Ten points on Manchester United 3-1 Chelsea
A crazily open game with no overall pattern, so here are some disparate observations.
1. Early on, there was an amazing lack of pressure upon the player in possession in midfield, particularly when Anderson and Darren Fletcher had the ball. This seems to be an early trend this season around Europe – in Serie A games it has been particularly obvious that sides aren’t closing down until the opposition get into the final third of the pitch. Considering Barcelona are currently the best side around and base their game without the ball around pressing, it’s a strange development.
2. When Manchester United played Chelsea four times last season, the major trend was that Chelsea needed a strong player to stay goalside of Wayne Rooney – when he dropped into the hole, he was a major threat. Andre Villas-Boas wasn’t naive enough to go without a holder, but he did play Raul Meireles there. The Portuguese midfielder is a functional player who can play there (arguably his major quality is his ability to ‘do a job’; it’s difficult to identify a particular area of the game he excels at), but probably not against a player as dangerous as Rooney. Jon Obi Mikel may have been a better bet:
3. United have often been extremely fluid in attacking positions this season, but today there were much more structured. The wide players tended to stay wider, for example – compare Young’s positioning today with his action zones against Tottenham on the opening day.
4. The interesting thing about this week’s “story” about Fernando Torres criticising his teammates was that Torres actually offered a good analysis of the reasons why he hasn’t thrived at Chelsea. His major source of goals at Liverpool was from through-balls played into his path, and his comments that he wanted a more ‘vertical’ game at Chelsea with creative midfielders who played the ball more quickly was a fine analysis. It doesn’t excuse his own poor finishing, but it does explain why he hasn’t suited Chelsea – or why Chelsea hasn’t suited him. His brighter performance today came because Chelsea were trying to slide balls through the defence – see his goal, as well as his inexplicable miss.
5. In hindsight, this wasn’t a game for Frank Lampard. Mikel could have dealt with Rooney, and Chelsea would have been able to press better, as well as assist Torres more effectively, with two of Ramires, Meireles and Juan Mata playing just ahead. Lampard has been an extremely effective player – without ever being an extremely talented player – for many years, largely because he was perfect for a specific role in a specific system. Villas-Boas has changed that system, and now roles have changed, even within the same starting formation. It is too soon to write off Lampard, but he may have to adapt to retain his place as a regular.
6. If Villas-Boas is trying to modernise Chelsea and create a better passing side, he’d do well to look at his centre-backs’ ability on the ball. Jonny Evans had a 95% pass completion rate, Phil Jones’ was 88%, but John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic both finished on 77%.
7. Throughout all Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides, perhaps the main similarity has been the use of width, and the use of diagonal balls. That was particularly obvious today – Evans played a great crossfield ball to Nani for the goal, and Anderson did the same shortly before Nani set up Javier Hernandez in the first half. Rooney often dropped deep and played a shorter diagonal. When a 4-4-2 / 4-4-1-1 meets a 4-3-3, often the main advantage for the former is the fact that the wingers are often immediately against the opposition full-back – the wide forward in the 4-3-3 usually watches the opposition full-back rather than covers his own. Twice in a row at Old Trafford, United’s right-winger has dominated Ashley Cole.
8. When ahead, players who can come off the bench and play simple passes to keep the ball are invaluable. Michael Carrick is the classic example, but Dimitar Berbatov did well, not conceding possession once from 14 passes.
9. United conceded 22 shots here, 22 at Bolton, 20 against Arsenal, 21 against West Brom and 16 against West Brom. These are surprisingly high figures (they’ve allowed more shots than any other Premier League team) – the question is whether this is because of defensive slackness, or because opponents are overly-keen to test David De Gea.
10. Despite a couple of errors here, Villas-Boas is doing a good job at Chelsea. The side needed an overhaul of its first XI and its general football ideology, and already the side seems fresher, younger and more technical. They competed well here, and were unfortunate to be 3-0 down at half-time. Some managers would have feared a thrashing and shut up shop, but the introduction of Nicolas Anelka for Lampard – and a change to more of a 4-2-1-3 – showed bravery, positivity and confidence in his players, and it broadly worked well.