Chelsea 3-1 Man United: Moyes’ use of Januzaj proves clever, but United sloppy at the back

January 20, 2014

The starting line-ups

Samuel Eto’o scored a hattrick as Chelsea convincingly defeated Manchester United without playing particularly well.

Jose Mourinho welcomed back Branislav Ivanovic, meaning Cesar Azpilicueta reverted to left-back and Ashley Cole was dropped. Nemanja Matic was on the bench, while Eto’o got the nod over Fernando Torres upfront.

David Moyes brought Phil Jones into his midfield and played Ashley Young on the left, moving Adnan Januzaj central and dropping Shinji Kagawa.

Manchester United actually started very well, but an unfortunate concession and sloppy set-piece defending let them down.

Moyes’ strategy quite effective

On one hand, there’s no need for Moyes to be significantly criticised after this defeat. Manchester United were clearly unfortunate with the first goal, while the second and third were because of poor defending at set-pieces. In those situations, individuals must surely take responsibility for positional errors, poor decision-making and a loss of concentration.

On the other, if the sign of a good side is ‘winning while playing badly’, presumably the sign of a poor side is ‘losing while playing well’. United’s heads inevitably dropped when they found themselves two or three goals behind, but they started the game much better than Chelsea, and in open play were arguably the better side for long periods.

United shape

Moyes showed great faith in Adnan Januzaj by handing him the central attacking role behind Danny Welbeck. It would have been easy for Moyes to excuse the youngster from such a big game and instead play the more experienced Shinji Kagawa, but Januzaj’s form deserves to be rewarded with constant starts, and he was effectively United’s key player in this shape – both on paper, and on the pitch.

The most interesting feature of the game was the roles of Januzaj and Welbeck. Although the former is a midfielder and therefore you’d expect to see him dropping back and helping with the numbers game in midfield, Welbeck is the player renowned for his work rate. Therefore, it was usually Welbeck dropping back to pick up David Luiz (or Ramires), and Januzaj remained further forward – not really as a second striker, but as United’s most advanced player.

Januzaj drifts left

Januzaj was the most dangerous attacking player in the match, for two separate reasons.

First, he was allowed too much space between the lines by Chelsea. Neither Ramires nor Luiz are proper holding midfielders, and Chelsea’s centre-backs prefer to depend deep – John Terry, for example, wouldn’t have wanted sprints against Welbeck if United knocked the ball in behind. At one point, Mourinho could be seen screaming at Luiz to remain deep and protect the back four, such was the danger of Chelsea allowing Januzaj space.

Second, Januzaj constantly drifted towards the left flank. In United’s previous match against Swansea he rotated positions with Kagawa: sometimes left, sometimes central. Here, although Ashley Young came inside a couple of times, Januzaj was more focused on creating overloads down the left, and he constantly picked up the ball in the inside left-channel, before attempting to play the ball into the middle. He set up Welbeck for a good chance – although the striker got the ball stuck under his feet under pressure from Azpilicueta – and then hit a ball across the face of the box, with no-one arriving at the far post.

For that, Antonio Valencia must take some of the blame – United were constantly attacking down the left, but Valencia never provides a second goalscoring option at the far post. In stark contrast, when United attacked down the right at Aston Villa (all ten chances were created down that side), Januzaj started on the left but continually supported Welbeck by charging into the box, which was crucial in United’s first two goals that afternoon.

Even if Januzaj wasn’t directly involved, United’s best moves came down the left. The first chance of the game was when Young moved inside to receive a ball from Michael Carrick, played a one-two with Welbeck, and Petr Cech made a fine save. Later, Patrice Evra stormed forward to get into some good positions, putting a decent ball into the box and firing into the sidenetting.

Chelsea attacks

Oscar played a very disciplined tactical role in this game, trying to stop Carrick and Phil Jones playing forward from midfield, but he had little creative influence. Instead, Chelsea’s attacks generally came from wide positions – Eden Hazard had a couple of great moments when Nemanja Vidic was dragged towards the touchline, where he looked uncomfortable, but Willian was the home side’s brightest midfielder, getting through his defensive tasks but then charging inside towards goal.

In the headlines was Eto’o, for his hattrick, yet his all-round contribution wasn’t particularly crucial. The first goal – against the run of play, like in the European Cup final of 2009 against United – saw him sidestep Phil Jones nicely, while the second and third were neat but simple finishes.

Mourinho said he elected for Eto’o rather than Torres because of his skill and trickiness, in comparison to Torres’ raw pace and power (which is actually an interesting evaluation of both players current’ style – both around four years since their peak) but whether this was a significant factor in the game is questionable. Eto’o poaching quality, rather than his all-round game, was the key factor.

Chelsea slow the tempo

What was more impressive about Chelsea, however, was the manner in which they killed the game at 3-0 up. Mourinho gradually shifted to an entirely defensive XI, first by introducing John Obi Mikel for Oscar, and Chelsea moving to 4-3-3 to plug the gap between the lines. Later, Nemanja Matic made his second Chelsea debut in place of Willian, with Ramires moving right. Chelsea now had four cautious midfielders – Mikel, Matic, Luiz and Ramires, plus Hazard to break forward from the left, joining Torres – who replaced Eto’o.

Manchester United did get a goal back, through Javier Hernandez (he’d replaced Young, with Januzaj going left) but this was probably their only decent chance of the second half in open play. They’d created much more in the first period, but had lacked someone with Hernandez’s (or Eto’o’s, for that matter) poaching qualities.


The result here wasn’t a great reflection of the tactical battle – Chelsea won the game by being more efficient at both ends, rather than by Mourinho’s strategy being more effective. Eto’o has proved a useful penalty box striker since his arrival, and he played a crucial role here.

Manchester United created some good situations in the first half, and while Chelsea were increasingly content to be dominated as the game went on, Mourinho would have been concerned in the first half at the number of decent chances United created in the final third, shown by his forceful instructions to Luiz to sit deeper.

It’s somewhat surprising that Manchester United lost the game in such a manner. The widely acknowledged problem with their squad is in midfield – yet here, they were let down in both penalty boxes.

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