridge. Both used four across the midfield, although it’s fair to say that none of the central midfielders used from the start are really at their best in a two-man central midfield partnership. This resulted in a strange contest in the middle of the pitch, with those players given a decent amount of time on the ball.

There was one slight exception to this was – Rooney dropped into the midfield zone and occupied Michael Essien when United were without the ball. Michael Carrick picked up Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs was often, strangely, United’s deepest midfielder – keeping an eye on Ramires, who played narrow on the right for Chelsea.

Central midfield

The Carrick v Lampard battle was particularly interesting – Carrick would probably have preferred to have another midfielder ahead of him in order to defend a little deeper, whilst Lampard would have preferred to have another man behind him in order to make his trademark late runs into the box. The clash between those two was standoffish – Carrick was generally 10 yards from Lampard and only closed him down when he got the ball, whilst Lampard was nervous about not leaving space between the lines of midfield and attack, so stood off and allowed Carrick too much time on the ball to dictate play.

Lampard's forward passes were often unsuccessful

Carrick had a very good game, his best for a long time. In addition to passing calmly and spreading play to the flanks, he also hit a terrific crossfield pass that resulted in the only goal of the game, via Giggs’ cutback and Rooney’s finish. That was probably the only incisive pass of the half. Rooney had dropped off and found a huge amount of space between the lines, against bringing into question whether Chelsea are yet comfortable without a designated holding player.

Meanwhile, Lampard was actually a very good advert for Carrick’s usual  ’keep it simple’ approach – whenever Lampard passed the ball sideways, Chelsea moved up the pitch and continued their attacks, but whenever he attempted a forward pass, he gave away possession.

Attacking strategies

Despite playing a narrow four-man midfield with both Ramires and Zhirkov tucked in slightly, Chelsea’s best chances actually came when they worked the ball wide, before crossing. Jose Bosingwa was at fault for the goal but provided a good attacking presence down the right.

Having gone 1-0 up, United were more patient in possession. They were keen to hit Chelsea on the break – when they won the ball they tried to use it quickly and directly, but aside from one Rooney-orchestrated counter, this didn’t work too well.

Second half

The opening to the second half was similar to the first. The only incident of note was Rafael going off injured, meaning Nani came on and Antonio Valencia dropped to right-back, where he did a very good job for the rest of the game.

Chelsea’s midfield played higher up the pitch and pressured Carrick and Giggs more, perhaps trying to replicate the upturn in tempo they imposed after the break in the recent league game, where they were also 0-1 down at half time. United did OK at getting the ball wide quickly though, and the main impact of this Chelsea pressure was to give Rooney a little more space. It was notable that when he put the ball in the net in the second half (a long way after the whistle had gone), he had again found space between the lines. Chelsea can’t afford for this to happen in the second leg.

When United play two smalls players (ie Rooney and Hernandez) upfront, pressing them high up the pitch works well, as it forces van der Sar into long kicks that neither of the forwards are likely to win

Changes

Ancelotti waited until the 70th minute to make two substitutions – Malouda and Anelka came on for Zhirkov and Drogba. Chelsea went to 4-3-3, with Lampard playing much higher up the pitch, and immediately they dominated possession, pushing United back and sending the ball into the box more frequently. The extra man in midfield seemed to make it easier for them to work the ball forward, whilst Anelka and Malouda both dropped very deep to pick up possession.

United had looked in control until this point, but here they started to look nervous. Clearances were more hurried, tackles looked more desperate, but they kept 4-4-2 and Ferguson decided to bring on Dimitar Berbatov for Hernandez.

It was the further change for Chelsea that seemed to kill their momentum. Jon Obi Mikel came on and Michael Essien went to right-back. This meant Rooney went over to the left, Park Ji-Sung came into the centre of midfield, and United looked more solid with Park’s energy in the middle and more of a clear five-man midfield.

Chelsea didn’t seem to have any cohesive strategy with United packing men behind the ball – but after sending longish balls into the box, they still caused United nervous moments, and had two late penalty shouts.

Conclusion

A very tight contest. It’s difficult to say that either manager conclusively won the tactical battle – United won and had spells where they looked completely in control, but Chelsea came into the game later and Edwin van der Sar was the busier goalkeeper over the 90 minutes.

There was no overall pattern to the game, no player consistently in space, and no major area where the game was won and lost. However, the preview said that the key factor would be the tempo of the game – this was certainly a calm, patient game rather than a frantic, fast-paced one, and that favoured Ferguson’s side.

Chelsea 0-1 Manchester United: first half Rooney goal gives United the lead in the tie

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