Manchester United 2-2 Chelsea: United storm into an early lead, then Chelsea dominate

March 11, 2013

The starting line-ups

Manchester United appeared firmly in control for 20 minutes, but substitutions helped Chelsea get back into the game.

Sir Alex Ferguson recalled Wayne Rooney, using him behind Javier Hernandez, with Shinji Kagawa left and Nani right. Jonny Evans also returned.

Rafael Benitez surprisingly named Ramires and Frank Lampard in midfield, allowing him to play three attackers, including Victor Moses, behind Demba Ba. Cesar Azpilicueta was at right-back.

United took an early lead with goals from Hernandez and Rooney, but then seemed to stop playing – and Chelsea could have won it late on.

Manchester United early lead

The home side started strongly, but the defining feature of the opening period was the lack of compactness from Chelsea. This was interesting – as always, compactness is the major thing Benitez demands from his side throughout matches, and the way Chelsea were strung out across the pitch caused them significant problems both offensively and defensively.

The major cause was the deep positioning of the centre-backs, who were terrified by Javier Hernandez’s pace (in a title decider two seasons ago, he put Manchester United 1-0 up within a minute by sprinting in behind David Luiz). The strange thing about Hernandez’s opener here is that Chelsea’s starting position was actually quite deep – but this was unable to prevent the goal being scored, thanks to a brilliant pass from Michael Carrick, a great header from Hernandez, and some dodgy positioning by Petr Cech.

The lack of pressure upon Carrick contributed to the goal, of course – and his ambition to hit such a fine pass is a measure of his confidence in (according to his manager) his finest season at Manchester United. This can also be attributed to the lack of compactness, which gave Chelsea’s midfielders too much ground to cover, although it was also simply poor communication and organisation – both Ramires and Juan Mata went to pressure Tom Cleverley, leaving Carrick free. That said, the chances of being punished so directly from that position are extremely slim.

Going forward, too, Chelsea suffered in the early stages because the game was so stretched. Long balls forward to Ba were often pointless because of his lack of support – Mata stayed reasonably close, but the wide players generally started too deep.

Chelsea come into the game

Chelsea’s comeback didn’t start with the substitutions after half-time – it started after around 25 minutes when Manchester United kept conceding possession sloppily, especially within their own half. Chelsea’s midfield pressure helped, but is often appeared more like simple individual mistakes, with the frequency suggesting physical or mental exhaustion after the midweek defeat against Real Madrid. Chelsea’s passing wasn’t faultless either – Gary Cahill made a couple of needless errors in possession.

In midfield, the battle in the zone featuring Rooney, Ramires and Lampard was interesting – neither side really looked comfortable here. Rooney sometimes found space in behind them, but his lack of defensive work without the ball hinted at why Ferguson didn’t trust him to pressure Xabi Alonso in midweek, and this contributed to Chelsea gradually dominating the midfield zone.

As it happens, the Ramires-Lampard combination didn’t completely work – they took it in turns to get forward, but both appeared a little restricted with their movement. Still, with Rooney doing little without the ball, plus Oscar coming inside and Mata between the lines, often Chelsea were able to pass around Carrick and Cleverley in that zone. The knock-on effect was United’s wide players getting dragged inside to help out, which then allowed Chelsea’s full-backs to get forward. Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta both got into promising positions – the latter because Shinji Kagawa drifted inside quickly – but their crossing was poor.

Benitez changes

Chelsea's second half line-up - substitutes, or players who changed position, are highlighted

Chelsea’s goals were both related to Benitez’s substitutions. Eden Hazard was brought on for Victor Moses, with Oscar moving to the right and Hazard playing left. His beautiful curler into the far corner demonstrated his immediate impact.

But Hazard on for Moses was an obvious change because of the sheer improvement in quality. Benitez’s other key change was cleverer: John Obi Mikel replaced Lampard. On paper, that’s a defensive substitution – and the type of change Benitez would be criticised for had Chelsea not completed their comeback – but it worked brilliantly, allowing Ramires to burst forward in possession. This caused United even more problems, and in addition to his equaliser, he’d also stormed into the box similarly for a similar chance a few minutes beforehand.

It also helped that Benitez started with his attack-minded right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, rather than Branislav Ivanovic. A couple of times this season, when chasing the game, he’s been forced to waste a substitution by introducing an attacking right-back, forcing him to keep an attacker on the bench.

In the 1-0 defeat to Corinthians, he replaced Ivanovic with Azpilicueta, meaning Marko Marin and Daniel Sturridge stayed on the bench. In the 2-2 draw at Brentford, he did the same, so Yossi Benayoun was unused. Against Manchester City recently, he swapped around half of his defensive unit in order to get an attacking player at right-back. Starting with Azpilicueta here meant he could make three attacking substitutions without worrying about the back four.

Ferguson fails to change

Chelsea’s dominance forced Ferguson to change his system – when Robin van Persie replaced Hernandez, Kagawa went left and Rooney came into the middle, but this changed little. Ferguson had previously been forced to bring on the woefully out-of-form Antonio Valencia for Nani, and later introduced Danny Welbeck for Kagawa.

Ferguson could have changed things earlier, and more dramatically. United were short in midfield for the second time within a week after an opposition coach’s changes (and of course, against Real Madrid, a red card) and Anderson was an unused substitute here. If he’d been introduced in place of Kagawa or Rooney – or even for the injured Nani just before half-time, when Chelsea’s dominance was already clear – United could have gone 4-5-1 / 4-3-3 and prevented Chelsea dominating in midfield. In the end, Chelsea recorded 15 shots to United’s nine, and 11 on target to United’s five.


Good substitutions or correcting initial mistakes? Benitez is such a divisive manager that his supporters and detractors will take radically different views.

As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Moses starting rather than Hazard was about rotation, and was then a natural switch to make in the second half. For an away game at Old Trafford, it was a surprise Mikel didn’t start – he’s surely the best partner for either Lampard or Ramires in a fixture like this.

However, credit should go to Benitez for making that subtle change – Mikel on for Lampard. Another manager might have thrown on Fernando Torres as a second striker, and therefore conceded the midfield ground which Chelsea were already dominating. It freed Ramires to attack United when they were exhausted, and in the end, Chelsea probably should have won the game.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,