Premier League champions Manchester United travel to Chelsea on Sunday afternoon for what promises to be an encounter of huge significance for both sides in this season’s title race.
David Moyes’ men currently trail leaders Arsenal by a yawning gap of 11 points with now just 17 top-flight fixtures left to play this campaign, meaning that whatever small hope the Scot may still have of retaining the title in his debut season in charge of United could now hinge on getting a result at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, in the opposite dugout in West London this weekend will be Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho and with the Blues now just one point off the top, the self-styled Special One will stay on course for what would be a third Premier League title with the club by steering them to victory over United.
However, where will the match be won or lost on Sunday, how will the two teams line up at the Bridge and which players are likely to be the keys to victory in the capital?
Well, these are just some of the questions we will try to answer as we dissect the film from both clubs’ league campaigns so far.
Mou’s Regimented Front Four
Chelsea, as ever under Mourinho, will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation against United on Sunday, with just the identity of a handful of those players still open to debate ahead of the match.
However, Mourinho being Mourinho, it is not so much the names of the players, but more the shape of the team he sends out against the champions that as ever will hold the key to victory.
And in a match of this magnitude, it is how disciplined his four forward-minded players, supported by his two holding midfielders, are at all times when the team are attacking that will dictate how much pressure they can exert on the visitors.
However, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Portuguese tactician will have been working on this aspect of the team’s play all week at their Cobham training base to ensure that whenever the Blues are going forward on Sunday, whether that be via a normal attack or a counterattack, that his three playmakers and one striker are all disciplined enough to keep their shape and occupy the opposition's defence, while also being supported at all times by a pair of defensive midfielders.
And against Hull City in their previous league encounter, this was a constant feature of Chelsea’s attacking play (see images), and so expect more of the same on Sunday.
Touch-Tight Marking Across the Back Line
Equally, do not expect the Blues to be open at the back against United, who know they will need either luck, inspiration, or a mistake to help breach the watertight home defence this weekend.
However, as with their attacking players, Mourinho will have also been drilling his back four all week in the buildup to this huge fixture to ensure the Red Devils find it nigh on impossible to penetrate.
And as demonstrated in their 3-0 league win at West Ham United in November, Chelsea make it extremely hard for teams to get behind them by always defending in numbers, with each player detailed prematch to pick up a specific opponent (see images).
So expect nothing different at the Bridge on Sunday...
Januzaj or Kagawa in the Hole?
United’s manager faces something of a dilemma regarding the respective roles of Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa at Stamford Bridge this weekend.
Does Moyes elect to send his team out how they lined up in the second half against Swansea City at Old Trafford last Saturday, with Januzaj wide left and the Japanese playing in his more favoured role in the hole behind a lone frontman?
Or will the Scot instead opt to set the visitors up how they began that match with the Swans, with the Belgium-born starlet playing as the No. 10 and Kagawa instead stationed as a left winger?
As there can be no doubt whatsoever that when United switched to the former formation (see images), albeit to enable Januzaj to exploit Swansea right-back Angel Rangel’s first-half yellow card, the Red Devils carried a far greater threat going forward, as they scored twice in the opening 15 minutes of the second period.
The Water Carrier Steps Forward
Sunday’s encounter is likely to have many similarities to Chelsea’s home fixture with Liverpool last month, a contest that saw the West Londoners recover from the loss of an early goal to emerge as 2-1 winners, with both the hosts’ strikes also arriving in the first half.
And one of the keys to the Blues’ ability to get on top of a team that, like this Sunday, were comfortable in possession, neat passers, technically accomplished and lethal on the counterattack, was their domination of midfield.
In particular, this came about via David Luiz, who played as a holding midfielder against the Reds, with the Brazil international often stepping forward over the halfway line into unguarded spaces and then dictating play from there with either long or short-range passes to teammates (see image).
Now, whichever player takes on this role against United, whether that be Luiz, Ramires, Frank Lampard or even new signing Nemanja Matic, they will also need to grab hold of the game right from the off and drive Chelsea forward from their deep-lying role in front of the back four, as the Brazilian did so effectively against Liverpool.
Right Back to Basics
One particular area where United have been vulnerable this season has been at right back, where Moyes has utilised the likes of Chris Smalling, Rafael da Silva and Phil Jones, although with none especially convincing.
Now whichever of that trio does get the nod against Chelsea, with it likely to be Rafael, then they will need to ensure that they do not continually get dragged out wide towards the right-hand touchline to deal with the threat of Eden Hazard.
This will play straight into the home team’s hands by creating space between United’s right-back and right-sided centre-back, which the Blues will then look to exploit with one of their attack-minded players.
And this was a major issue for Moyes’ side to deal with when they entertained Stoke City in the league in October, with the visitors’ left winger, Marko Arnautovic, tormenting United’s right-back that day, Smalling, by constantly pulling the England international out of position, as was seen for the Potters’ opening goal from Peter Crouch (see images).
Consequently, if Antonio Valencia is selected to play wide right for United on Sunday, then the Ecuadorian will need to ensure he doubles up at all times with Rafael to ensure the diminutive, but quick-footed Belgian, does not create similar havoc at the Bridge.