Chelsea moved within touching distance of their first Premier League triumph in five years, with a narrow one-goal victory over Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho made two changes to the side that defeated QPR at Loftus Road introducing Kurt Zouma in midfield for Ramires, while Oscar returned to the XI to replace Willian.
With Phil Jones, Daley Blind, and Michael Carrick unavailable, Louis van Gaal made three changes to the side that comfortably defeated Manchester City. Paddy McNair and Luke Shaw slotted into the back-line, while Radamel Falcao started upfront, pushing Wayne Rooney into midfield.
This was a typical big game performance from a Jose Mourinho side – Chelsea were cautious, organized, and eager to pounce on the counter, before dropping deeper to preserve a result.
Chelsea’s lead at the top of the Premier League placed Mourinho with a significant decision regarding the Blues shape and approach in the opening half. Mourinho’s tactics in big games are rarely groundbreaking, and the decision to play a cautious, reactive game was unsurprising.
Mourinho instructed his men to drop into two banks of four with Zouma tracking Fellaini and Nemanja Matic pushing high on Wayne Rooney. Chelsea’s centre backs were rarely in severe danger due to Falcao’s determination to drop deep and link play – albeit not doing a great job connecting with his teammates.
Chelsea’s approach wasn’t entirely perfect, however, as Shaw found space down the left due to Oscar’s narrow position, whereas the two United centre backs were free to push into the home side’s half. While neither player would fear an opposing side based on their attacking qualities, Paddy McNair stepped forward on two occasions to earn a free-kick and force Thibaut Courtois into a key save, equally recording United’s first shot on target.
Cesar Azpilicueta was arguably Chelsea’s best player throughout, keeping tight on Mata when he remained near the touchline, whilst winning his individual battles against Antonio Valencia. There was no need for Chelsea to be adventurous and attempt to dominate the match, and their ability to maintain their compact shape frustrated United.
United down the left
However, despite Chelsea’s defensive solidity when United maintained possession, the away side located a flaw in Mourinho’s setup. With Oscar drifting infield from the flank, there was space available down the left for Shaw to storm into.
United’s best chance of the first half saw Shaw and Young overload Branislav Ivanovic, with the latter surging into half space and pulling back the ball for Rooney, who surprisingly curled his effort wide of the near post. Although Oscar remained wide for large portions of the match, Shaw’s threat was evident in the second.
Ramires was also introduced to cope with the England international’s threat from the left, but in terms of overall chances, Shaw served as United’s main threat. Shaw motored into advanced positions in the first half, and turned creator in the second, placing Angel di Maria and Falcao in great positions – the latter fired his effort off the post.
Here, both left backs were arguably the best performers – Azpilicueta played a pivotal role in stifling United’s threat down the left, whereas Shaw was a reliable attacking outlet.
Still, United’s dominance at Stamford Bridge was expected. They held 70% possession over 90 minutes, completing nearly 500 more passes than the league leaders. But apart from Shaw’s contribution from the left, United rarely tested Chelsea’s back-line.
With Blind and Carrick unavailable – particularly the latter – Van Gaal was deprived of penetration in deep areas. Where Carrick is keen on playing forward passes into pockets of space, both Herrera and Rooney facilitated horizontal/diagonal balls into wide areas.
Apart from simple lofted balls towards the flanks, Rooney’s short, long and forward passing is mediocre, whereas Herrera’s deep-lying role limited his overall impact. Rooney, though, was involved in one move in first half stoppage time that saw Young nod his dinked ball into the box towards Falcao, but Courtois was quick off his line to clear danger.
Fellaini attempted to replicate the role he played in United’s convincing derby win. The Belgian moved towards the left flank to avoid Zouma’s presence, retain possession, and create a 3v2 overload in wide areas. Likewise, while he comfortably towered over Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta at Old Trafford, the decision to isolate Ivanovic was odd – especially with the diminutive Azpilicueta on the opposite flank.
Zouma pestered Fellaini, preventing the Belgian from freely winning aerial duels to link play with his teammates, or score goals. With that being said, apart from retaining possession, United’s midfield trio was fairly limited, as penetrative passes and long direct balls into Fellaini were non-existent.
The pattern of the match was set from the opening whistle, and United’s territorial dominance meant Chelsea’s attacks were mainly in transition. Drogba’s inclusion in the XI deprived Chelsea of pace upfront, so the decision to maintain a solid shape, pounce on United mistakes and dart into space on the counter was logical.
First Mata’s poor cut back pass saw Oscar ignite a move that involved Hazard, Terry and Drogba, but the Brazilian’s final ball was intercepted. Then, Fabregas pounced on Falcao’s poor lay off pass, inspired another quick Chelsea break down the left, but David De Gea snatched Azpilicueta’s cross.
Chelsea’s reluctance to dominate possession led to laboured buildup and uninspiring passes, with majority of the Blues’ best moves involving Hazard. To no surprise, the Belgian scored the winner, following a similar template to Chelsea’s initial opportunities on the counter.
Terry dispossessed Falcao, who once again dropped deep in search of the ball, thus allowing Fabregas to find Oscar between the lines. The Brazilian’s improvised back heel connected with the onrushing Hazard, who stormed into the box to slide the ball past De Gea. It was a vintage Mourinho move executed to perfection, as the 38th minute goal served as the first shot on target of the match.
The goal itself decreased Chelsea’s intent to surge forward in the second half. Drogba should have doubled the Blues’ lead in the second half – a move that concluded with Hazard hitting the cross bar – yet, barring Hazard’s smooth slaloms into United’s half, Chelsea’s attacking threat was non-existent.
Van Gaal didn’t alter his side’s shape to chase a result, but he replaced Young and Mata for more direct options in Adnan Januzaj and Angel di Maria. Neither player troubled Chelsea with their pace, but Di Maria could have been used in a central role. Di Maria’s running in central positions would offer an additional source of penetration, opposed to the conservative passing that was displayed in central areas. His threat was highlighted shortly after Falcao hit the post, when he darted into left half-space to receive Shaw’s pass, but the Argentine was crowded out by Chelsea defenders.
Mourinho, on the other hand, made like-for-like personnel alterations, calling upon Ramires to replace Oscar, providing protection for Ivanovic but also a threat in transition. In the latter stages John Obi Mikel and Willian replaced Hazard and Fabregas, further highlighting Mourinho’s intent on preserving the lead.
The contrast in approaches was evident, and both managers were keen to highlight their reaction to their side’s display.
We prepared for it to be like this. It was the game we wanted and expected,” Mourinho said. “Wait for a mistake and score a goal. We were able to make their important players disappear. Nobody saw them. They were in our pockets.”
Van Gaal, equally expressed his disappointment in regards to United’s non-existent threat in the final third.
“We were not effective today, because we created a lot of chances in spite of the defensive organization of Chelsea – three in the first half to their zero. In the second half, we created eight chances and Chelsea three, so that’s unbelievably good,” Van Gaal said.
“We were the dominant team on the pitch but lost and, in football, the result is everything.”
In the end this was simple for Chelsea: they sat deep in two banks of four, limited Fellaini and United’s threat out wide, and quickly broke on the counter, eventually punishing one of many United mistakes in midfield. United are beginning to take shape, but once again, Mourinho’s defensive organization proved decisive.