Manchester United have been riding the coattails of success of launching long passes to Marouane Fellaini all Premier League season, but Jose Mourinho was finally the man to bring a halt to that.
Chelsea’s Opening Selection
Mou raised some eyebrows with his opening selection, giving young Frenchman Kurt Zouma his second ever appearance at holding midfield, pushing Cesc Fabregas up to the 10 role and sliding Oscar to the right wing, which made an already defensive Chelsea side even more conservative.
A Lesson in Man Marking
An early impression was that Zouma man marked Marouane Fellaini, who has gone from out of the side and wasted money into the man Chelsea were specifically targeting in the span of a few months.
At first glance this seems like a precarious move by Mourinho, but it made a lot of sense as the match went on. This United lineup is devoid of players that are willing to take players on off the dribble, and they lean on long balls from De Gea to Fellaini to try and make up for that lack of pace in directness. Zouma’s presence alone was enough to turn the tide.
Fellaini went 4 for 7 in aerial duels, but having the Chelsea defender around forced United to pass on attempting it. In comparison Fellaini was the target of 12 long ball attempts against Tottenham, another 11 against City, and 16 against Liverpool. This also forced some of his aerial duels out wide, where the Belgian could pick on Ivanonvic or forced Marouane deep and to disappear.
United Start Knocking it Around the Back
This led to the Red Devils offense to revert back to their early season appearance. For a long part of the year, United was an attack that featured a lot of passing around the back due to a lack of offensive bite. With forwards such as Van Persie, Falcao, and Rooney and the likes of the better served centrally Juan Mata and the inexperienced Adnan Januzaj on the wing, United needs long times of possession in order to get any semblance of a look, if they get one. The top three pass combinations of this match featured Chris Smalling. The next four? They featured Antonio Valencia. The next two also had Smalling, and the next one featured both Luke Shaw and Paddy McNair. United had a lot of empty possession. A lot of it.
It’s hard to say Chelsea pressed United. On defense Oscar would consistently drop deeper than Hazard and Cesc, but the latter two hardly pressed United, unsurprisingly. The only pressing would come from Drogba, or Oscar in a deeper position.
However, the counter attack was fully on, and Chelsea were ready to spring forward as evidenced by both their goal and Didier Drogba’s chance. Cesc Fabregas picked up the ball in United’s half and started the quick counter. Wayne Rooney, playing as a holding midfielder opted to go after the Spaniard instead of rushing back, which led to Fabregas’s pass easily slotting in behind Rooney to Oscar, who pulled Chris Smalling out of position before sliding a back-heel over to Hazard to run through on goal.
It was both poor recognition by the Manchester side and bad timing for them. Rooney was making his way back from midfield when the pass was being made, and can’t be of complete fault. However three United players were watching Cesc as he made the pass without covering the lane. This left Smalling alone with Oscar, and he looked foolish himself on the backheel look.
Chelsea also created a second really threatening look early in the 2nd half where Didier Drogba was loose only needing to run by Chris Smalling and beat De Gea. The attack was just as quick, as Nemaja Matic fed a medium length through ball that put Drogba loose. Matic got the ball from a misplaced Ander Herrera pass and instantly looked up top to Drogba, hitting the United defenders on their heels. This second chance equally illustrated how they were quick to attack despite not being described as “pressing.”
Luke Shaw’s presence
Luke Shaw’s diet habits (shout out to Jenny Craig) have made more headlines than his play, but the left back was one of the away side’s more influential players before being benched for Tyler Blackett.
United’s fullbacks in general had a strong presence, as after knocking it around the back one of the backs would try to take on Hazard or Oscar. It was typically Shaw though, as United would typically go wide on the left side with Young, as Ashley is more of the typical winger than Juan Mata on the other side (Mata didn’t drift inside, but was more of a wide play maker than a guy crossing the ball).
Shaw created three chances from left side crosses, all of which were in the box. Juan Mata also created four, but three of which led to shots outside the box. Shaw was the only United player who forced the issue, and he was noticed because of that fact – especially in the second half where Shaw was fouled once, completed a take on, and created two of his chances in 35 minutes of action.
Falcao flounders United’s most threatening look
When any team sticks as many players deep in their area as Chelsea did defensively, it’s often logical to attack them quickly. However Mourinho is often good enough at getting his players to avoid the big mistake. It almost came in the second half however, as Ander Herrara intercepted a pass deep in Chelsea’s third. He passed it to Falcao, and the Colombian decided to take a long shot, one in which he slipped while attempting. It’s not exactly a bad thing the player tried to take the shot, but against such a defensive team he should do better there or try a pass to keep the attack moving.
The surprisingly unimpactful subs
The Chelsea strategy prompted Van Gaal to bring on Angel Di Maria and Adnan Januzaj as substitutes. The logic was sound: bring on two wingers with abilities on the ball and plenty of pace to force the issue like Shaw did before them.
The problem is Januzaj looked as inexperienced as ever, and Di Maria just didn’t look into the match. It’s hard to tell if the players just needed more time on the field or just couldn’t do what Van Gaal looked for, but neither forced Chelsea’s hands as the manager would have liked, letting the last 25 minutes of the second half die just like the 70 minutes before it.
Chelsea played their game, and United didn’t have the on ball presence to take it to the compact deep line and midfield of the Blues. It was a typical Mou 1-0 win, but was tactically astute in that he was finally the EPL manager to bring down the Fellaini tree.