Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea: United take huge step towards 19th league title
Goals from Javier Hernandez and Nemanja Vidic put United six points clear with two games to play.
Sir Alex Ferguson went with what now appears to be his first choice ‘big game’ line-up, with one exception – Patrice Evra was out, so John O’Shea played at left-back.
Carlo Ancelotti dropped Fernando Torres and went with Didier Drogba upfront, with Saloman Kalou coming in on the right. The rest of the side was as expected.
Hernandez got United off to a brilliant start with the second quickest goal of the Premier League season, and United were ahead for pretty much the entire match.
The theme of Manchester United and Chelsea’s recent battles was a focus upon the tempo of the game, especially in the two-legged Champions League tie. United wanted a patient contest, Chelsea wanted it to be frantic. In the opening ten minutes here, however, both teams pressed high up and the game was action-packed. United’s traditionally strong start at Old Trafford – plus the goal, of course – put them in an excellent position, and Chelsea never really recovered.
To go on a slight tangent, it’s worth pointing out how important United’s excellent performance away at Schalke 11 days ago was. That put them in a commanding position in that tie, which enabled them to rest players for the return leg, which then enabled them to press early on here. The likes of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick may not have been able to play so energetically had they not enjoyed that extended rest. Giggs hadn’t played a minute since that game in Germany.
The match panned out as you would expect with a 4-4-1-1 v 4-3-3 battle, with each player having a clear opponent (with the exception of a spare man at the back for both) – which made the pressing very obvious.
There was one slight exception to this, although not a surprise if you’ve seen United v Chelsea battles over the past two seasons. Ferguson is more than happy to let Branislav Ivanovic have time on the ball, and instead plays his left-winger very narrow. Park, famed for his ability to nullify an opposition full-back, did nothing of the sort here. Instead, he tucked in and helped out in the midfield zone. His challenges took place in a much narrower position than Antonio Valencia’s on the opposite flank, and his space in the channel was vital for the first goal.
In turn, this meant that Rooney could venture towards the left flank to escape his marker, and also to give Ivanovic problems – he was lucky not to be sent off after two rash tackles on Rooney.
The key battle, however, was Valencia v Ashley Cole. Rarely has the left-back been so conclusively outplayed in a big game – Valencia has generally coped well with him since his move to United, but that’s often been in a defensive sense. Here, he constantly took the ball past Cole, which had the double impact of creating opportunities, and making Cole less of an attacking threat as he was scared to leave his position.
It was notable how often Rooney looked to spread the play out to Valencia on the right – since dropping in to play as a number ten, Rooney’s excellent passing range has been more obvious.
Chelsea attacking threat
Chelsea returned to a system with three forwards in comfortable positions after last week’s experiment with Drogba on the right, but the trio didn’t gel early on. There was some strange positioning from the front three – Kalou and Malouda both took up positions as central players at some points, which narrowed Chelsea and meant their attacks often went through the middle, which became predictable.
That was a problem as the service towards the front three was poor. Frank Lampard was anonymous for most of the match – despite his goal – as Carrick did a good defensive job on him. With little support from full-backs – Ivanovic not a natural attacker, and Cole pegged back by Valencia – Chelsea were something of a broken team.
They were more of a danger when they got the ball wide before crossing – for Kalou’s header in the first half, which was saved by van der Sar, and for Lampard’s goal in the second half.
Ancelotti tried to change things for the second half. At 2-0 down, he sacrificed his holding player, Mikel, and brought Ramires on for more energy in midfield. Alex replaced David Luiz at the back.
These changes limited his options further forward. Torres for Kalou was the only change there, resulting in Chelsea changing shape to something more like a 4-4-2, or a 4-4-2 diamond. They didn’t look comfortable in this system, and it would have been more interesting to see Yossi Benayoun come off the bench – Torres contributed little, and Chelsea’s problem was a lack of creativity, not a lack of finishing prowess.
Their best chance before the goal came when Cole knocked a long ball forward for Drogba – which he handled. There was a similarity to the move which brought Drogba’s goal at Old Trafford in the Champions League – Essien played the ball that time, but there was the same intent, to bypass the ‘creative’ zone of the pitch and hit a long ball.
United in control
United looked a little nervous immediately after the Lampard goal, but in all they remained in control of the match. Really, they should have extended their lead – after Mikel’s departure, Rooney became much more of a threat and had some good chances – most obviously when Alex blocked on the line, but also after some good work from substitute left-back Jonny Evans, and also after a good Carrick pass.
Ferguson’s only substitutions were to replace his injured full-backs – he was happy with the shape of his side.
There was a strange late change when Essien and John Terry switched positions – for the final ten minutes, Essien played centre-back, and Terry played as a holding midfielder. The reason for this move are arguable – to have more pace at the back? For more of a true defender against Rooney? (edit: apparently an injury to Terry late on was the reason)
A dominant performance from United that was all about control – Chelsea briefly rallied in the second half, but after a slight nervous period, United were professional and disciplined at the back.
The key was the difference in positioning of United’s two wingers – Valencia took the fight to Cole and conclusively won the battle, whilst Park tucked in, provided energy in the midfield and gave himself space to create the crucial first goal.Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea: United take huge step towards 19th league title