Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United: Mata’s ball to Ba bypasses the zone United kept secure

April 2, 2013

The starting line-ups

Juan Mata and Demba Ba combined for a brilliant goal in an otherwise quiet match.

Rafael Benitez made various changes from the side that lost at Southampton on Saturday – he fielded his three exciting creators together behind Demba Ba.

Sir Alex Ferguson left out Robin van Persie and Shinji Kagawa, while Wayne Rooney was injured, so Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck were upfront.

A terrible first half was followed by a much more open second.


Chelsea used their usual 4-2-3-1 with players in the expected positions, but United’s line-up was a surprise. On paper, it appeared Phil Jones would start at right-back with Antonio Valencia on the right, Nani on the left and Tom Cleverley partnering Michael Carrick in the centre.

Instead, Valencia was right-back behind Nani, allowing Jones to become a central midfielder alongside Carrick, buzzing around either side of him. Cleverley tucked in narrow on the left, meaning United were doing something they’ve done before at Stamford Bridge – keeping it tight in the middle and using a winger to nullify Ashley Cole, while leaving the left wing a little bare. Cesar Azpilicueta got forward well in the opening stages, because he had space ahead of him.

United shut down Hazard, Mata, Oscar

But United’s primary objective was to deny Chelsea space between the lines. Jones gave them a defensive option alongside Carrick, while Cleverley playing narrow meant United weren’t overrun in the centre of the pitch, despite playing two ‘proper’ centre-forwards (Welbeck dropped off and picked up Mikel).

It’s worth considering the nature of United’s trip to Stamford Bridge in the Premier League earlier this season. Then:

“Despite their treble creative threat behind Fernando Torres, Chelsea struggled to create significant chances from 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.”

In the first half, the same problem occurred.

Carrick and Chelsea’s lack of an equivalent

Although they were outclassed after half-time, Manchester United marginally dominated the first half. They suffered in the final third because of poor control from their attackers (particularly Nani, although Danny Welbeck’s touch is often disappointing, despite his otherwise impressive all-round game).

But at least United were getting the ball into dangerous zones, partly because Michael Carrick was playing some good positive forward passes into that zone. Carrick’s passing range is a decent barometer of his confidence – when in poor form he plays safe, sideways passes, but when enjoying a good run of form (Sir Alex Ferguson says this is his best campaign at United) he’s more incisive. Here, he knocked some excellent passes to turn slow passing moves into suddenly dangerous attacks.

Of course, Carrick is always at his best when not pressed – but with both sides tired after weekend exertions, this was not likely to be a game based around closing down high up the pitch. Both sides stood off, and both sets of central midfielders had time on the ball.

Chelsea’s attackers eventually outperformed their opposite numbers, but in the first half they struggled to receive the ball in the first place. The problem appeared to be the lack of ambition from John Obi Mikel and Ramires – Mikel can hit good long passes with Nigeria but always plays more conservatively with Chelsea, while Ramires connects midfield and attack through energy rather than passing, which had mixed results.

Basically, Chelsea lacked a midfield orchestrator. Frank Lampard might not be the most creative midfielder in the league, but he is naturally positive in possession and has improved his distribution since his retreat to a deeper role over the past 12 months. Even David Luiz is capable of good balls into the final third – and a couple of times he stepped forward into midfield to do so.

Ramires-Mikel problem

But with Ramires and Mikel not closed down, United’s two banks of four could drop deep and concentrate on denying Chelsea’s three playmakers space. The away side remained admirably compact, and the space for Chelsea was either behind the Manchester United defence, or in front of their midfield.

Because of Mikel and Ramires’ lack of incision, it would have been worth Benitez moving a more creative player into the centre of midfield. It might have been seen as a peculiar decision to switch Ramires to the right of midfield, enabling Oscar to drop into the deeper role he started his career in (and has sometimes replicated with Chelsea this season) – but that’s where the space was, so that’s where Chelsea needed invention.

In a way, that’s how the goal arrived – one of Chelsea’s creative players finally dropped away from the packed two banks of four, and into a position free from midfield pressure. Welbeck got goalside of Mata but not close enough, and to the Spaniard’s right, allowing him to use his favoured left foot to chip a pass over the top for Ba. The pass was good, the finish was perfect.

Chelsea’s system is all about creative players buzzing between the lines, but Manchester United prevented them playing in that area – Chelsea showed adaptability by bypassing that zone with the game’s key pass.

Manchester United rally, Chelsea break

Benitez kept his side intact until stoppage time, but Ferguson turned to his bench. The first change, Van Persie for Cleverley, meant Welbeck going to the left, and United in more of a direct, classic 4-4-2 system. Later, a more complex change saw Ryan Giggs on for Nani, with Valencia moving to the right of midfield, Jones going to right-back and Giggs in the centre of midfield.

United’s best chances came from crosses – Welbeck’s ball to Hernandez from the right was brilliantly saved by Petr Cech, while later Van Persie wasted a decent chance after a cross from the opposite side.

But United had now abandoned their cautious mindset and were vulnerable on the counter-attack – a more open game played into the hands of Chelsea’s three attackers, with Oscar, Mata and – in particular – Hazard all more threatening once Chelsea had taken the lead.


After only ten minutes it seemed likely one goal could decide the game – both approached this contest in a very cautious fashion, and there were very few chances in the opening period. United provided good passes into the final third but lacked quality from their attackers, while Chelsea had the exact opposite issue. Mata’s pass solved the problem, and decided the game.

The goal opened out the game to Chelsea’s advantage, and they should have capitalised on the extra space to score a second.

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