Chelsea 2-3 Manchester United: two goals a dangerous lead, two men a significant advantage

October 29, 2012

The starting line-ups

Manchester United snatched the three points after Chelsea went down to nine men at 2-2.

Roberto Di Matteo was again without John Terry through suspension, while Frank Lampard was injured, so Chelsea’s starting XI was as expected.

Sir Alex Ferguson returned to more of a traditional Manchester United system after recent experimentations with a diamond. Ashley Young was the biggest surprise on the teamsheet, deployed out on the left.

Manchester United went ahead on the counter as Chelsea dominated the first half, before the away side’s numerical supremacy led to dominance of the final 25 minutes.

United go ahead

Manchester United took the lead before the game had settled down and playing styles could be fully assessed, so Chelsea had to take the initiative, and they dominated possession significantly throughout the first half. United’s formation was about width rather than dominance of the centre, so they were happy to soak up pressure before breaking down the flanks.

The right was always going to be a fertile breeding ground, as Eden Hazard’s defensive awareness is highly questionable, and Antonio Valencia has got the beating of Ashley Cole a few times over the years. United’s second goal, where Rafael broke past Hazard, created a two-versus-one against Cole and allowed Valencia to cross, was a perfect example of Chelsea’s problem in that zone.

Chelsea dominance

Chelsea dominated possession in the first half, primarily because they needed to get back into the game rather than due to any specific tactical battle. Despite their treble creative threat behind Fernando Torres, they struggled to make significant chances in open play, partly because they had trouble working the ball into the zone between the lines. Here, United deserve credit for staying tight in front of the defence, but for the first time this season Chelsea lacked quality passing from central midfield, and were slow at playing the initial forward pass into the final third. The passing graphic shows it well – Chelsea had more of the ball but struggled to work it towards the area, while United played down the flanks:

Still, the home side continued to increase the pressure. It was interesting to see United’s shape without the ball, effectively 4-1-4-1. Michael Carrick stayed in holding role, Tom Cleverley picked up Ramires, while Wayne Rooney moved goalside of Jon Obi Mikel. When he’s picked up the Nigerian in recent seasons, with Chelsea in a 4-3-3, it simply made United look like 4-4-1-1. Now Chelsea are using a 4-2-3-1, Rooney had to drop deeper alongside Cleverley, and was less able to support United’s main striker, Robin van Persie. Rooney is capable of playing in midfield but together with Cleverley formed a fairly flimsy midfield combination, and a Rooney foul conceded the free-kick that Juan Mata curled in for Chelsea’s first goal.

It was obvious how much Rooney played than in this fixture last season:


The pattern of the game reacted significantly to the flow of goals. Just as Manchester United sat back at 2-0 up (or Chelsea dominated because they needed to come into the game, to look at it from the other perspective), Chelsea’s 35-minute period of dominance came to an end as soon as it got to 2-2.

Why? They would have been better off keeping the tempo of the game high and continuing to pin United back, but they switched off and sit deeper, and in the 10-minute spell between Ramires’ equaliser and Branislav Ivanovic’s red card, the game was more evenly-balanced than at any time since the 4th minute opener.

10 v 11

Ivanovic’s dismissal was a game-changing moment, immediately handing United the advantage. A common ZM complaint is that managers often don’t change their own side when the opposition go down to ten (despite the situation in the game changing, and the opposition likely to be weak in a different manner) so great credit should go to Ferguson for immediately introducing Javier Hernandez (for Cleverley when the game was 10 v 11). That meant United used five attacking players – they were always likely to dominate with an extra player, but Hernandez provided an extra goal threat and robbed Chelsea of a spare man at the back.

Di Matteo naturally wanted to replace his right-back, so brought on Cesar Azpilicueta for Oscar, changing Chelsea to a simple 4-4-1 formation.

9 v 11

But then, almost immediately, Torres was dismissed. Having planned to bring on Daniel Sturridge, Di Matteo instead went for Ryan Bertrand in place of Mata, with Hazard going across to the right. Chelsea were now two banks of four, and two banks of four alone – Di Matteo was understandably playing for a draw.

Then came Hernandez’s winner. Sturridge replacedHazard – maybe the Belgian was tired, but Di Matteo could have afforded to keep two attacking players on the pitch when needing a goal. It was always going to be extremely difficult for eight outfielders to win the ball against ten outfield opponents happy to keep possession, however, and Hernandez’s goal seemed like the winner as soon as it went in.


A slightly disappointing tactical battle, despite an exciting game on the whole. Ferguson’s formation was more basic than the ‘revolutionary’ (his words) diamond he used against Newcastle, for example, and therefore the game had a familiar pattern. Rooney dropping onto Mikel, combined with Chelsea’s dominance of the ball, meant United’s shape frequently looked like 4-1-4-1. With the same instructions and a different type of game, however, it would have been more like 4-4-2, with Rooney joining van Persie.

10 versus 11 would have been an interesting match considering Chelsea had been dominating possession for much of the game, but 9 versus 11 made the game very one-sided.


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