Chelsea v Manchester United: tactical preview

April 6, 2011

Possible starting line-ups

Manchester United travel to Stamford Bridge with a score to settle, having narrowly lost the same fixture just over a month ago.

Whilst we’re used to these two sides playing each other, the nature of a two-legged battle brings a different challenge for both managers. Champions League two-legged ties are generally cagey and defensive-minded, but both managers have hinted they might attack from the start here. Besides, the Champions League knockout round has produced a surprisingly high number of goals so far this season – 11 goals in two matches last night indicates that trend may continue.

Unlike ahead of last night’s game at the Bernabeu, both managers have genuine decisions to make over their starting XIs here. Carlo Ancelotti has a simple choice upfront – two from Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Fernando Torres. The three have different qualities, and therefore it’s possible that he’ll pick according to style over form – which would, of course, favour Fernando Torres – who would unquestionably be the man omitted were his manager picking simply according to recent displays.

Two from three for Chelsea

Irish journalist Miguel Delaney has offered an interesting take on Torres’ failings today, stating that Chelsea’s style of football hasn’t favoured the Spaniard. The quotes from Ancelotti would indicate that he acknowledges this, but tonight may be a game where Chelsea could vary their style and play to Torres’ strengths. United’s game against West Ham at the weekend showed that they were vulnerable to long balls into the channels for onrushing forward players, and whilst Drogba and Anelka are far from uncomfortable in those situations, Torres is potentially lethal.

A combination of Drogba and Torres seems to offer Chelsea the most promising match-ups against United’s backline. Nemanja Vidic’s woes against Torres in recent years may have been exaggerated, but there is history there. With Torres needing a psychological boost, and Vidic possibly nervous after the weekend display, that might be a battle Ancelotti will relish. Meanwhile, Drogba has caused Rio Ferdinand problems down the years – and if Ferdinand is not fit, one suspects Chris Smalling would rather play against Anelka than against Drogba.

Aside from that decision, Ancelotti’s side is unlikely to contain many surprises. Sir Alex Ferguson has a greater number of factors to consider.

United formation?

The biggest decision is which formation to play. Despite a fondness for a variety of 4-5-1 in recent years in Europe, Ferguson has been more likely to use 4-4-2 in ‘big’ games this season. His use of three central midfielders seems to be a safety measure to prevent him becoming overrun in that zone rather than a first-choice system – see the game away at Valencia, where he started off by matching Valencia’s 4-2-3-1, but as soon as Valencia switched to 4-4-2, he did the same, and won the game.

His decision may be influenced by the players he has available. Darren Fletcher is out and Anderson is doubtful, which points to a Michael Carrick – Paul Scholes combination in the centre of the pitch. Anderson could be useful if fit, however, to provide energy and drive higher up the pitch.

In this fixture last month, Ferguson used Fletcher on the right up against Ashley Cole, with Nani on the left. It would be a surprise if Nani didn’t start in that position again, despite his best work this season coming on the right. Ferguson has always been keen to nullify the threat of Cole, and after Valencia did a great job up against him at Stamford Bridge last season, that looks likely to be the situation again tonight.

Wayne Rooney will start – either as a lone forward if Ferguson uses an extra midfielder, or as a support striker if Javier Hernandez (or Dimitar Berbatov) is used upfront. The Mexican started against Chelsea last month, and his raw pace is something John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic will be wary of. The key there would be the knock-on effect – Chelsea would have to defend deeper, which might then increase the gap between midfield and defence, with Chelsea (unusually) having no defined holding player. That would give Rooney space to work in – and that’s the position he opened the scoring from in the aforementioned recent clash between the two.

by Guardian Chalkboards

That game has been such a key part of this preview because it was so fascinating tactically. It was the stereotypical game of two halves, both in style and result. The first half was relatively calm, strategic and patient, whilst the second was played at a higher pace and was much more physical. Carrick and Scholes dictated the game in the first half, then were overpowered in the second as Chelsea turned a 0-1 into a 2-1.

With that in mind, the most important feature of this game may be the tempo, with either side favouring a different type of game. Michael Essien and Frank Lampard are much more dynamic than Scholes and Carrick, who are better passers. Those players can’t merely go along with the nature of the game, however, they have to dictate the tempo and stamp their authority upon it. Carrick is important in this regard, and the main battleground is surely the midfield zone.

With both sides likely to play a 4-4-2, it will be interesting to see how either ‘adds’ to their duo in that zone. Ramires plays slightly narrow on the right for Chelsea, whilst for United Rooney might test the positional discipline of Chelsea’s midfield by dropping into deep positions.

None of this really considers the first leg mentality of either coach. Go out for the win, or play for a draw?

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