Manchester United – Chelsea: Scoreline Flatters United in Chaotic Top Four Duel (4-0)

Tactical issues on both sides made for a rather open game between Manchester United and Chelsea. In the end, United were able to take advantage of transition moments to get ahead in the game, even though the two teams were often fairly even. 

Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.

There have not been many seasons in recent decades where expectation levels for both Manchester United and Chelsea have been so low coming into the season. Both teams seem to have taken the direction of trying to rebuild, with club legends at the helm. Promises are being made about entertaining football and the promotion of young players in the first team set-up, and we all know the consequences those promises might bear. Might this be the first time in three seasons that the ‘Top Six’ will be breached

This direct confrontation – the ‘He Knows The Club Derby’, according to some – would offer some insights into what team should worry the most about their top six position this year. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjær experimented with a few different formations at United last season. In this game he went with the 4-2-3-1 shape he had primarily been using in pre-season. There were starting places in defense for new signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. Meanwhile, Scott McTominay was given a start in midfield alongside Paul Pogba. Ahead of them, Andreas Pereira started as a number ten, flanked by Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Anthony Martial, now wearing the number nine shirt once again for United, was the central striker. 

Frank Lampard, meanwhile, chose to go for less experienced options,  as Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham featured in Chelsea’s starting line-up as the number nine and ten in their 4-2-3-1 shape. N’Golo Kanté was left on the bench as he looks to regain fitness after injury, meaning Chelsea started with Jorginho and and Mateo Kovačić in central midfield. Midfielder Ross Barkley played as a left winger with heavy license to come inside in order to overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. the center. 

General positioning and movements when Chelsea had the ball. 

United’s narrow pressing 

Solskjær seemingly wants his United side to be capable of pressing high up the pitch. Some evidence of this was seen against Chelsea, but their pressing and general defensive game is still less controlled and executed worse than many other teams in Europe’s top leagues. 

United’s high pressing game appears more based on physicality and immediate pressure on the opponent’s ball-carrier rather than well-prepared moments of pressing, by using pressing triggers. A pressing trap is a predefined plan to leave a particular player or zone open, to invite a specific pass. Upon a pass to that player or into that zone, a rapid coordinated team press on that player or zone is exerted.Therefore, the front four in their 4-2-3-1 shape are asked to do a lot of running. United’s approach can work, but is also inherently more unstable. 

The wingers in their 4-2-3-1 formation are able to come into quite narrow positions in pressing. This applies both in higher pressing, where they will pressure opposing center-backs after receiving the ball from a switch of play, and also in lower pressing, where their narrow starting positions help block opponents from progressing through 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 the 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.

This has the trade-off of leaving space for opponents in wide areas. Often in teams with a narrow midfield stance, the fullbacks are given responsibility for being aggressive in pressuring the ball out wide, as the nominal wingers are not in position to do so. 

However, at some points, especially in the first half, United ran into the problem of their fullbacks being dragged inside by Chelsea attackers that they were marking. This leaves a lack of cover out wide, and on a couple of occasions, Chelsea were able to build attacks out wide, as well as using the fullbacks as an outlet against United’s high pressing. 

Chelsea’s own issues in pressing

Part of what made this game quite an open and chaotic affair was that both teams had issues with their pressing, leading to a game where both teams were able to make breakthroughs, in the first half particularly. 

Chelsea’s way of pressing when United had possession.

Chelsea also pressed from a 4-2-3-1 starting shape, which often went on to form a 4-4-2 shape or even 4-2-4 variations. Their eagerness to press high, like United, created some instability in their pressing system.

Chelsea’s front four had the tendency at times to become rather flat, meaning that once United broke the first line of their press, Chelsea’s two midfielders were exposed and had large spaces to protect. 

United’s build-up from the back was generally neither overly impressive nor disastrous. It is almost certainly better than what they have produced in that area in recent years under both Mourinho and Solskjær. They were aided by the composed presence of Maguire alongside Victor Lindelöf, both of whom are comfortable in buildup situations where recent United’s center-backs have not always been. They often made use of the fullbacks, especially Shaw on the left, to combine with the likes of Rashford and Martial.

United kill the game with quickfire goals

United ended the first half 1-0 up thanks to a penalty from Rashford, even though Chelsea had some chances just before half-time to go into the dressing room level.. The second half started with the teams defending a bit lower than in the first half, with less high pressing to be seen. 

Chelsea were still finding space on the wings. As they did last season, they especially built down the left, where Kovačić was a key protagonist. Lampard also introduced Christian Pulisic to the left wing in place of Barkley ten minutes into the half. 

Despite being able to make progress on the wings though, they were generally unable to make the most of it. They struggled to find passing lanes to move the ball back inside, with the attacking midfielders being unable to adequately free themselves from United cover shadows forcing the ball outside. 

After the hour mark, United were able to find two goals in quick succession. The first of these goals, a counterattack, showed an advantage of Rashford often maintaining a higher position on the left, rather than tracking his fullback as alluded to earlier. Rashford’s higher positioning meant that he was ready to run with the ball into space as soon as the ball was turned over in the lead up to the goal, which was eventually scored by Martial. 

Rashford then scored his second goal shortly afterwards, leaving United 3-0 up, from two counterattacks and a penalty. From this point a lot of the energy and potential for a comeback seemed to go out of Chelsea’s game, having been deflated by the two quick goals. 

United now found themselves much more comfortable in possession and knocked the ball around with relative comfort. Substitute Daniel James was able to add to the scoreline on his debut, as the game finished 4-0 to Manchester United. 


Both teams had some issues with their pressing, but remarkably, that did not result in either team being especially dangerous in organized possession. United profited from transition moments and finished their chances well. The 4-0 scoreline is definitely harsh on Chelsea, who were pretty much even in the game until they were deflated by United’s two quick goals in the second half. 

If there is something Lampard needs to work on as Chelsea manager for now, it is definitely the compactness of his team, especially vertically. A lot of times, the spaces between the lines just were too big to play in for United, and if Lampard cannot fix this, his team has a problem. Both these teams will be very interesting to watch these season, as we will get a true glimpse of the managing talent both Lampard and Solskjær possess.

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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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