Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Reds Show Much-Needed Solidity to Claim Draw

Christopher AtkinsContributor IOctober 26, 2014

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 26:  Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United competes with Gary Cahill of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Chelsea at Old Trafford on October 26, 2014 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The post-match headlines from Manchester United's Sunday 1-1 draw with Chelsea are dominated by the events of the final minutes, when Robin van Persie struck to equalise shortly after Branislav Ivanovic saw red for the Blues.

However, for United manager Louis van Gaal, his side's improvement as a defensive unit against the best side in the Premier League thus far this season will have been incredibly pleasing.

The Red Devils have shown defensive frailties on a regular basis this season as they adapt to their new manager's plans for the side. Injuries, also, have been a regular complication. Yet, despite once again changing their back four—on this occasion in the absence of Phil Jones—United looked as solid as they have at any time in the campaign.

It was not a perfect display. Eden Hazard danced through the lines on a couple of occasions, Ivanovic could have had a penalty after some indiscreet grappling from Chris Smalling, while Rafael against Didier Drogba was always set to be a mismatch from corners. However, given the quality of opponent, it was a major improvement.

Smalling was excellent on his first start in over a month and seemed to work well with partner Marcos Rojo. Rafael continued his solid form of recent weeks and was as tenacious as ever, while Luke Shaw was much improved at both ends of the pitch against the side who released him as a kid. There were many positives.

Luke Shaw played his best game in a United shirt
Luke Shaw played his best game in a United shirtMichael Regan/Getty Images

Much of the increased stability in defence, though, can be attributed to the role of those in midfield. Daley Blind has been a stable presence since his summer arrival, but it was Marouane Fellaini who stood out on this occasion.

Fellaini has endured a topsy-turvy 15 months at Manchester United, with his first season disappointing, given his familiarity with the methods of David Moyes. Against Chelsea, though, he was destructive in midfield and a threat in attack, largely nullifying the threat of Cesc Fabregas.

Per Squawka statistics, Fellaini was successful with three of his four attempted tackles, won 60 per cent of his attempted headers and managed three shots on goal—including the attempt that led to Van Persie's late equaliser. He may now have finally found a suitable role at Old Trafford, but he needs to repeat such a performance on a regular basis.

Van Gaal has used a 4-2-3-1 system over the past couple of fixtures, partnering Blind with first Ander Herrera and now Fellaini. While issues remained against West Brom during the system's first outing, the extra midfield protection it should offer was visible on this occasion.

The return of Wayne Rooney and Radamel Falcao, though, may see a return to a system that can incorporate two strikers. However, it would be a major surprise if United were to make another major change ahead of their visit to neighbours City on Sunday.

Hazard was a thorn in the United side for long periods
Hazard was a thorn in the United side for long periodsAlex Livesey/Getty Images

Given that the Red Devils are yet to win an away fixture this campaign, that clash will perhaps be a greater test of the core strength they showed against Chelsea. Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas and Oscar are terrific midfielders, and the challenge will continue against the likes of Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and David Silva at Eastlands.

Van Gaal has admitted that the Old Trafford job is taking longer to resolve than he had expected, but in spite of the club's league position, there has been significant progress since the start of the campaign. Consistency is now the key.

The draw with Chelsea will be a major confidence boost ahead of coming challenges and help restore belief at the club. Van Gaal will know that there is still work to do in defensive areas, but Sunday's fixture was a significant step in the right direction for the club. The challenge is now to build upon that showing.