Manchester United vs Chelsea: Scoring the Head to Head Battles
Full credit must go to both managers, who fielded teams designed to go out and win. Furthermore, after going three nil down in the first half, Villas-Boas started the second half with an even more attacking formation. No damage limitation there, and they rattled United.
Before any match like this, there is inevitable analysis and dissection of the likely head to heads. With Torres in woeful form since he joined Chelsea, the questions were: would he be in the team; and if so, what formation would there be?
These would also be exercising the minds of Sir Alex and his coaching team. In the past, United have often played a 4-5-1 against top teams but while there was a modified version on Sunday, as Rooney dropped deep as necessary, United basically set up as 4-4-2 with Chelsea 4-3-3.
In general, neither side plays man to man marking as a routine, nor either an outright zonal marking, but some patterns quickly emerged.
For much of the match it looked as if Meireles was tracking Rooney; Terry was certainly watching Chicharito; Jones and Evans shared Torres, as it turned out (with Smalling picking him up on the right as necessary); and on the flanks, each side matched up with a wide player in tandem with an attacking full-back and tag-teaming as required.
Midfield was fairly fluid and especially Mata who had clearly been given a free-ranging role, across the field, was Chelsea's most creative player. It was difficult to see what Lampard was doing other than becoming increasingly peripheral and that allowed both Anderson and Fletcher more freedom as the first half wore on.
This fluidity became pragmatic for Chelsea very early on, because of the pace and dynamism with which United started. Nani in particular was at the top of his form and while Hernandez was pretty much neutralised by Terry, the Portuguese together with Rooney and Young were largely allowed to play at will.
So, the key head to heads became:
Nani vs Cole; Young and Evra vs Bosingwa and Sturridge; Rooney vs Meireles; Evans/Jones vs Torres; Hernandez vs Terry; and - as a sideshow - Torres vs De Gea.
In the second half, the tactical switches and substitutions changed slightly with Sturridge switching to the left before he was eventually taken off after an unimpressive performance. Ramires took responsibility for Rooney and had about as little success as Meireles. Anelka looked dangerous every time he was on the ball and made the Chelsea goal with his first pass, splitting the defence.
Nani 9 Cole 5
Ashley Cole is still one of the top left backs in the world, but he will never have been given a more torrid time at any level. His disgraceful tackle on Hernandez towards the end, should have been red-carded and may have been born of frustration. He gives as much as any player but never got a look in from a player at the top of his form.
He ended up resembling a little puppy dog yapping at the heels of its master - an irritation but largely ineffectual. Time and time again Nani dribbled past him, through him or over him. This was the key battle of the afternoon.
Once again, Nani combined well with Smalling and he is a different player now that he shares defensive duties much more. They have struck up a good understanding which sometimes allows Smalling to overlap. They also pretty much neutralised any attacks from the left until Anelka came on but before Valencia replaced Smalling.
Nani beat Cole nine times in the match. His most telling contribution was when receiving a sweeping cross-field ball from Evans, Nani and Smalling were unmarked on the left. Cole decided to follow Smalling. Big Mistake! Nani slipped infield, past Juan Mata and volleyed a contender for goal of the season.
Young/Evra 8 Sturridge/Bosingwa 6
Perhaps the biggest factor in the match was the battles out wide. While Nani and Smalling (and later with Valencia) were giving Ashley Cole nightmares, Young and Evra combined perfectly on the left.
With Mata given a free-ranging role across midfield, the right sided players had less of a threat to deal with, except when Torres and later Anelka moved out to the left. Even then, Valencia was a revelation when he came on, looking increasingly as if he was born to be a wing-back. No doubt Sir Alex will keep that in mind if the injuries in defence continue - until Rafael is fit to return.
Sturridge was trailed by many pundits as one of the biggest threats. With Drogba still not fit and Malouda and Kalou out of favour, the ex Bolton loanee has taken his chance with both hands this season. He has shown what a prospect he is for England and rightly deserves the chance to prove himself at Chelsea at last.
But Sunday was not to be as easy. Young and Evra have struck up an intuitive understanding in a few short weeks, helped by Young's willingness and aptitude to cover and defend deep if necessary.
Both Sturridge and Bosingwa have real pace but not only was Evra able to keep up with the Chelsea attacker, he largely nullified his threat. Only once did he escape Evra's attentions, by moving well into the middle.
On the attack, the left sided United players not only left Sturridge standing but in general, each of them was able to beat Bosingwa who was, nevertheless, on two occasions able to win the ball in dangerous situations. Certainly Young got far fewer deadly crosses in.
Rooney 8 Meireles 5
If indeed it was Meireles' job to man-mark Rooney, he made a hopeless job of it. Time and again, the United player was able to find space to be pivotal to the attacks and either move in on goal or lay the ball off to his attacking colleagues. Even when Meireles was tight on Rooney, the latter was still able to receive or win the ball. There was certainly nobody within 10 yards of him when he scored.
It may be that Lampard was supposed to share these duties, but it certainly never looked that way and Frank is justifying those who say that too many players in the Chelsea team are aging.
Evans/Jones 7 Torres 8
If you leave out Torres' largely inept finishing, he had probably his best day as a Chelsea player, looked sharper and more incisive and gave the United defence a tough time. Playing as a lone striker, he was clearly shared between the two defenders as appropriate, with Evans taking the lion's share.
The two centre backs got the better of Torres in the air, throughout the match, with only one non-threatening exception. However, he did manage to split them completely to run onto Anelka's through ball and score; and also lost them later when he served up the 'miss of the century'. They'll have to be sharper next time and Torres just shaded it.
This takes nothing away from the strong contribution that both the United players made otherwise. Evans looks increasingly assured at the back and hit three superb long passes. Jones has already been compared to Duncan Edwards, had a couple of excellent shutouts on Torres and made the third goal pretty much on his own with a fifty yard run through the Chelsea defence.
Hernandez 4 Terry 6
While John Terry was pretty unimpressive, could have been sent off and put himself about in his inimical way, he had Hernandez in his pocket all match. It was no contest in the air and when the Mexican got away from his marker on the ground, he was usually offside. United could not have done worse if Berbatov had been up front and he would certainly have troubled the defence more.
With Ivanovic fairly invisible, the England captain was able to look out for other United players and was climbing all over Phil Jones while Smalling rose unmarked to head the first goal. Terry was desperately unlucky when his clearance ricocheted off Nani to Rooney for the third goal and frankly he was comfortably the best of a below par back four.
De Gea 8 Torres 6
Finally, as a sideshow, how often do these two Spanish internationals get the chance to play against each other?
With all the press coverage on the morning of the match, you could be forgiven for thinking De Gea would be nervous facing his hugely experienced fellow countryman. However, he showed no nerves whatsoever and had his best game so far for United.
He saved a couple of Torres efforts; could do nothing about the outrageously good chip for Chelsea's goal; but he spreads himself well and, despite being given the runaround for what should have been a second, who is to say that his presence had nothing to do with Torres fluffing the easiest chance he has had in his life?
Ferguson 8 Villas Boas 8
In conclusion, this was a wonderful exhibition of the Premier League at its best - and worst. Torres' gaffe and Rooney showing John Terry how to really make a hash of a penalty were delightful sideshows.
Both managers deserve equal credit for serving up an open and entertaining match. Sir Alex showed Chelsea how you can match youth, experience, pace and flair to tear any defence to shreds. Andre gave his Russian master what he craved since his arrival at Stamford Bridge - open, flowing, committed and attractive football.
In truth, neither manager deserved to lose. The Portuguese showing how different he is from his mentor, Jose Mourinho, by throwing on another striker for the second half, going all out to score and in the process providing the first unsettling jolt to the United juggernaut that any team has done this season.
With Manchester City and United oozing goals, Arsenal leaking them and Chelsea playing like this, we are in for a feast of football this season.
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