Chelsea – Manchester United: A Game Of Checkers With A Last Minute Wild Card (1-1)

Adaptations behind the first line of pressure saw two attacks cancel each other out, but how frantic final minutes can see law and order crumble. Graham Potter made a pivotal first-half substitution to blunt the visitors’ control, Erik ten Hag made a curious second-half change to stop the hosts in the transition. Nevertheless, smart coaching moves can only do so much.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.

Chelsea vs Manchester United has been a fixture with a crazy rotation of managers each season. Hiring Graham Potter and Erik ten Hag indicates more long-term thinking is taking place.

Under Potter, it comes as no surprise that he has added more flexibility to their 3-4-3 structure. This has involved more positional changes, Marc Cucurella in the backline for example, but also more influence in Mason Mount to add routes forward. Chelsea was yet to concede under Potter, yet looking at their expected goals, results at Brentford and Aston Villa were fortunate to see them get away with clean sheets.

Ten Hag’s tenure started with Graham Potter outwitting his Man United team off the ball and exploiting the open spaces in transition. They have ridden through some heavy defeats, but United have started to find more coherence with Ten Hag’s selections more focused on the system than stardom. This was showcased in a dominant performance against Tottenham in midweek, posting twenty-eight shots versus their passive opponents.

Four changes were made from the hosts’ goalless draw at Brentford. Thiago Silva returned to the center of the back three, with Ben Chilwell in the left wing-back position. Raheem Sterling and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joined the attack of the 3-4-3 formation. Man United aligned themselves in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Despite Fred on the scoresheet against Tottenham, Christian Eriksen replaced the Brazilian in the midfield in Ten Hag’s only change.

United raise issues about Chelsea’s block

As has been a common theme throughout the last few months, emphasis on possession control has risen under Ten Hag to fulfil his desired structure. They succeeded in the first half hour, disrupting Chelsea’s deep buildup and pulling apart its midfield line through a number of ways. Off the ball, United pushed high and was man orientated, with Marcus Rashford and the far-sided winger on the center-backs, whilst Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes were on the double pivot.

How Man United’s man-orientated press looked against Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation (tilted towards the right channel.) Sancho often pushed up to squeeze space on Chalobah and keep the box around Chelsea’s double pivot.

Chelsea’s center was caged and was only able to break out if Kepa Arrizabalaga found César Azpilicueta but required the experienced Spaniard to dribble the ball out to build. United had the midfield to sweep up the first/second balls and as a result, they were the team in control of the phases.

Improvements in the United buildup have benefitted from a team that hasn’t changed its selections in a while, but even then, it is clear that this side has aims to manipulate their opposition. The hosts were aligned in a passive 3-4-3 formation, with doses of sporadic pressing in the channels, but ultimately, the lack of coverage from the three forwards caused overloads and a stretched defense behind them.

Diogo Dalot was particularly aggressive by coming inside to support circulation, whilst Luke Shaw manoeuvred in his usual manner on the left, which saw him connect with a few third-man runs. With Jadon Sancho and Antony incredibly wide, this pinned the Chelsea wing-backs deep and allowed the visitors to move into the trios that have grown into their play.

8th minute: (Straight line = pass, dotted lines = movement.) Neat passing sequence from United, which saw them overload on the outside of the Chelsea double pivot and connected with Shaw’s third-man run into space.

With Fernandes bouncing between halfspaces, Rashford peeling and Eriksen able to move ahead of Casemiro, Man United favored more towards the left side. With overloads easy to build around the center-midfielders, United was able to switch play towards the other side if needed.

Despite their good work in the two-thirds, forming chances and creating shots came at a minimum, even if they had the ball around the final third. Once the ball funnelled towards the wingers, they rarely got the ball further forward and were constantly encouraged to pass back in the direction it came from. Rashford was only engaged once he drifted away from the center (he received more on the right) whilst pulling the opposition center-backs apart was a rare occurrence. On the transition, Fernandes threading the ball into Rashford was the closest United came to truly test Kepa, and even on this occasion, his rush out of goal was enough to block the attempt.

Cucurella off, Kovačić on

Potter does not rest when his team is on the back foot. Tactical first-half substitutions are often frowned upon, but Potter proved how a necessary and sensible change could instantly improve the game state for his side. Thirty-six minutes in, Cucurella came out of the backline and was replaced by Mateo Kovačić, which saw Chelsea move into a 4-3-1-2 system.

Mount was central, tracking Casemiro, with Kovačić on Fernandes, Loftus-Cheek on Eriksen and Jorginho as the free man to support on the ball side. Matching United’s deep buildup resulted in their passing play coming more rigid. The space that the fullbacks would move into was now occupied by a pressing center-midfielder, and Chelsea profited from getting a lot closer to United up the pitch.

From a quick free-kick, a messy action from an intercepted Kovačić pass saw an Aubameyang shot roll just past the post. A Chilwell cross also found the striker in front of the goal, after Chelsea won the second ball in the middle third, but the high position of the ball made it difficult for Aubameyang to connect with his feet.

42nd minute: Transitional Chelsea chance, created from the 4-3-1-2 pressing scheme. Loftus-Cheek pushed up, which resulted in the ball-sided full-back on Sancho and far-sided midfielder dropping to the center. A misplaced Sancho pass was lapped up by Mount with Chelsea behind the midfield line.

The final chance, in a flurry of opportunities, was more indicative of why the change of shape was needed. As United distributed the ball to Luke Shaw, Loftus-Cheek was able to push high on the left-back with Mount on Eriksen and Sancho dropping deep was followed by Azpilicueta. A loose pass from Sancho was swept by Mount, but Raheem Sterling couldn’t connect with Aubameyang close to the goal.

Sancho off, Fred on

The game state didn’t change in the second period, as both man-orientated systems stunted both buildups and saw limited exchanges once the ball was further ahead. Ten Hag made a tactical change of his own by replacing Sancho with Fred. The Brazilian moved next to his Brazilian teammate, which pushed Eriksen further afield and put Fernandes on the left.

Chances still came at a minimum, but the change did reinstate some of the early control that United enjoyed. Fred was further ahead of Casemiro but always positioned himself in front of the Chelsea midfield to provide security when circulating. With Chelsea’s midfield line a little deeper, it allowed United’s backline the opportunity to put a player slightly ahead of its defensive line.

When Lisandro Martínez is ahead of the defensive line, it forces the first line of opposition pressure to change the way it is staggered. As a result, Chelsea’s frontline was more clustered in one area and this enabled the United fullbacks to receive in more open space or at least have a better passing lane available without Mount tracking one of the midfielders and being drawn towards Martínez.

Man United’s pass network was very lopsided towards the left side of the field. 

The adaptations provided a safety net for United in circulation but didn’t change two defensive systems cancelling each other out. United was aggressively lopsided towards the left, having funnelled the ball towards Shaw and Fernandes, but anything out of that led to attacks breaking down. Between the time of the substitution and the seventieth minute, Fred’s distanced, curling shot was the only registered attempt between the two teams.

Last-minute chaos still fails to find a winner

Chelsea did regain some momentum, able to find space in the wider channels when in the second phase of the attack. Mount and Chilwell were influential in keeping the ball up the field, set-piece pressure almost broke through when Trevoh Cahlobah hit the crossbar with a header.

Both coaches made changes, without changing their respective structures, in a game that was destined to be a 0-0 draw. Set-piece pressure would eventually create a huge chance, as the substitute, Scott McTominay bundled Armando Broja inside of the penalty area as the corner was taken. Jorginho converted from close range.

Nevertheless, football can still pull out the most random of scenarios. United kept pressure through crosses and on Shaw’s attempt, Chilwell was left with McTominay and Casemiro to deal with at the back post. Kepa got a glove, but not enough to stop the ball rolling millimeters over the line once it had bounced off the post.


Chelsea versus Man United has always involved at least one team being in transition, a sorry conclusion for two teams that have had unlimited spending power to keep them at the top. That being said, both are arguably in healthier positions, with strict coaches and principles to create a path.

How they had been able to keep every clean sheet (under Potter) up to this point is bizarre, but it is positive to see Potter’s adaptations and gambles translate over at Chelsea. With a stacked offensive roster, solutions in the attack should be easier to find than the defense which is less of a luxury.

United’s attack is still a long way off from perfection too, but this is the first time we can say that they have been consistently effective in its buildup for a very long time. That being said, this does not equate to consistent chance creation coming with it. Ten Hag’s team need to control the ball for longer and build the routes in the final third too.

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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