Chelsea – Manchester United: Late drama sees Chelsea salvage point against José Mourinho’s resilient United (2-2)

It was very much a game of two halves at Stamford Bridge, as José Mourinho’s Manchester United displayed an impressive defensive performance. Chelsea’s passing approach through the center – trying to free Eden Hazard – earned them very few rewards as the visitors continued to contain Chelsea throughout, especially after taking the lead. Touchline fracas ensued a last-gasp equalizer from Ross Barkley in a chaotic final sixty seconds.

For this match, United moved from a 4-3-3 formation into a 4-2-3-1 shape. Bringing Juan Mata into the starting eleven – replacing Scott McTominay – initially looked like an attacking move by José Mourinho. It turned out to be a smart defensive addition for when his team did not have the ball. The only other change saw the injured Eric Bailly making way for Victor Lindelöf.

Equally few changes for Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea. The back-and-forth situation up front continued, as Álvaro Morata was put into the team for Olivier Giroud. Mateo Kovačić took his usual place at the left of Chelsea’s midfield trio, which meant Ross Barkley was benched.

United’s low block against Chelsea’s 4-3-3, featuring Hazard moving inside

United defend passively yet comfortably

In Manchester United’s starting 4-2-3-1 formation, Mata was heavily tasked with blocking passes into Chelsea’s playmaker Jorginho. Deeper afield, the double pivot 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. of Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba simply had to cover Mateo Kovačić and N’Golo Kanté respectively. Ashley Young was instructed to stay tight to Eden Hazard.

The visitors were fairly passive in their approach and had no problems being forced backwards, which is something you would expect from a Mourinho-led team. United were thus comfortable to have their wingers Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial drop as deep as their own backline and position themselves on the edge of their own box. They simply asked Chelsea the question whether or not they could break this wall down.

As a result of United’s quite deep positioning, as well as their crowded backline, Chelsea struggled to gain any access into attackers and midfielders running into space behind United’s defense. On a few occasions, Willian made the run from out-to-in but they were easily dealt with by Luke Shaw.

Another problem for Chelsea was the lack of horizontal space. As United essentially fielded a back-six for large periods of the opening half, there was not enough space between the channels for Chelsea’s attackers to catch the United defenders out.

All these offensive issues against United’s compact defense made this an opening phase without impressive scoring chances. At their first corner kick of the match, Chelsea managed to strike nonetheless. Rüdiger showed the detriments of a poorly executed man-marking scheme when he easily lost his marker Pogba and met Willian’s exquisite delivery with his head.

In line with Sarri’s tactics at Napoli, Chelsea repeatedly combined on the left flank, but Hazard had problems to link to his team mates.


Hazard drifts inside as Chelsea look to bypass midfield
Now trailing, United kept following the same tactics, not trying to press Chelsea when they were building up. This meant Chelsea saw more of the ball in the entire first half. Even with minimal access into Jorginho – who was marked very effectively by Mata – Chelsea still found ways to break through into the middle of the pitch. Because Lukaku was not aided by one of the attacking midfielders in pressing, Rüdiger and David Luiz were afforded plenty of time to pick the pass they wanted to.

Usually in these situations, Hazard would detach himself from Young and drift into the number ten position. With Morata holding off the opposition’s central defenders, Hazard could move inside and overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the double pivot, which was already occupied by the surrounding Chelsea midfielders.

It was not only Hazard receiving here, though. Morata was also on the end of Chelsea’s sweeping passes through the center. However, his inability to effectively hold the ball up and play a wall-pass was not helping Chelsea in their efforts to get the ball into fairly dangerous positions.

Chelsea’s offense on the right side was not functioning as well as it could have. When their right winger Willian got on the ball, César Azpilicueta and Kanté acted as the supporting cast. To provide stability and protection against counter attacks, Azpilicueta rarely overlapped. When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping.  And one can say a lot of positive things about Kanté, but not that he is an elite offensive midfielder. Chelsea might had done a bit more damage when play would have been funneled more into the likes of Alonso, Kovačić and even Hazard down the left instead.

Recurring problems in possession for United against a narrow Chelsea block
A static and disconnected setup stopped United from being able to progress the ball in the opening half. When they were attacking on one side of the field, United often lacked a player on the other side to receive. Just like in their narrow escape at home against Newcastle, it should come as little surprise that their one-sided focus was not paying dividends.

The compactness of Chelsea’s defensive 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 formation made it almost impossible exploit any spaces further ahead regardless. In general, there was very little movement to free up other teammates and find holes in the opposing defense.

United’s extreme one-sidedness when the ball would be on the left. Chelsea’s narrow 4-3-3 formation in defense on display as well.

The game tilts in United’s favour
After all of United’s woes in the first half, the game started to shift shortly after half-time. The visitors were now beginning to work the ball into Rashford, who was positioned a lot wider than earlier, Mata often being the link player. United found their leveler after one of these attacks.

As a result of Mata playing into Rashford, United subsequently found the space to cross into the channels that were beginning to stretch out. The visitors sustained the pressure and recycled the ball well. Their goal felt a bit lucky: a volleyed cross by Ashley Young was touched by players from both teams and fell into the lap of Martial. The young French attacker had no problem in making the most of his only opportunity of the game so far and netted the 1-1.

Following the first goal, there was a real up in United’s intensity. The game had flipped on its head and every second ball and duel was falling their way. Chelsea could not keep up anymore and lost control of the midfield, being pushed back into their own half more often than not.

At the end of this very strong phase by United, Martial turned out to be the star of the afternoon. One of United’s fine attacks saw Rashford passing it to Martial on the edge of the box. An initial bad first touch with his studs sent the ball away, but it is fair to say Martial made up for that little error with his second touch. He beautifully put the ball into the side-netting, leaving no chance whatsoever for Chelsea’s goalkeeper Kepa.

After a very quiet first half, United found a way back into the match in the second half.


Chelsea’s threat on set-pieces
With fifteen minutes to play, Chelsea’s response tactically was to bring Willian across to the left. The idea might have been to try and recycle the ball better down one side so that they could regain control of the tempo, but it did not have much of an effect. The overloads provided by the Brazilian were not doing enough to open spaces within United’s defense.

What earned Chelsea their point, was another good set-piece. In the absolute dying seconds of the match, Luiz peeled off to the far post where he leaped above all others to head it back across. With near perfect accuracy, he found the far corner but it rifled back off the post. Rüdiger followed up with a header from point-blank range before substitute Ross Barkley tucked home the second rebound.


Chelsea’s manager Maurizio Sarri is still unbeaten in all competitions. His side – at least temporarily – still leads the league on points. Still in the infancy of his tenure at Stamford Bridge, a result and a performance like this is no real cause for concern.

For Mourinho, this was the kind of performance that he was long awaiting, especially offensively. When United can structurally provide what they did for long parts of the second half, this team will be back in the top-six in no time. The Portuguese manager will scratch his head though, as two set-pieces ruined a much-yearned away win over a direct rival.

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Peter (20), lives just outside of London. He’s been writing about tactics and such for over a year now, contributing to a couple of sites during that time. His main club is Arsenal but he’s also followed Real Betis quite heavily since Quique Setién took over last year. This form of writing has become a great passion of his and, although he’s unsure of what his end aim is, he’s enjoying being given new opportunities to continue doing so. [ View all posts ]


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