Tactics Talk: Manchester United were underdogs but they came out on top against Chelsea

Jonny Boyle

It hasn’t been often in Sir Alex Ferguson’s career as Manchester United boss that he’s approached a fixture against Chelsea with his side as underdogs, but at Stamford Bridge on Sunday that’s exactly what his team were. Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea team have coasted unbeaten through the opening part of this season, but know when United come to town things get a whole lot harder…

CFCvMUFC 182x300 Tactics Talk: Manchester United were underdogs but they came out on top against Chelsea

How the teams lined up (click to enlarge)


It is testament to how far Chelsea have come in the short time Di Matteo has been manager that they can approach one of the most important games of their campaign with a starting 11 set out to score goals. Petr Cech remained between the sticks with Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic, David Luiz and Gary Cahill ahead of him. Ramires and John Obi Mikel would work industriously in sitting midfield, providing a safety for Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar to create for Fernando Torres who led an unchanged 4-2-3-1 which beat Tottenham last week.

Ferguson is renowned for ditching his usual adventurous style for a more cautious approach when up against his direct rivals in the league and Sunday was no different. David De Gea began in goal behind a back four of Patrice Evra, Rafael, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans who all started in the club’s last four league matches. The change came in midfield where Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dropped in to join Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley and Antonio Valencia forming a solid five behind Robin Van Persie up front. The Dutchman leads the Premier League scoring charts with six goals this season and has yet to taste defeat when starting on the road for United this season.

First Half United show Chelsea their ruthless streak

Where Ferguson has been intent on including almost every one of his best attackers in United’s recent games, he sacrificed invention for solidity and from the off his team reflected that. 4-2-3-1 with the ball, 4-5-1 without, the away midfield were prepared to allow Chelsea the ball in front of them before pressing when any passes were made in to the forwards. In just three minutes the plan had worked as a lazy square ball from Hazard to Mata was broken up by Ferdinand before dropping to the alert Rooney. His one-two with Young was aided by Mata’s unwillingness to track his run and with all the time in the world he picked out a rushing Van Persie whose shot struck the post before rebounding in off the unfortunate Luiz.

Another goal came only seven minutes later as poor Chelsea pressure allowed Ferdinand to find Rafael in space on the right. His pass took out Cole, who was caught in two minds – whether to press or stay – and in doing neither afforded Valencia time and space on the right to fizz a crisp ball in to the box for the electric RVP to direct past Cech.

For Chelsea it was avoidable; for United it was perfect!

Admirably, Chelsea stayed true to their passing game and continued to force the issue, but to no avail. Cahill and Luiz both only managed one successful final third pass throughout the whole first half.

It wasn’t all bad in the opening period as Mata scored a sublime free-kick just four minutes before half-time. De Gea decided to line-up almost every United player in his wall, making it near impossible for him to see the ball, and the inevitable happened – Mata made it 2-1.

JAVIER HERNANDEZ 300x225 Tactics Talk: Manchester United were underdogs but they came out on top against Chelsea

Javier Hernandez scores the winner for Manchester United

Second half Extra men prove the difference

Not surprisingly, both sides lined up in exactly the same way for the second-half. Chelsea were losing so retained their attacking system with United content to soak up the pressure before countering on any of the home team’s mistakes.

A goal came quickly, but this time it was Chelsea making the impact. A long ball in behind Evans was recycled by Mata, growing more influential in the game, and his cross was knocked back in to the box where a powerful Ramires header equalled the scoring.

Chelsea at home and in the ascendancy would surely go on to win right? Not quite and they can only have themselves to blame.

Cutting out another Chelsea attack, United played one simple pass to Van Persie, who turned Cahill easily, before playing in Young who was fouled cutting across Ivanovic and forcing the referee to send the defender off. Cue Javier Hernandez’ key introduction.

Perhaps the most significant battle of the game was between Van Persie and Torres. The Dutchman was a consistent thorn in the side of the Chelsea backline, receiving the ball 40 times, completing 25 passes and having six shots at goal – all three of which led to a goal. Contrastingly, Torres received the ball just 19 times, made five passes and had one single shot. If that wasn’t quite bad enough, he then got sent off for diving.

The crucial winner came with 15 minutes to go as United’s strength in numbers proved the difference. Although debate will rage as to the goal being offside, Chelsea were unable to shut down two shots at goal before Chicharito’s predatory swoop settled a game which United cruised in the closing period.

Sending-offs significant, but United would have won anyway

It’s difficult to ignore both sending offs when considering who deserved the win. United defended well, but Chelsea’s possession eventually told with both equalisers. Ivanovic’s sending off forced Di Matteo to withdraw Oscar and Torres’ dismissal soon after ended any further involvement for Mata who was arguably Chelsea’s strongest player.

Regardless of the refereeing decisions, Chelsea seemed to lack the panache of previous fixtures.

Sir Alex Ferguson confidently summarised, “with 10 men I think we would have went on to win the game anyway.” With 11? It may have been a different story, but United forced the issue, forced the mistakes and then punished them ruthlessly to take an away win which shows they’re up for the title fight.

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  • MancunianPsycho

    3 points for Manchester United, yet again.

  • saurav

    are u kiddin me..chelsea played a better game through out..even after two sending offs..fine the first 15-16 mins manchester looked to be better side..but after that chelsea showed them what is class..the officials were was obvious even in tv that torres was fouled,,diving??u must be blind or red to see that..and the offside goal was just out of question..chelsea is obviously a better side now..class of the team is not summed up by the final score but the game they played..

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