Manchester United v Chelsea: tactical preview

April 12, 2011

The starting line-ups in the first leg

The only Champions League quarter-final that looks alive going into the second leg – all the focus here is on Carlo Ancelotti.

First, team news. Darren Fletcher is still unavailable and Rafael will have a late fitness test, but otherwise there are no major concerns for either side. No-one is suspended, and therefore both managers have a plethora of options for this contest.

Much of what was said in the preview for the first leg applies again here. The difference, of course, is that Chelsea need to score, and need to win. Therefore, Ancelotti is the man with the bigger decisions to make about strategy, and particularly how his side can offer more of a goal threat in the second leg.

Chelsea selection

With that in mind, it seems strange to suggest that Ancelotti’s first priority should be using another holding midfielder, but this seems to solve a lot of Chelsea’s problems – at least in theory. They had problems in the first leg with Wayne Rooney dropping between the lines, and both his goals at Stamford Bridge in the last six weeks – albeit very different types of goals – have come because Chelsea had no holding player picking him up. Ancelotti effectively won the league with a 1-2 victory at Old Trafford last season by using a 4-3-3 and dropping Drogba – could he repeat the trick here?

It seems increasingly certain that the 4-4-2 suits neither Frank Lampard nor Michael Essien. Both are constrained in this system, and besides, after both have endured significant injury problems in the last twelve months, neither has the energy to be getting through the work of three players between them.

Therefore, a return for Jon Obi Mikel could be on the cards – he started at the weekend against Wigan as Ancelotti tried a 4-3-3 in the first half. However, he was substituted at half time – and in fact, hasn’t completed 90 minutes since November 20th, so he’s clearly not an Ancelotti favourite. Instead, we may see Essien take up the holding role – as he did earlier this year – which is clearly not his best position when at his physical best, but may be the right solution for both him and Chelsea in the short term.

Frank Lampard would then be able to return to his natural position – breaking forward from a midfield three to join the front three, and Ramires could play his shuttling role on the right. Attention would then turn to the forward trio. Florent Malouda in for Yuri Zhirkov is a certainty, and then we’re back to the problem of which striker to drop. Nicolas Anelka is the only one of the three who can play wide-right, so he’ll start – and Ancelotti seemed to confirm yesterday that Torres would also play. Therefore, it would be a Malouda-Torres-Anelka frontline. Crucially, this would give Ancelotti the option to switch between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3, with Malouda dropping to the left of midfield, and Ramires moving to the right.

Potential alternative line-ups

It’s also likely we’ll see a change at right-back – Alex is fit again, and this would allow Branislav Ivanovic to move out to the flank. Jose Bosingwa made a mistake for the Rooney goal in the goal leg, and may be dropped. However, Ancelotti will remember that in last season’s victory away to United, his right-back, Paolo Ferreira, was crucial with attacking runs forward. Ivanovic is likely to start, but Bosingwa may be introduced later on if Chelsea need more attacking drive.

Manchester United selection

Sir Alex Ferguson may well choose the same side that started the first game – or at least keep the same system, with a couple of like-for-like changes. The two men Ferguson will consider bringing into the side are Nani and Paul Scholes. Ferguson likes to have Antonio Valencia up against Ashley Cole, so it’s difficult to see Nani playing on the right, but the Portuguese international may get a start on the left.

This could correspond with a slight change in formation for United, with Park Ji-Sung coming into the centre of the pitch, and Rooney playing upfront alone. United ended the first leg with Park in that position, and he also did a great job there against Milan last season. If Chelsea are looking to put more bodies in the midfield zone, Ferguson may respond in turn.

Chelsea strategy

‘Tempo’ was the key word for the first leg, and Chelsea will again want to make this more of a battle. They’ll be reluctant to start this way, though – United generally start games very well at home, and so getting through the first fifteen minutes unscathed may be Ancelotti’s approach, before steadily increasing the tempo from there.

Aside from stopping Rooney getting space between the lines, Chelsea must also put more pressure on Michael Carrick, who controlled the game in the first leg and also provided the superb crossfield pass that resulted in Rooney’s goal. Allowing Lampard to play higher up (with the use of a holding player behind) would help in this aspect.

The key for Chelsea, though, is interplay between the midfield and attack, particularly (assuming a 4-3-3) from the wide forwards. Again, this was something they did brilliantly at Old Trafford last season, as Malouda and Joe Cole (!) dropped deep to link play, as did Anelka in a false nine role. Ancelotti leaving out both Malouda and Anelka in the first leg was a bizarre decision – Malouda is always  going to link play better than Zhirkov, and Anelka, of the three forwards, is most natural at dropping deep. Chelsea were much better in the final stages when those two were on the pitch.

Torres actually did reasonably well in the first game. In the middle of such a high-profile goalless run, any game without finding the net will go down as a bad performance – but his movement was good, and he’ll relish playing as a lone forward.

Manchester United strategy

It’s unlikely Ferguson will demand anything unusual from his players – United are in control of this tie, and he’ll expect his side to keep the ball and look to close out the contest. Again, Carrick is crucial in this respect.

The wide players will be instructed to do a good defensive job against Chelsea’s full-backs, and the central midfielders will have different duties if Chelsea switch to 4-3-3.

The ball is firmly in Ancelotti’s court, however. Ferguson’s major decisions – if there are any to make – will come midway through the game, if it is not going to plan for United.

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