Chelsea 3-3 Manchester United: Chelsea move into 3-0 lead but lose control

February 5, 2012

The starting line-ups

An exciting game featuring a classic Manchester United comeback.

Andre Villas-Boas was without Ashley Cole and John Terry, so had to field Jose Bosingwa at left-back and give a debut to Gary Cahill in the centre of defence. Frank Lampard and Ramires were also both out, so Florent Malouda came into the side with Chelsea changing formation.

Sir Alex Ferguson picked the expected side in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Chris Smalling had picked up an injury the day before, otherwise his promising partnership with Jonny Evans might have been retained at the back.

First half

The reverse meeting between the sides was an odd game because United went 3-0 ahead despite the fact they’d only narrowly been the better side. The opposite happened here – Chelsea hadn’t created much when they’d gone into a three goal lead, and Villas-Boas’ change in shape hadn’t worked particularly well despite the lead.

In that reverse meeting, Chelsea improved after the break when they moved to a 4-2-1-3 formation featuring Juan Mata behind Nicolas Anelka, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres. Perhaps inspired by that, Villas-Boas moved away from his favoured 4-3-3 and switched to the alternative shape from the start here.

Chelsea shape

But it was more 4-2-3-1 than 4-2-1-3. A subtle difference, but an important one. Chelsea are no longer pressing relentlessly from the front, so while at the start of the season Malouda and Sturridge would have been closing down the United full-backs and roughly level with Torres, here they dropped much deeper to form a second band of four. Without the ball, Mata was the second highest player up the pitch, and Villas-Boas shouting to Sturridge and telling him to play deeper (just before Sturridge conceded the penalty) was probably due to the fact that Sturridge isn’t used to being told to play that role.

One impact of the formation change was that it altered the role of Wayne Rooney without the ball. Usually against the 4-3-3 he drops onto the opposition holding midfielder (often Jon Obi Mikel) to make up the numbers in midfield, but here there wasn’t really a holding player, so Raul Meireles and Michael Essien got a fair amount of time on the ball, and could both move forward unchecked. However, it meant Rooney could focus on attacking.

United attacks

In the first half United had a couple of penalty shouts. They both came from interesting tactical features – Ashley Young went down after good movement from left to right, and Branislav Ivanovic had difficulty with his positioning and runs. Young takes up a variety of positions – sometimes coming inside, sometimes going short, sometimes hugging the touchline. It makes him very difficult to play against, and he had a couple of decent moments when he  got the ball.

Young and Valencia (who was very quiet on the right wing despite the pre-match concern in Chelsea’s left-back zone) could have done with better service from the centre, which may have been as a result of United being outnumbered in the middle. Ryan Giggs’ distribution in the first half was poor.

The incident involving Danny Welbeck and Cahill was interesting for two reasons – first because it highlighted what Welbeck is good at – finding spaces between players to make runs from. Against an unfamiliar back four, he was always set to be a threat, though he faded later on. It also summed up Cahill stylistically – the defender who often finds himself making covering tackles, although the inadequacy of his tackle underlines the question about his actual ability.

Chelsea went ahead after Sturridge easily dribbled past Evra, who was also poor for the third goal.

Second half

Chelsea went 2-0 up after Mata finished Torres’ cross excellently. Torres spent much of the time drifting into wide zones, which does make sense with the way Chelsea play – both Sturridge and Mata (when he’s on the left) or Malouda (who was there today) both like coming inside into central positions. Luiz’s third pressed Ferguson into action from the bench.

The period from 3-0 to the final whistle was when the real tactical excitement happened. First, Ferguson went for Javier Hernandez, on for Young with Welbeck to the left. Hernandez offered raw pace and pushed Chelsea back very, very deep – Ferguson said after the game that he regretted not starting the Mexican.

Scholes in, Mata out wide

The second change was more important. Paul Scholes replaced Rafael, which meant Valencia to right-back, Welbeck across to the right and Giggs out to the left. The new players on the flanks would both have an impact for the equaliser, but Scholes was vital because he controlled the tempo of the match and dictated the way United attacked late on.

Scholes played the central midfield role much better than Giggs

But Chelsea let him do so, by dropping awfully deep and allowing pressure to build. They were particularly bad when they won possession – they often handed the ball straight back to United – there was barely any thought to retaining it. And on the few occasions when they did have possession, they were too rushed, too vertical. At this stage they didn’t want a frantic game, they needed to calm the tempo and see the game out. Mata was the only player who grasped this concept, and by moving him out wide (when Sturridge was removed with Oriel Romeu coming in) United had even more possession, Scholes had even more freedom, and United’s third seemed inevitable.


Yet another big Premier League game that became a frantic contest with plenty of goals. There were three major factors:

1) Poor positional play from defenders at both ends.

2) Rash tackling – two of the goals were from penalties, another came from a free-kick.

3) The lack of thought and intelligence from the central midfield zone. United had already started to build pressure, but the introduction of Scholes and the removal of Mata from that zone seemed to give the initiative to the away side.

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