Chelsea scraped a draw from the very bottom of the barrel against Manchester United on Sunday at Stamford Bridge, relying on a late Diego Costa equaliser to maintain manager Guus Hiddink’s unbeaten record during his second stint in charge of the Blues.
Jesse Lingard’s wonder-strike had given the Red Devils the lead midway through the second half, and it looked to be the goal that would decide matters. But Chelsea kept pushing, and Costa tapped home to level matters in the dying minutes.
Formations & Starting XIs
United Pressure, Positive Start
Similar to how they played against Derby County and Stoke City, Manchester United started like a freight train. Ever since the deplorable 1-0 loss at home to Southampton on Jan. 11, manager Louis van Gaal’s men have responded with positive performances that press the issue.
The Red Devils started attacks from the back with positive passes fed between the lines. Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard sat in sweet spots to collect them and turn. Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind were the men playing it out of the back line with pace and precision.
The construction of these quick attacks, in conjunction with some strong off-the-ball pressure, resulted in a dominant opening 25 minutes from United. Sky Sports clocked them at 71 percent possession across the first 13 minutes.
Frankly, Chelsea looked at a loss as to how to avoid the pressure early on. Hopeful punts forward for Diego Costa were rushed and inaccurate. Additionally, Chelsea turned the ball over frequently when trying to dribble out of danger.
Chelsea Recover, Light in Numbers
Eventually, the Blues did find their feet, with United’s frenetic approach simmering down after 25 minutes. You can’t play 90 minutes at that intensity without some gruelling summer training, and United didn’t experience that.
It was Nemanja Matic’s surge from deep that signalled a change in the tide of the game, with the Serbian beating Marouane Fellaini in a shoulder-to-shoulder tussle and carving out a chance to swing in a corner. Chelsea found their feet from there on, with a pattern to their approach play forming quickly.
Nominally the Blues’ wide players, Willian and Oscar sat in pockets of space between United’s lines and made themselves available to receive longer passes from the back. In particular, Willian was able to isolate Cameron Borthwick-Jackson—who had impressed from an attacking perspective in the first half hour—and run at him relentlessly to create chances. At one point, Willian literally sat him on his backside.
The problem, though, was the lack of numbers pushing forward to support the attacks. Chelsea only really ever attacked with four, and as a result they were outnumbered almost every time they pushed forward.
Two or three crosses from Willian caused the first real moments of chaos in the box, with David De Gea consequently coming into focus for all the right reasons, but the threat was...lacking, in truth.
Left-sided Combination Strikes
With a 15-minute rest under their belts courtesy of half-time, United started the second half with the same intensity and intent as the first. Three half-chances were carved out before the opener was netted—all coming courtesy of the Red Devils’ new-found left-sided combination play.
Against Derby and Stoke we saw the trio consisting of Martial, Juan Mata and Borthwick-Jackson really start to gain steam, and it was the source of Lingard’s goal on Sunday. The former two combined to create space for a CBJ low cross, and Lingard controlled it before swivelling and finishing in stunning fashion.
CBJ has now started four games in a row, and despite the rookie holes in his game, his consistent presence is benefiting United exponentially. They’ve lacked familiarity at full-back all season, and it has harmed their approach play—not since Luke Shaw’s injury have they been able to count on a “regular” at left-back or right-back—and Martial’s connection with CBJ has added a new element to United’s attack.
Chelsea Lack A Plan, Costa Bailout
Pressed for time and a goal behind, Chelsea threw everything forward late on as they sought an equaliser. Between the 80th and 90th minutes, Sky Sports registered their possession as an astonishing 93 percent.
The problem was their lack of any sort of plan or direction with the ball in the final third. Starting from deeper, the idea was clear: Release Costa over the top and into the channels. But against a packed defence, there didn’t seem to be a strategy.
The equaliser came, but it was fortuitous, to say the least. Fabregas’ dinked pass into a crowded penalty box fell to Costa by way of a slip from Blind, and after fumbling the first attempt to beat De Gea, the Spaniard succeeded at the second.
“We played a superb game until the last quarter,” Louis van Gaal lamented to Sky Sports’ live broadcast after the game. The Dutchman was rightly frustrated with his team’s inability to close the win out, opting to aimlessly punt the ball clear rather than try and regain a measure of control via possession. Seven percent possession—seven!—is absolutely ridiculous.
- Blind played well for 90-odd minutes, passing out brilliantly and standing up admirably to Costa, but the slip changes the perception of his contribution. Why he was charging out to intercept, though, is anyone’s guess.
- Chris Smalling did well in the channels against Costa, relishing the physical battle.
- Oscar looks awkward from the left. He had some nice patches where he influenced play, but they were largely a product of drifting inside.
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