A Tactical Analysis of Manchester United's Win at Chelsea
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Sir Alex Ferguson's team started like a freight train and they took a 2-0 lead after 12 minutes. However, Chelsea fought back to level things on 53 minutes.
Two red cards for Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres reduced the Blues to nine men. United eventually took advantage of their two-man advantage when Javier Hernandez scored the winning goal.
This was the first time since 2002 that United beat Chelsea in the league at home. The game itself was one of three disparate half-hour periods. Manchester United were much the dominant team in the first half-hour, while Chelsea dominated the next.
However, the match will be remembered for what happened in the final third of the game. First, referee Mark Clattenburg sent off Ivanovic for denying Ashley Young a goalscoring opportunity. This would turn out to be the least controversial decision of the three major second-half decisions by the referee and his assistants.
Clattenburg then showed Torres a second yellow card on 68 minutes for what he deemed to be a dive. However, replays did show that there was contact between United defender Jonny Evans and Torres. If anything, the incident should have incurred a yellow card for the United man.
To further stoke the fires of injustice being felt by everyone involved with Chelsea, replays also showed Chicharito was offside when he scored the winner on 75 minutes.
Despite the last third when the referee left his indelible mark, the match was quite entertaining. Both teams contributed to the attacking mood around the game, and there was a conflation of interesting tactics from both managers.
In this article, we take a look at the different tactical patterns in this top-of-the-table Premier League clash.
United Dominate the First Third of the Game
Man Utd and Chelsea lineups in the first 30 minutes. Blue lines indicate players' movement.
Sir Alex Ferguson abandoned the recently-favored diamond formation for a more conventional 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 formation for this game (Fergie joked it was in accordance to the wishes of Margaret, an 80-year old woman from Rochdale!)
However, Ferguson introduced a couple of tactical tweaks to Manchester United's classic formation.
Wayne Rooney stayed relatively deep in his role as the supporting striker. In fact, on many occasions, Ashley Young stayed the closest to Robin van Persie up top, by drifting in from the left.
Antonio Valencia played as a classic winger on the right side, constantly moving up and down the flank. Even RvP put in an appreciable defensive shift, often dropping deep when Chelsea had possession of the football.
Even with the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1, United concentrated more on staying deep and compact. In attack, they looked to break quickly with the ball every time Chelsea lost possession—something that happened often in the first half-hour, with Chelsea's poor passing and United's active pressing.
The pace of Young and Valencia were especially instrumental in successfully executing this game plan.
Ferguson seemed to have targeted the Chelsea left, knowing the fact that Eden Hazard hardly ever tracks back to help Ashley Cole on that side. Valencia, Rooney and Rafael all moved up and down the pitch on the right side, and this right-side overload created huge problems for Chelsea, something that Cole alone couldn't deal with.
The success of United's two-pronged strategy of using pace to counter-attack and overloading the right-hand side of the pitch was clear enough, since the first two goals of the game both came as a direct result of these two tactics.
Chelsea Come Back into Their Own in the Next Third of the Match
Chelsea squeeze the game in their dominant half hour
First, the Chelsea defence and midfield move higher up the pitch. In addition, the Chelsea team started pressing the United players high up the pitch, every time United got possession of the ball.
This pressure caused the Red Devils to drop deeper and deeper, until they ended up in a 4-1-4-1 formation with Robin van Persie up top on his own and Wayne Rooney playing as an auxiliary central midfielder beside Tom Cleverley.
These deep positions were especially unsuitable to Rooney and Cleverley, whose defensive abilities aren't remotely as good as their attacking instincts. Time and again, a combination of Chelsea's pressing, lack of an outlet for their passes and their own deep position led to United handing possession back to Chelsea.
In fact, Rooney's defensive limitations cost United, when he fouled Eden Hazard at the edge of the area and Juan Mata scored from the resulting free-kick.
The second modification for Chelsea involved Hazard and Mata finding space behind the United fullbacks. By coming inside even further from the touchline, both Chelsea players exploited the space between the fullbacks and the central defenders.
United seemed happy to allow Chelsea to adopt this tactic in the beginning, safe in the knowledge that it was just Fernando Torres against Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans.
However, as United kept retreating deeper into their own half, Ramires and Obi Mikel began making runs into the box, which shortened the odds in Chelsea's favor. Ultimately, Ramires' equalizer came from a move which took advantage of this tactic.
The Final Third of the Game Is Defined by Refereeing Decisions
Mark Clattenburg controversially sent off Fernando Torres
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Unfortunately, the final half hour of this enthralling game was spoiled by some mystifying refereeing decisions, as Chelsea were shown two red cards in quick succession.
First, the referee, Mark Clattenburg was perfectly right in sending off Branislav Ivanovic for denying Ashley Young a goalscoring opportunity. While it may appear that the contact was accidental, Clattenburg was following the last-defender rule and had little choice but to send the Serbian defender off.
The sending-off of Fernando Torres proved more controversial. Clattenburg had earlier booked Torres for his kung-fu kick on Tom Cleverley, a tackle Gary Neville argued could have received a straight red.
The referee then showed him a second yellow for simulation when he went down under a tackle by Jonny Evans. Replays showed that the United defender had made contact with the Spanish striker, and that the booking for simulation was harsh, to say the least.
The two-man advantage finally allowed United to regain the control they had lost to Chelsea in the middle third of the game.
In response to Ivanovic's red card, Ferguson sent on Javier Hernandez, with Wayne Rooney moving into midfield beside Michael Carrick. The change seemed inspired, as Chicharito scored the all-important winning goal after a shot from Robin van Persie was turned on to the post by Petr Cech.
However, there was controversy with the winner, as well. Replays showed Chicharito coming back from a clearly offside position in the buildup to the goal. The assistant referee, however, failed to spot this, and the goal stood.
The last 15 minutes for United thus ended up being an exercise in retaining possession and quietly finishing the job.
Ferguson Rewarded for His Brave Tactics and Substitution
Sir Alex Ferguson marshals his players from the touchline at Stamford Bridge
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At the end of the day, Chelsea fans have every right to feel aggrieved by the cruel luck which negated their stirring comeback.
However, it was also a case of Manchester United being rewarded for the tactical bravery and the proactive strategy of Sir Alex Ferguson.
To begin with, many (including this writer) suspected that Fergie would start in the diamond formation to contain the fabulous Chelsea trio of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar.
However, Sir Alex recognized Chelsea's susceptibility to pace and their vulnerability to overloads on the wing and went for the more conventional 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1.
He also relied on a high work-rate and tactical discipline from his players, especially Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young (who was just returning from an eight-week injury break) to ensure United stayed compact and did not get overrun in midfield.
This brave decision got instant rewards, as United scored two early goals to peg back Chelsea.
Sir Alex was also proactive in his substitutions. As soon as Branislav Ivanovic was sent off, he sent on Javier Hernandez for Tom Cleverley. Most managers would have stuck with the same formation after the sending off, relying on the man advantage to create chances.
However, Ferguson realized Chicharito's pace and movement would trouble a 10-man Chelsea even more and his attacking instincts yielded dividends when the Mexican striker scored the winning goal (albeit from an offside position).
Ferguson's pro-activeness was also visible on 74 minutes, when the score was still 2-2. Realizing that Rooney was on a yellow card and getting frustrated over his defensive work in central midfield, he replaced the United talisman with Ryan Giggs.
It was a realization that United would create chances against Chelsea, so long as they retained their two-man advantage.
At the end of the day, everything that was good about United's play was a reward for Ferguson's brave forward thinking.
There will be a lot of discussion about the refereeing performance and Chelsea's rotten luck.
But credit should also go to Sir Alex Ferguson, who showed yet again at the age of 70, that there is no one better in the English game at making changes to his team on the fly.