Tactical analysis Manchester United Chelsea 1-1 Premier League

Manchester United – Chelsea: United Held to Draw in Top Four Clash Despite Promising First Half (1-1)

Manchester United showed a decent performance in the first half, aided by Chelsea’s disjointed pressing game, and found themselves taking the lead. David de Gea’s mistake let Chelsea draw level though, and United went on to disappoint in the second half when it came to finding a way past an improved Chelsea side.

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

Going into a decisive game in the Premier League race for Champions League qualification, Ole Gunnar Solskjær turned to a formula that brought him success against Chelsea previously. He chose a 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Juan Mata as the ten, flanked by two strikers in Marcus Rashford and Romelu Lukaku. The likes of Eric Bailly and Ander Herrera also returned to first team football after having been frozen out in recent weeks as Solskjær looks to rediscover a winning formula.

Maurizio Sarri meanwhile went with his familiar 4-3-3 formation. Gonzalo Higuaín was chosen as the striker rather than Eden Hazard being used as false nine. A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. Mateo Kovačić took up the third midfield slot alongside the almost ever-present duo of Jorginho and Ngolo Kanté.  

United's 4-3-3 becoming a 4-4-2 diamond with Mata dropping from the striker position.

United’s 4-3-3 becoming a 4-4-2 diamond with Mata dropping from the striker position.

Disjointed Chelsea pressing

As usual, Chelsea’s pressing was characterised by its zonal structure and the aggressive pushing out by the central midfielders to attempt to pressure opposition center-backs on the ball. The execution of Chelsea’s pressing scheme has gotten them into trouble previously this season, with the aggressive pressing behaviour of the defensive midfielders leading to gaps appearing in their midfield line that teams have been able to exploit.

In the first half especially, Chelsea encountered problems with their pressing against the movements of United’s midfielders, combined with the threat provided by United’s strikers running in behind the Chelsea defense.

United’s central midfielders would often drift into wide areas into the zones controlled by Chelsea’s fullbacks, while Mata looked for pockets of space either side of Jorginho.

United’s central midfielders drifting into these wide areas created a problem for Chelsea’s fullbacks as it encouraged them to step forward and prevent United’s players from receiving and turning. However it also opened up the channels down the side of Chelsea’s center-backs for the likes of Rashford and Lukaku to run into.

Under both managers this season, United have not been shy about using long passes behind the opponent’s defense and exploiting the pace of their strikers to try and gain territory. This game was not much different, especially with Chelsea being a team that tries to defend high up the pitch where possible.

The source of United’s goal was more elaborate though, and was in fact a very well worked move. It involved Paul Pogba drifting wide up against César Azpilicueta to receive and lay the ball off to Lukaku inside. Lukaku’s chipped pass found the run from deep of Luke Shaw, who squared the ball for Mata arriving in the box.

United passive in deep defending

United did make efforts to press high against Chelsea’s buildup with mixed success. However once they did get forced to defend in their own half, they could get forced into relatively passive stances.

While the formation was nominally a 4-4-2 diamond, when United were out of possession Rashford and Lukaku would often fall into deeper positions in wide midfield areas to provide cover against Chelsea’s fullbacks.

This meant that in some scenes United were now in a relatively passive 4-5-1-0 shape, with Mata naturally providing relatively little presence either in pressing or as an outlet to hold the ball up. Still, United seemed relatively sold and generally limited Chelsea to being quite unthreatening with the ball in the first half.

The goal of course came from another unfortunate mistake from David de Gea who is seemingly struggling for confidence as he spilled Antonio Rüdiger’s long shot into the path of Marcos Alonso. The fact that Rüdiger had space to step so far into United’s half and get a shot on goal though can be at least partially linked back to United’s defensive structure leaving Mata as the lone presence to play against Chelsea’s center-backs and Jorginho, resulting in the lack of pressure on the ball in the scene of the goal.

United quality decreased in second half

The second half was marked by a United side being unable to regain their attacking rhythm after the deflating goal conceded just before half-time. Chelsea meanwhile were slight improved without the ball from an intensity point of view.

United’s defensive formation did seem to change slightly, as they often resembled something close to a 4-4-1-1 shape. The right sided striker, usually Rashford, would drop back into right-midfield positions, with Pogba on the left and Lukaku staying as striker.

United would soon lose Rashford to injury though, as he was replaced by Alexis Sánchez. They also lost Eric Bailly, who was replaced by Marcos Rojo. These injuries came after Chelsea had to make a forced substitution of their own as the injured Rüdiger went off for Andreas Christensen.

United increasingly became more direct with their play towards the end of the game as they looked to grab a goal. Long balls were aimed towards the likes of Lukaku and Pogba, and later Scott McTominay when he came on, as they seemed slightly short of ideas to break Chelsea down as the game went on.

It was Chelsea who arguably had the best chance late on as Higuaín tested de Gea one-on-one from close range, but the goalkeeper was able to come up with a save this time, as the game finished 1-1.


Solskjær after the game remarked on the lack of cohesion from his team in the second half, and the game overall was worse off for it. United’s top four chances look increasingly slim now. They will surely be already planning for the summer to restructure the squad. They at least look forward to two winnable games against Huddersfield and Cardiff, and will have to hope for more slip ups from their top for rivals in the final games.

Chelsea cling on to pole position in the race for fourth place with this draw. However, their remaining games against Watford and Leicester will be far from simple, especially sandwiched between their Europa League semi final matches. Arsenal and United will be waiting to pounce on any slip ups which may occur from Chelsea.

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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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