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Thursday 09 January 2014

Talking Tactics: Man Utd must look to wing it against Chelsea

Adrian Clarke looks at how the flanks could be crucial in Sunday's match at Stamford Bridge

  • Pic 1: Man Utd will look to dominate the wings; Chelsea have fluidity attacking from midfield

  • Pic 2: Man Utd have left spaces in the middle for the opposition to exploit this season

  • Pic 3: Rafael and Antonio Valencia like to push forward together on their side of the pitch

  • Pic 4: Ashley Cole offered great support to Eden Hazard in the loss to United last season

Chelsea's last encounter with Manchester United was a cagey affair, with both managers adopting a safety-first approach in the August sunshine. This time around, with the Blues chasing top spot and David Moyes' men eager to make up lost ground, the stage is set for an exciting contest.

Here, Adrian Clarke discusses what to look out for tactically ahead of the big match at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

Similar shapes, different attacks

You could easily describe one system as 4-2-3-1 and the other as a 4-4-1-1, but essentially Chelsea and Manchester United operate with virtually identical formations. Jose Mourinho's surprise deployment of a strikerless 4-2-4-0 for Chelsea against United this season is not likely to be repeated.

As seen in Picture 1 above, it is Chelsea who have greater flexibility and more fluid movement in the all-important region behind the main striker. There, Oscar, Eden Hazard and Willian interchange frequently, with each other or with the full backs and midfielders who make runs from deep. Flitting around, floating into holes, United's two defensive midfielders and full-backs will need great concentration to keep tabs on them.

Moyes' approach is more rigid, with just Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney likely to take up unusual positions as a matter of course. However, they do use the width of the pitch better than Chelsea, so watch out for full-backs Rafael and Patrice Evra trying to double up in those areas as often as they can.

On their travels United average 22 crosses a match, the second highest in the Barclays Premier League, while 12 teams deliver more often on their home patch from wide areas than Chelsea do at Stamford Bridge - eg, they are the 13th most prolific crossers at home in the division. These two teams may be similar but their chosen route to goal often differs in style.

Central solidity

Without the ball Chelsea are the more stable unit. Only Southampton have conceded fewer chances on their home patch in the Barclays Premier League this term. Since leaking three against Stoke City in early December, Mourinho has prioritised the importance of retaining a defensive platform and his players have responded with outstanding discipline. Conceding three goals in nine matches in all competitions, that run has also included six clean sheets.

As well as trying to keep six defensive players behind the ball at all times - including David Luiz as a holding midfielder of late, and possibly new signing Nemanja Matic in that position this weekend - Mourinho's ever-growing faith in the Gary Cahill-John Terry partnership at the back has also borne fruit. When playing together this season the Englishmen have an outstanding record.

TABLE 1: Chelsea 2013/14 (all competitions)
  P W D L Conceded Clean sheets Av goals conceded
Terry & Cahill 17 13 3 1
10 0.7
Other partnerships
15 9 2
6 0.86

Solidity is not a word you would associate with United this season. On occasion huge spaces have been left wide open for opponents to break through the centre of midfield and this has left their defenders stretched and exposed. This is nicely illustrated in Picture 2 above, as we recall Christian Eriksen's winner at Old Trafford on New Year's Day.

While Michael Carrick is superb on the ball, and the second best 'intercepter' in the division with 3.3 interceptions per match, they lack a physical presence to cover for their attack-minded pressing game. This season that has put tremendous pressure on the back four.

David Moyes is also still searching for his favoured central-defensive partnership, a decision not aided by a string of injuries. Since the start of December the Scot has used five different partnerships in the heart of his defence, which could explain why they have looked so fragile at times.

table 2: Man UTD since 1 DECember
Centre-back partnerships P W D L Conceded Clean sheets Av goals conceded
Evans & Smalling
2 1 1 0 4 0 2
Evans & Jones
4 3 0 1 2 2 0.5
Evans & Ferdinand
2 1 0 1 2 1 1
Evans & Vidic
3 1 0 2 4 1 1.33
Vidic & Smalling
2 1 0 1 1 1 0.5

The wing to watch

Rafael Da Silva and Antonio Valencia love playing together on the right of United's team. Both are hardworking and responsible without the ball and they also inject pace and energy to the side's attacks when the Reds push forward, combining nicely.

With Adnan Januzaj, Ashley Young, and on occasion Danny Welbeck playing on the left of midfield there is a tendency for United to be drawn inside and towards their right, where there a little more natural width. In fact 43% of their attacks and 23% of their shots away from home come from that side of the field. By comparison the left boasts just 32% and 12% in those respective areas.

While Chelsea mix up the origin of their attacks in a more balanced way, they too favour one particular side when it comes to shooting, their left. Boosted by the form of Cesar Azpilicueta, Ashley Cole and Eden Hazard ( who has nine goals and five assists this season), 22% of their shots stem from that side, compared with 13% from the left.

In the corresponding fixture last season, as shown in Picture 3, United clearly favoured the right, while Ashley Cole pushed on throughout to support Hazard at the other end of the pitch for Chelsea (see Picture 4). Expect more of the same in this part of the pitch on Sunday. The pair who win this important battleground at Stamford Bridge could hold the key to where the points end up.


Safe in the knowledge that Jose Mourinho has never lost a Barclays Premier League match at Stamford Bridge it is easy to make a case for Chelsea but they are worthy favourites.

Possession-wise I can see this being an evenly contested affair. Both teams have an array of possible match-winners, and from set plays the two sides will each pose a significant threat.

However, with a touch more unpredictability about their attacking play, and a significantly stronger defensive spine, I am edging towards a 1-0 or 2-1 victory for Mourinho's men.

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Key Points

  • Adrian Clarke looks ahead to Sunday's big match between Chelsea and Man Utd at Stamford Bridge
  • The two sides may have the same formation but have different styles of attack
  • The contest between Cole/Hazard and Rafael/Valencia could be pivotal