Manchester United went into this game with a well publicised run of four consecutive losses, and needed a boost, not only to keep them in and amongst the front runners in the Premiership, but to take some pressure off of their manager. Chelsea’s poor first half of the season had cost Mourinho his job, and now the team look to rebuild their campaign under Hiddink. As the team sheets were revealed, we saw that Chelsea had no recognised striker in the squad, with Costa suspended and Remy & Falcao not fit, but the new Blues boss gave nothing much away pre-game. He hinted about the attacking players in his team having freedom in movement and a ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the system, although we assumed Hazard would start the most advanced. United re-called captain Rooney to the starting line-up, as he had an impact from the bench in the last game.
Both teams fielded variants of a 4-2-3-1 formation. Chelsea brought in Zouma for an injured Cahill, and Mikel came in where Fabregas would have taken up position alongside Matic. Willian and Pedro occupied wide positions, with Oscar behind Hazard centrally. United pushed Rooney into a forward role, with Martial out wide on the left and Mata on the right (although he didn’t really stay there). Schweinsteiger came back after his suspension to partner Schneiderlin in the middle, with Darmian and Young as full-backs. Herrera was the one who was put into the number 10 role behind Rooney. Depay and Fellaini were the main two that Van Gaal could look to on the bench to come on if needed and impact the game, and Hiddink was even more limited – with Ramires the most experienced dice to role.
Early United pressure
From the kick-off, Man United started the much brighter team, and it was pretty clear they wanted to make an impression with more urgency – you could tell that it wasn’t an ordinary game for them. The first major chance came via a nice pass inside from Rooney to Mata on the right, no one was tight enough to Mata who got a shot away that smashed into the frame of the goal and away to safety. From that, Martial had his first exchange with Darmian on the opposite wing, which lead to a cross and eventually out for a corner. The pressure was broken up slightly by a Chelsea attack, when Blind slipped and Hazard got a cross in – strangely enough it was Young being the only United man in the middle to stop it reaching Pedro, who was in acres of space coming in at the back post. From the resulting corner, De Gea made a fantastic reaction save to deny Terry scoring a powerful header. United’s aerial defence from balls into their area was questionable all game, although Chelsea never really took advantage of this, and on this occasion it was Rooney who was closest to Terry, but never matching his run.
Chelsea didn’t make it a priority to close down the United players in their half, which allowed time and space to players on the ball. Blind carried it over the halfway-line on one occasion as Hazard and Oscar stood and watched, the ball eventually was worked out to Young on the right in an advanced position. Possibly more dangerously, Chelsea neglected to mark Schweinsteiger and/or Schneiderlin on several occasions, allowing them space to operate. This in turn meant that they had the option and freedom to bring more players into play – notably the wide men (pic below). Rooney was dropping deep at times, as he does, to try and get involved with the play more, but this drew him into Matic and Mikel’s territory. United’s main threat appeared to be down the left hand side with Martial and Darmian on the wing. A comparison we can make here is with what we saw in Arsenal’s win over Manchester City a few days ago. Koscielny would come out of defence with the ball, and look to play it in to Ozil along the floor, who would get between the lines and drift out to the left to receive it. In tonight’s case, Blind came forward slightly, and played the ball into Rooney who came deep between the lines, but was followed by Zouma. United weren’t really allowed to dictate any meaningful attacks from this central area (which may have been different if it was Fabregas instead of Mikel there), although they were allowed to use this area to spread the play out wide from. Ozil had space to operate in that and find a more direct route to goal, as Toure had offered this by not tracking back, whereas Mikel and Matic were more defensive minded and spatially aware. However, just after Blind’s ball into Rooney was returned to him, the Dutchman came forward again and found the much more penetrative route down the outside left to Darmian, who had space open up by Martial’s clever run inside.
This match-up between Martial & Darmian against Ivanovic was proving problematic for the visitors, and sure enough on 16 minutes Martial was able to cut inside past the Chelsea full-back and drill at shot in which hit the inside of the near post. It was created by Rooney and Herrera managing to exchange passes neatly just outside Chelsea’s penalty area. Although they again don’t penetrate through the middle, Herrera manages to work the ball wide from a central area to Martial, who has a little bit more space due to Ivanovic tucking in and watching the play in the middle (pic below). Mata and Rooney continued to come deeper between the lines to try and receive the ball in space, where they could turn and try to create chances, but it still looked like their main threat was from wide. Chelsea appeared all to happy to let United have possession and wander over the halfway-line, without being able to keep the ball in United’s half themselves. On the occasions that they did get forward, red shirts would pressure them or a sloppy pass would mean losing possession. Hiddink’s attackers never really got enough men around the ball in dangerous areas to make their system work going forward – they didn’t have the fluidity or impact that the home team showed. The first half an hour or so, in particular, was encouraging for Man United fans to see their team operating with more energy, movement and intent going forward than seen in recent weeks.
The tempo slowed a bit before half time, although there were still occasional chances for either side to break. Martial again showed his effectiveness on the ball, squaring up Mikel as he knocked the ball past and drew a booking for the Chelsea midfielder. Pedro also had the chance to counter for the visitors, as Azpilicueta had stormed through the middle hoping for a pass, but Young made a very good tackle to thwart any opportunity on goal. Chelsea were often forced to play it long from defence, and due to the lack of having any real height or target man in attack, they weren’t too successful. Hazard attempted to come deep to try and pick up the ball instead. Both teams were guilty of losing the ball in the opposing half though, due to poor passes or congested areas. Zouma was intent on keeping an eye on Rooney, as we saw on 38 minutes when he followed him way out of his defensive line to track him again. Hazard looked lively at times, turning in his own half to start a counter-attack on one occasion – giving a two-on-two chance – but this broke down in the end with another poor short pass.
A common theme throughout the game was the inability, from both sides, to deliver a good set-piece. Blind was responsible for poor corner-taking, and Willian was unusually bad at putting free-kicks into the box – over-hit on several occasions. The main threat from wide positions throughout both sides came from United’s full-backs Darmian and Young, as well as Marital’s dribbling. But again, with no real target man this wasn’t really an effective route into the box. Young was unable to have the same impact as Darmian and Martial on the other side, mainly because Azpilicueta was much more adept at his defending than Ivanovic. On the times when Young was able to get to the byline or in a good crossing position, he doesn’t seem to be able to pick out a person in the box – he just tries to fire it into an area (or not, as the case may be). Wide routes of attack were an obvious gameplan for United and, although they couldn’t find a goal, it was clear that the width helped them play a lot better than in previous games this season. It also highlighted how much more effective Martial is when coming in from the left wing as opposed to playing through the middle. He was a perfect example today of why United are looking for that incisiveness in the final third – something Martial can provide from taking on defenders at an angle – and not just floating lots of crosses into the box. The ‘use of width’ doesn’t just mean having the ball out wide – it encompasses the stretching of the opposition defence to your advantage, the angles it opens up to cut the ball back to late runners, or the chances it creates to square up defenders and run into the box. Width doesn’t have to simply imply crosses. Also, as we saw in the first half, United had to do a fair bit of work in central areas at times to engineer good opportunities from wide – either through overlaps or space for Martial to turn and face Ivanovic with the ball.
Hazard had a pretty good game, although most of his good work was done closer to the half-way line. He started the second half with a run through the middle, cutting Man United open, and feeding the ball through to Pedro who pulled a good save out of De Gea. Hazard’s quality was there to see, but he was relatively ineffectual for large parts of the game because there was no-one in-front of him and no real runners around him. To play the Belgian in that position really does mean that you are taking away a goalscorer from the team – that role of striker is negated. Chelsea’s best chance fell to Matic just after the 60 minute mark. Herrera missed a header in the attacking third and Chelsea completely caught United open as they had the perfect chance to counter. Pedro came over the halfway-line on the right and played in Matic who had a clean run through at goal, but he blazed his shot way over the bar to let United off the hook. Just before that, Herrera had a chance to give the home side the lead when Martial again got down the left to the byline and slid the ball across the six-yard box, where Herrera was there to side foot it towards goal. However, Courtois showed his worth by managing to scramble across and block it fantastically with his body to prevent the tap-in goal.
United displayed good movement and fluidity in the final third in the second half, Mata was showing for the ball and rotating well with other around him, demonstrating good urgency and energy to create chances. Darmian was still getting forward down the left and linking up with Martial, who squared it to Rooney on one occasion as he managed to play it to Mata who had a penalty claim waved away. Borthwick-Jackson came on for Darmian and continued to exploit that left wing, notably near the end of the game, when Herrera played a nice back-heel into Jackson’s overlapping run who was able to whip in a fantastic delivery to Rooney at the back post, but the United striker put it over. It came about through good hold up by Herrera, and poor tracking by Ramires (who had come on for Willian) to just let the United full-back run beyond him. Rooney could be criticised by some for his poor finishing and lack of attacking incisiveness, but his passing was praiseworthy and his overall performance was improved. His night was perhaps tainted in injury time as he left a nasty foot in on Oscar, and could possibly have seen a red card. Man United, in general, looked like they were a more determined side, and showed a lot of energy at the end of the game in winning the ball back and trying their best to carve out another chance. Despite the result, Van Gaal will be slightly more positive going into their next fixture against Swansea on Saturday and said after the game that his team deserved the win. Chelsea still languish in the bottom half of the table, but will probably be content with the point from Old Trafford. The match appeared to highlight their obvious need for a centre-forward, not only as a focal point up front, but to help give Hazard more options on the ball when trying to create attacks. Costa should offer this when he comes back from suspension on the weekend against Palace.