Chelsea – Manchester United: United’s Counterattacking Approach Too Much For Struggling Chelsea (0-2)

Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s United side bounced back from their disappointing display against PSG with a feisty counterattacking approach, again adopting a 4-4-2 diamond system for a big away game. Apart from bursts of activity from Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s possession was tame. First half goals from Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera were enough to allow United to defend deep in the second half with minimal trouble and progress to the next round of the FA Cup.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjær suffered his first defeat as Manchester United manager, as they were outclassed by PSG at Old Trafford. This game against Chelsea would be a test of United’s ability to bounce back from defeat under Solskjær.

The United coach made a few changes from the lineup which faced PSG. Sergio Romero, as usual in FA Cup games this season, got his chance to start in goal ahead of David De Gea. Chris Smalling also came into the team ahead of Eric Bailly to partner Victor Lindelöf at center-back. Ahead of Solskjær’s trusted midfield trio, Juan Mata and Romelu Lukaku replaced the injured Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial, as United lined up with a midfield diamond with Mata as the number ten.

Maurizio Sarri is known for predictable team selections, and made only one change from Chelsea’s 6-0 demolition at the hands of Manchester City last weekend, as Mateo Kovačić came into the side in place of Ross Barkley in Sarri’s usual 4-3-3 formation.

Manchester United’s midfield diamond, which caused Chelsea all sorts of problems.

United’s counterattacking diamond

As was the case in previous away games against London clubs in Tottenham and Arsenal, Solskjær opted to set his team up in a 4-4-2 diamond system. Interestingly, Chelsea are a side that have suffered against this system at the hands of Tottenham and Arsenal themselves in their meetings this season.

As one might expect, it was the number ten in United’s diamond, Mata, who had the task to get close to Jorginho to prevent Chelsea progressing through him into midfield as they like to do. Mata had a good game, having always thrived in a central role, but did lose Jorginho a few times when out of possession, allowing the Italian to get on the ball.

Solskjær probably wished he had Lingard available for defensive purposes to better defend Jorginho. Jorginho getting free was not just about Mata though. The main reason was actually that Kanté and Kovačić could both drop into the number six space alongside Jorginho, and receive the ball unmarked, with United’s midfielders unwilling to be drawn out of position. Mata was then forced to leave Jorginho at times, and Chelsea would usually play around him.

Still though, despite some spells of high pressure when Chelsea tried to play from their goalkeeper, United in their mid-low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. were pretty comfortable to let Chelsea have the ball along the defensive line. Rashford and Lukaku would be roughly in line with Mata, lurking in the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. ready to attack the space between Chelsea’s center-backs and fullbacks if they won the ball back.

With United’s midfield and forward lines in their diamond being relatively narrow, Chelsea could find space and time in their fullback zones, where United’s were not too concerned with getting immediate pressure on the ball.

With United’s midfield three doing well to cover passing lanes through central areas, Chelsea were left to try and build attacks from the wide areas. As usual, they were still very reliant on the dribbling of Eden Hazard to create breakthroughs, and as a team looked devoid of ideas to beat United’s 4-4-2 diamond against the ball.

United, meanwhile, showed their ability in transition for the second goal, where, as planned, Pogba was able to find Rashford attacking the space behind Alonso upon winning the ball in midfield. Rashford’s pinpoint cross from the right wing was then met by Pogba arriving in the box to power his header past Kepa. Pogba’s goal came just a minute before half-time. By that time United had already taken the lead after thirty minutes, but more on that goal later…

United find  the gaps in Chelsea’s midfield

Aside from a sterile possession game, Chelsea also struggled at times in their pressing. These issues are well-documented at this point. The central midfielders push out long distances to press the opponent’s center-backs even when there is not already a teammate pressing the ball, leaving gaps either side of Jorginho in central midfield. The Italian playmaker is physically not gifted enough to cover that much space effectively on his own.

United were able to find these gaps on a few occasions, most notably when the first goal was scored, when Mata ghosted into space around Jorginho as Chelsea pressed, allowing him to receive and eventually lay the ball off to Pogba, who would go on to assist Herrera arriving in the box to head United into the lead.

After United went ahead, Rashford in particular seemed to take up a more reactive defensive role, dropping deeper on the right wing to help track Alonso’s forward runs. Lukaku was still slightly further forward on the left. United then, could resemble a flat 4-4-2 shape at times with Rashford and Pogba as the wide midfielders.

Whether this was a pre-planned adjustment from Solskjær to react to going ahead or just Rashford’s own intuition to help his team defend a lead, in theory, it always works well to have an extra defensive presence on Chelsea’s left side, since that is where Hazard primarily likes to operate from.

Going into the second half, United were defending even deeper as Chelsea chased the game. Again, apart from the occasional spark of creativity from Hazard, Chelsea’s opponent were very comfortable without the ball and defended without any problems. Sarri continued with no tactical adjustments and made predictable substitutions as his team tried and failed to break down United’s low block. The second half was quite boring actually, as neither team managed a shot on goal, meaning United coasted to a well earned 2-0 win.


United will be pleased with the way they bounced back after their Champions League disappointment. From Solskjær’s point of view, he came to Stamford Bridge with a very suitable game plan which was well executed. United will now face Wolves away in the next FA Cup round, but first they have next weekend’s clash against Liverpool to focus on.

Questions are starting to be asked over Sarri’s future as Chelsea continue on a poor run of form, with Sarri seemingly unwilling to make changes to his system. Chelsea have their own big game to prepare for as they are soon to face Manchester City again, this time in the League Cup final.

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Josh Manley (21) is a student and aspiring coach. Heavily interested in tactics and strategy in football. Watching teams from all top European leagues, but especially Manchester United and Barcelona. [ View all posts ]


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