Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea: Ancelotti changes formation but still loses the tie

April 12, 2011

The starting line-ups

Goals from Javier Hernandez and Park Ji-Sung saw United progress to the semi-finals.

Sir Alex Ferguson made two changes from his first leg line-up. Nani replaced Antonio Valencia – he played on the left, with Park Ji-Sung on the right. Rafael was not fit enough to play, so John O’Shea came in at right-back.

Carlo Ancelotti chose Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka and Alex ahead of Yuri Zhirkov, Didier Drogba and Jose Bosingwa.

By the end of the game, Chelsea looked well beaten with only ten men – and there was only one minute in the second half when they briefly looked like causing Manchester United real problems, before Park responded immediately. The first half was much more even, however, and it was a very good tactical battle.

Ancelotti changes formation

Ancelotti decided to go with a Christmas tree formation for this match – reminiscent of the shape he used when his Milan side overcame Manchester United back in 2007/08. He used a 4-3-3 away at Old Trafford last season, and the defensive base of the side was similar here – the difference was the roles of Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka – their job was to put pressure on Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs respectively, to prevent those two controlling the match, as they had in the first leg.

That side of the match worked very well in the first few minutes, in terms of Chelsea’s shape without the ball. The new system also solved their main problem in possession in the first match – the yawning gap between the midfield and attack – here, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka were providing the link.

Few clear chances

Chelsea had two main problems when it came to trying to score. First, Torres simply wasn’t playing well – he’s out of form, lacking confidence and sharpness. This will undoubtedly be covered elsewhere. The second problem was slightly more complex. With Chelsea packing five bodies in the centre of the pitch, Nani and Park had to come inside to help out Giggs and Carrick, making United very narrow. That then opened up space for Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic to get forward, but their delivery was extremely poor – and even then, Chelsea would have been better with Drogba trying to get on the end of crosses, rather than Torres.

That said, Anelka poked a couple of efforts narrowly wide in the opening stages. He had a free role to drift around the pitch, and whilst he provided relatively little in the way of creativity, he was more of a force in the game than Lampard. This was another shape that didn’t suit Lampard – he was used too high up the pitch, received passes with his back to goal rather than coming onto the ball, and it’s difficult to remember any meaningful contribution from him. He may even have preferred Malouda’s role, breaking from deep – the Frenchman was more of a threat with his dribbles past John O’Shea down the left, though this meant Rooney had space to wander into down Chelsea’s left.

Rooney played more passes than any other Manchester United player

United strategy

United were more patient – when they won the ball in midfield they played sideways passes, slowed the game and controlled possession. With Chelsea playing a narrow midfield three, switching play was a key part of United’s game, either allowing the wingers to take on the full-backs, or playing in the full-backs, who had no direct opponents. See Rooney and Giggs’ chalkboards, and how many long, square passes they played.

When United had the chance to counter, they did – Hernandez, Rooney, Park and Nani all had the pace to break at speed, and it seemed this would be the most likely avenue for a breakthrough. It was a goal following a set piece that got them in front, however, as Giggs passed for Hernandez’s tap-in.

Second half

Ancelotti sacrificed Torres at half time, and brought on Drogba. Chelsea were immediately more of a threat – Drogba worked the back four excellently with good lateral movement. He worked the channels nicely, was more comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal, and Chelsea could play longer balls. His chest control and finish for the goal was exceptional (not entirely dissimilar from his crucial goal at Old Trafford last season), and it was noticeable that Essien bypassed the four players between himself and Drogba for the assist – as if he’d given up on the chance of creativity from that zone. Essien played a more attack-minded role in the second half, breaking forward to join the forwards, rather than merely holding.

By that stage, Chelsea had been reduced to ten men after Ramires’ clumsy challenge, and had also brought on Saloman Kalou for Anelka. With a man less, they played a broad, fluid 4-3-2 system that actually competed quite well considering the numerical disadvantage.

Latter stages

Chelsea were unable to put as much pressure on Carrick and Giggs, though, and United controlled the game for much of the second half. After an initial spell of pressure, Chelsea were too keen to sit back later on – they’re not used to pressing, and may not have the physical capability to do so either.

Ryan Giggs frequently switched the angle of attack, and also provided both assists

United responded immediately to Drogba’s goal with Park’s strike, and saw the game out relatively comfortably. Their shape without the ball was excellent throughout the game, and it was telling that Ferguson made just one change – Nani off and the more defensively aware Valencia on – he wanted to change as a little as possible.


Manchester United were well-drilled and comfortable in their system, whilst Chelsea were ramshackle and lacking any kind of creative spark. Ancelotti’s switch to a 4-3-2-1 helped Chelsea in their two main areas of weakness in the first leg – it put pressure upon United’s central midfielders, and helped them play easier forward balls. However, Chelsea continue to lack a creator.

Chelsea found success last season by brutally overpowering opponents with a combination of speed and strength, but in European knockout stages when patience and a bit of guile is needed, Ancelotti’s formula has been extremely unsuccessful. It’s strange that his side features so little creativity - at Milan he often managed to cram Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Manuel Rui Costa and Kaka into the same side, and there was a danger of fielding too many playmakers. Having reached three European Cup finals with Milan, he knows more than anyone else about the formula for success in Europe – but doesn’t quite know what to do with his current set of players. He reverted to his favourite shape, the Christmas tree – but it looks like his season is over before Easter.

Chelsea’s midfield could have done with a player like Giggs, who set up all three goals in the tie. United’s strategy throughout the game was fantastically simple – give the ball to the midfielders, get it out wide, then cross the ball. That strategy – or variations upon it – has worked consistently for decades for Manchester United, and in combination with their ability to counter-attack, they remain a very good side.

Chalkboards from TotalFootball

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