Manchester United and Chelsea battled to a score-less draw at Old Trafford.
Louis van Gaal recalled Wayne Rooney to lead the line, and changed his midfield duo with the inclusion of Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Mateo Darmian also returned from injury to start at left-back, pushing Daley Blind to centre-back, whereas Ashley Young featured on the right.
Guus Hiddink was forced into changes as well due to the suspension of Diego Costa, while Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao were also unavailable for selection. Therefore, Eden Hazard started upfront, John Obi Mikel protected the defence alongside Nemanja Matic, while Kurt Zouma provided mobility in a centre-back partnership with John Terry.
There were no surprises in regards to the overall pattern of the match prior to kick off. United lead the league in possession stats this season, whereas Chelsea were always likely to play on the counter especially without Costa leading the line.
With that being said, it was interesting to see how Chelsea would approach the match out of possession. Willian and Pedro were forced deeper to prevent Young and Darmian from creating overloads, whereas Oscar aided Hazard in pressing. At times, Oscar moved upfront to lead the line to give Hazard a rest – on the other hand, the United midfield received more time on the ball – whereas Oscar and Willian occasionally swapped positions to maintain energy levels.
United countered Oscar’s pressing by having both Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger drop behind the halfway line to receive possession before attempting to play long diagonals towards the flanks. Likewise, Mikel and Matic sat in front of a narrow back four, which inevitably left space for Juan Mata and Herrera to drift into when Oscar and Hazard were pressing in United’s half.
Chelsea were fortunate not to concede in the opening 20 minutes, but their overall approach – despite its structural flaws – was rarely tested because of United’s limited penetration in the final third.
Clumsy possession out the back
Interestingly, Chelsea constantly found themselves in trouble when they attempted to play out the back. Perhaps this was Hiddink’s ploy to build attacks without Costa, but here, Chelsea were simply sloppy in possession.
Oscar was forced into a last-ditch tackle on Herrera after being dispossessed in his own half. Then, Mata intercepted Courtois’ attempt to find Cesar Azpilicueta, but the Spaniard’s cross to an unmarked Rooney was cleared by Zouma. Also in the second half, there was a sequence that witnessed Mikel fail to control a simple five-yard Zouma pass, thus resulting in a United corner kick.
United’s possession dominance led to a few nervy moments for the Blues, but they were equally placing United in key goal-scoring positions with their sloppy passing around the box.
United attack down the left
One of the main issues preventing United from enjoying a successful campaign thus far is their productivity in the final third. The lack of penetration through incisive passing and direct running resulted in a tedious attack that was aided by their determination to operate down the left.
United constantly aimed to take advantage of Branislav Ivanovic down the left, which was logical considering Martial operated in this zone. Though United’s initial chance stemmed from the right – Mata’s shot off the cross bar – Pedro and Azpilicueta adequately closed down Young’s crossing, whereas Mata drifted centrally throughout.
On paper, Martial against Ivanovic favoured the Frenchman, but the United youngster struggled to impose himself against the Serbian. Chelsea appeared susceptible down this flank in the opening stages with Darmian surging forward, and Martial hitting the post, but the Serbian fared well in 1v1 battles with the Frenchman.
Nevertheless, intelligent movement and positive combinations still witnessed United create their best chances down the left in the second half. Darmian moving infield provided Martial enough space to storm past Pedro to present Herrera with a golden opportunity that Courtois miraculously saved. While, substitute, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s cross in the latter stages of the second half should’ve resulted in a Rooney winner.
Martial didn’t thrive in his individual battle with Ivanovic, but United still exploited Chelsea’s frailty down this flank, creating their best goal-scoring opportunities.
However, Hiddink’s major decision involved Hazard playing upfront. The unavailability of the natural centre-forwards meant the Dutchman had to tinker in this area, and with United fielding two attack-minded full-backs, combined with Hazard’s past defensive issues on the flanks, it was logical to start the Belgian upfront.
Frankly, both Oscar or Pedro have experience playing in this role – the former operated as natural no.9 at the Emirates last year, whereas the latter charged behind opposing defences during his time at Barcelona. Hazard performed superbly at White Hart Lane earlier in the year, receiving the ball in various areas, but the issue behind his role upfront was that Chelsea were deprived a penalty box presence. The same applied here, as the Belgian was outmuscled off the ball by Chris Smalling and Daley Blind when he received the ball with his back to goal.
Still, the Belgian influenced an apathetic Chelsea midfield when he moved into deeper positions, however, suffering the most fouls throughout – the Belgian and Matic glided through challenges throughout to evade several challenges.
One move at the beginning of the second half epitomized his threat from deep – Hazard easily rolled Herrera and bypassed Schweinsteiger before playing in Pedro at the edge of the box, but De Gea made two outstanding saves to keep match goal-less. From open play, Chelsea’s attacking threat was scarce, but they were most dangerous when Hazard received the ball in the midfield zone.
Ultimately, Chelsea’s deep positioning and poor passing when they retained possession placed significant precedence on their counter-attacks. It was the evident attacking ploy for the Blues, but without any substantial build-up play, and sporadic set-pieces in dangerous areas, it appeared to be the away side’s sole goal source.
But where Chelsea usually countered with devastating efficiency under Mourinho, here, their counters appeared improvised. In the opening 20 minutes, both United centre-backs committed mistakes that enabled Hazard and Oscar to break towards the box, but both plays concluded with the former and Willian failing to provide Pedro with a final ball.
Essentially, the lack of a natural forward thwarted Chelsea’s counter-attacks. The likes of Pedro and Hazard are used to having forward offer diagonal runs for a final pass or to create space, but here, it led to poor decision-making from both men and the potential ball receiver. The duo was actually involved in a 2v2 break following the Belgian turning Schneiderlin near the half way line, but the entire play was halted as neither player made the correct run or pass.
As players tired, Chelsea’s threat on the counter decreased significantly, but they still squandered possibly the best chance of the game via this method of attack. Pedro was once again involved, as he swiftly stormed into United’s half – subsequent to a United corner – before playing in an unmarked Matic who motored into the box but fired his shot over the net.
The match followed a relatively similar pattern in the second half, however, Chelsea retreated deeper, their pressing decreased, and United received more time and space to turn possession dominance into goal scoring opportunities. Yet, apart from the two spurned aforementioned chances that stemmed from the left flank, United rarely tested the fatigued away side.
Perhaps a lack of rotation affected Chelsea here, as Ashley Young grew in prominence down the right with Pedro struggling to close the United full-back down, whereas Oscar and Hazard’s threat on the counter perished in the final 20 minutes. Herrera continued to charge into space space in the channels behind Mikel, and deserved a penalty on the opposite side of the box following a late last-ditch Azpilicueta tackle, while Blind received more time on the ball to play forward penetrative passes.
Chelsea’s shape was shockingly disjointed with Matic protecting Terry, and Mikel unaware of Herrera’s movement behind him. But with Rooney coming forward to link play, and not enough players in the box to attack the full-backs’ crosses, United’s attack remained blunt.
Oddly, Hiddink refrained from using all his substitutions despite fielding more than half of his XI against Watford two days prior. Ramires replaced Willian on the right, but where Pedro, Oscar and Hazard were evidently exhausted in the final 20 minutes, Hiddink was reluctant to summon his youngsters.
Van Gaal quickly reacted to Ramires’ introduction by introducing Borthwick-Jackson, and replacing Blind for Phil Jones. This saw Smalling push forward in the final 10 minutes, but the change was likely due to Blind’s fitness levels rather than a tactical shift, considering Chelsea’s threat was non-existent during these stages.
The United manager’s attempt to rescue the match saw Memphis Depay replace Mata, pushing Martial to the right. Nonetheless, the change proved futile, as Memphis rarely touched the ball, whereas Martial offered no threat on the right. It was peculiar to see Fellaini remain on the bench with United delivering multiple crosses into the box, along the Dutchman preferring not to utilize Martial’s pace against a nervy Chelsea back-line.
As expected, one day’s rest provided a cautious battle between two underachieving Premier League sides, in which goal-keeping heroics and poor finishing proved decisive.
Chelsea were far from impressive, but with limited time on the training ground for Hiddink to employ his philosophy, combined with several first-team players unavailable, the interim Chelsea manager may be pleased with the result.
United, on the other hand, displayed improved dynamism and commitment in attacking areas, but the hosts’ susceptibility to counter-attacks, along with their limited penetration showcased one of the few issues under Van Gaal. A place in the top four remains attainable, but United must improve in both phases if they intend on achieving their target.