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Premier League Tactical Analysis Preview: Chelsea vs Manchester United

Premier League 2018/19 Tactical Preview: Manchester United vs Chelsea

As the Premier League season comes to a close, the third and fourth place is still up for grabs. This tactical analysis preview will look to explain the intricacies between Manchester United and Chelsea.

Whilst the Premier League crown surely belongs to Liverpool or Manchester City, the race for third and fourth are yet to be decided with Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal all still alive in the race for a place in next seasons Champions League.

All four teams have struggled for consistency throughout the season as we’ve seen with Manchester United under José Mourinho and later Ole Gunnar Solskjær or Arsenal’s rollercoaster form.

English Premier League table as of 25/04/2019. [Credit: Google]
As the table can attest, three points separate both Manchester United and Chelsea. The Red Devils are sixth behind Arsenal. Manchester United needed a win against their arch-rivals Manchester City but failed to deliver. That ended a disastrous week after being humiliated by Everton on Sunday.

Chelsea have had a dramatic few weeks with Maurizio Sarri seemingly redeeming himself with wins against West Ham and Brighton in the Premier League. He has also guided Chelsea to the Europa League semi-finals after a 5-3 aggregate victory over Slavia Prague. A loss to Liverpool two weeks ago overshadowed a positive run but were not expected to stop a rampant Liverpool. Last week’s match against Burnley was an opportunity squandered for Chelsea to take third. Sarri may never admit it, but he has adapted and changed his approach.

Not only has he altered his tactics and tweaked his system he has brought about personnel changes that have been long awaited. The Italian coach finally delivered on his promise of playing the young Chelsea stars by starting Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in recent weeks. Andreas Christensen has also seen more play time and the trio even started a game together for the first time.

The two academy products have been on the fringes of Chelsea’s first team with Loftus-Cheek dealing with a niggling back injury keeping him out of the side. After proving his fitness, the English midfielder is finally showing the promise he displayed at Crystal Palace last season.

Hudson-Odoi’s inclusion is one many fans were hoping for earlier in the campaign after inconsistent displays by Willian and Pedro calling for the inclusion of the dynamic English winger. Sarri was wary of blooding in the youngster too soon after not being fully convinced of his defensive side but has now started the last four Premier League games including the important clash at Anfield.

This tactical analysis preview will discuss the qualities both Manchester United and Chelsea will bring to the tie. In this preview, we will look at the strengths and weaknesses of both clubs and how they can be exploited. Manchester United can exploit spaces in the half-spaces while Chelsea will look to control the midfield. Before we dive into the details, let us analyse how both teams will line up.

Team News

Manchester United

Manchester United only have a top-four place to play for and will look to play a full strength side on Sunday. Ole Gunnar Solskjær had to make adjustments for the doubleheader against Barcelona but should revert back to his tried and tested system knowing Chelsea should have more possession. Manchester United will look to play a more attacking line up with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford teaming up once again in attack. I would expect a 4-3-3 formation from Solskjær to match up against Chelsea’s own 4-3-3.

After a string of positive performances, Scott McTominay may get another start in midfield in trying to help stifle Chelsea’s dynamic midfield and possibly man-mark Eden Hazard. The electrifying Belgian winger has terrorised defences around Europe and playing Nemanja Matić might expose a leaky defensive unit.

Expected Lineup: De Gea; Young, Smalling, Lindelöf, Shaw; Matić, Pogba, Fred; Rashford, Martial, Lukaku


The Blues are the verge of salvaging their rollercoaster season by being in the mix for a top-four place as well as booking themselves a place in the semi-finals of the Europa League. Having won the European competition in 2013, Chelsea are no strangers to the demands of juggling European competition and the Premier League towards the end of the season. A semi-final against Eintracht Frankfurt beckons but Chelsea will need to be solely focused on tackling the Manchester United sized hurdle first.

Maurizio Sarri seems to have found his preferred and most effective starting eleven that consists of a mixture of young and experienced players. Callum Hudson-Odoi has finally been given an opportunity to impress in the first team with a string of starts as has Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The England midfielder has moved up the pecking order over Ross Barkley in Sarri’s three-man midfield. N’Golo Kanté is an injury doubt and could miss out. Mateo Kovačić could come into the mix to replace the French midfielder.

‘Rüdiger is okay. We are trying to recover Kanté but I am not sure at the moment.’ – Maurizio Sarri

The only position up for grabs is the striker. Olivier Giroud and Gonzalo Higuaín have both been unproductive in front of goal this season. Giroud’s 10th goal of the Europa League is the competitions highest. Giroud would expect to start given his understanding and link up play with Chelsea’s wingers especially Eden Hazard. The French striker may not score too many but plays a hand in a majority of Chelsea’s goals. Gonzalo Higuaín’s goal on Monday would have boosted his confidence but Giroud looks the likelier option.

Expected Lineup: Kepa; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Christensen, Emerson; Jorginho, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Kovačić; Hazard, Giroud, Willian

Exploiting Chelsea’s half-spaces

Manchester United’s success has traditionally come through their marauding full-backs and wingers. Since the days of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs, Manchester United have been synonymous with playing wide. However, Manchester United have seen their style of play change since the introduction of Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho Ole Gunnar Solskjær has brought back an old school feel to the club.

An emphasis on the full-backs has returned. Luke Shaw and Ashley Young are seen galloping down the flank in every game. Combined with the dynamism of Rashford, Lingard or Martial, the full-backs can create diversions and allow United’s attacking players to thrive in the channels.

Chelsea have been relatively poor in transition. With Jorginho at the base of midfield, they lack the mobility to adequately control their defensive midfield area out of possession. The Italian midfielder is an excellent passer and tempo controller but doesn’t possess the defensive discipline to compete. For the way Manchester United play, one of their strikers will drop in to create an overload with the full-back against the opposition full-back.

Whether it results in a run in behind or an inward pass, Manchester United have been able to pull players out of position with their scintillating pace. This puts the nearest centre-back in a conundrum to whether he moves to help his full-back or stays. This leaves an open gap in behind for Manchester United’s second striker to occupy.

Mohamed Salah looks to cut inside with the help of Jordan Henderson who removed Loftus-Cheek from the equation. [Credit: Wyscout]
Space opens up for Salah as Jorginho reacts too slowly to his movement. [Credit: Wyscout]
Liverpool took advantage of the uncertainty amongst the Chelsea ranks. As Mohammed Salah receives the ball, he is one on one against Emerson Palmieri. The supporting run from Jordan Henderson pulls Ruben Loftus-Cheek away, whilst Jorginho is too slow in reacting to Mohammed Salah’s run.

Salah’s goal was an example of exposing the half-spaces with Jorginho being the deepest midfielder. N’Golo Kanté playing away from his preferred position gives Chelsea less protection.

Luke Shaw and Ashley Young have been fairly consistent with Shaw standing out as a regular top performer for the Manchester club. The England international has been one of United’s most threatening attacking forces with his overlapping runs and off the ball movement causing defenders to struggle. Shaw averages 1.79 dribbles per game but matches that with a 78.8% success rate showing his determination and willingness to get forward.

Luke Shaw’s average season statistics. [Credit: Wyscout]
There have been a number of examples where Shaw’s pace and overlapping have benefited Manchester United. This caused the opposition defence to reshuffle leaving spaces for other attackers.

Luke Shaw starts to drive forward with Anthony Martial on the overlap. [Credit: Wyscout]
Shaw interchanges passes with Martial and occupies the empty space. [Credit: Wyscout]
Here against Wolves, Luke Shaw looks to run towards the opposition full-back and looks to create a give-and-go situation with Anthony Martial. The oncoming midfielder looks to dispossess Shaw but fails to tackle him. Martial looked to release Shaw in behind with a quick through-ball. The England left-back pulls it back looking for Rashford. Even though they weren’t quite successful here, Shaw’s movement posed problems for the Wolves pulling Romain Saïss out of position giving Marcus Rashford space to run into.

Luke Shaw pulls the ball towards Marcus Rashford who finds space. [Credit: Wyscout]
Chelsea will have to be wary of this, seeing as they have been caught out before with some poor positional play. The pace Marcus Rashford brings to Manchester United does not only make them a dangerous counter-attacking proposition but also creates space in behind Chelsea’s high defensive line to exploit. Paul Pogba, in particular, is known for his box to box abilities and has a knack of being at the right place at the right time.

Ander Herrera finds himself in acres of space with Rashford being marked by Marcos Alonso. [Credit: Wyscout]
Herrera’s run is undetected by Alonso and is allowed a free run into the area. [Credit: Wyscout]
[Credit: Wyscout]
This above example exemplifies the effect Marcus Rashford can have on the Red Devils. Against Chelsea in the F.A cup, Manchester United look to switch play from left to right with Marcus Rashford the last man being marked by Marcos Alonso. The Spanish left-back looks afraid of losing his marker that he hasn’t noticed the run of Ander Herrera behind him. However, the run should have been tracked by Chelsea’s defensive midfielder on the night – Jorginho – Herrera’s perfectly timed run was met by a perfect cross.

The Hazard effect

While it goes without saying but Eden Hazard will be the main threat for Chelsea. Manchester United will need no extra invitation to know the quality possessed by Hazard and what damage can be inflicted by the Belgian wizard.

Manchester United struggled to deal with the pace of Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Leroy Sane on Wednesday. Every Manchester City attack saw Manchester United put extra bodies in the penalty area to create a low compact block.

Eden Hazard is having a productive season with double figures in both the assists and goals column in the Premier League. He has 19 goals in all competitions with 13 assists (16 goals coming in the Premier League). This season has seen an increase in the number of goals and his overall contribution to Chelsea.

The introduction of Maurizio Sarri’s new system has aided in this regard. The winger has been partially relieved of his defensive duties having been allowed to focus on creating chances further forward. His 2.6 shots per game in the 2018/19 season is higher than last season’s 2.1. Under Sarri, Hazard has been more involved with play and presence of Olivier Giroud who has been able to link up well with the winger.

While Gonzalo Higuain may be a more traditional number nine, Giroud has shown more promise with Chelsea’s wingers allowing them space and time with his intelligence around the penalty area.

Where does he do his best work?

The diminutive Belgian wizard does his best work coming in off the left flank. He draws in defenders, two at a time given his quality, and attempts to cut inside. He works his way towards the opposition penalty area to either take a shot or play a teammate in.

In either scenario, Hazard baits defenders into making a tackle winning a free kick or dancing his way past them with ease. A certain goal against West Ham a short while ago springs to mind where he glided his way through a sea of red and white shirts to score a goal Lionel Messi would be proud of.

Eden Hazard draws in Southampton’s defenders allowing Alonso to run into the empty space [Credit: Wyscout]
Hazard draws the third defender allowing Morata a free run into the area. [Credit: Wyscout]
Alvaro Morata is now in a one v one situation and slots home [Credit: Wyscout]
After Chelsea’s midfield looks to pass between themselves, Hazard receives the ball and draws in two defenders. He plays a pass into Marcos Alonso and looks to run beyond his two markers.

This sets him up on to one of his common inside channel runs across goal. Hazard’s run additionally draws in the only defender marking Alvaro Morata who makes a darting towards goal. Spotted by Hazard, he plays a deft pass towards the Spanish striker who finishes without question.

The answer?

For Manchester United, keeping the Belgian wizard quiet will be fundamental to their chances of victory. Many teams have attempted to man-mark Eden Hazard in the past and have been successful. However, it requires 90 minutes of concentration and discipline. José Mourinho successfully masterminded a plan to nullify the Belgian. Tasking Ander Herrera with the job of man-marking Hazard.

Keeping the star man quiet could open the opportunity for Chelsea’s new rising star, Callum Hudson-Odoi a chance to rise to the occasion and become the inevitable replacement for Eden Hazard. The young winger has been the main outlet for Chelsea in recent weeks but an Achilles injury against Burnley has ruled Hudson-Odoi out for the season.

Ashley Young at right-back should intice Eden Hazard to attack at will. The United right-back has seen his form dip drastically over the last month. He was especially poor in the two outings against Barcelona in the Champions League a fortnight ago. Having lost possession 30 times and unsuccessfully delivered 11 crosses summed up his form.

Battle of the midfielders

The major battles will come in midfield where both teams will look to dominate. The F.A Cup match earlier in the season showed the ability Manchester United have to inflict real damage to Chelsea’s often frail midfield. But, several months later the inclusion of Ruben Loftus-Cheek has brought about a layer of strength and power to midfield. During that match Manchester United looked to press Chelsea’s midfielders – Jorginho specifically – as they looked to dispossess the Italian playmaker high up the pitch and release the forwards.

Nemanja Matić looks to close down Jorginho as he advances. [Credit: Wyscout]
Matić’s success pressing sets Manchester United on a counter-attack, releasing Marcus Rashford. [Credit: Wyscout]
Here in the F.A Cup, Manchester United allowed Chelsea possession of the ball and looked to press them using their three central midfielders. In this example, Nemanja Matić looks to dispossess Jorginho with ease as Paul Pogba comes to aid the counter-attack. Marcus Rashford is now isolated with Alonso in a one versus one situation with a favourable advantage.

Chelsea are caught wrong-footed and are now exposed to United’s pace. [Credit: Wyscout]
Scott McTominay’s recent rise has seen him become a starter. Matić, who has looked a shadow of his former self has been underwhelming. Alongside Fred and Paul Pogba, McTominay will look to press and stop Chelsea from playing their natural game.

Giving Jorginho time on the ball will allow him to pick out the front three of Chelsea with pinpoint accuracy. The likes of Giroud and Hazard in tandem thrive on such deliveries and could cause a problem to a Manchester United defensive line that leaked six goals last week without reply.

A new beginning

Chelsea’s midfield has gone through minor surgery since the F.A Cup meeting with Manchester United. The midfield three on the night was a combination of Jorginho, Kanté, and Kovačić. It has since evolved with the return to fitness of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The England international has surpassed Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovačić in Sarri’s pecking order and has started regularly alongside the two aforementioned midfielders.

Loftus-Cheek’s presence in midfield brings about a different tactical profile which Chelsea have greatly benefited from. The combination of power, pace and athleticism has given Chelsea much needed strength when powering towards the opposition penalty area.

The centre-backs often resort to Hollywood passes into midfield when playing out to Jorginho is not an option. Loftus-Cheek’s strength to win these long balls puts Chelsea in the ascension. Having played at left midfield for Crystal Palace last season, he gained experience playing in tight spaces against higher quality opposition for the majority of his tenure.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek battles with Fabinho in midfield. [Credit: Wyscout]
Winning the strength battle, Loftus-Cheek now has two options ahead of him. [Credit: Wyscout]
This example highlights Loftus-Cheek’s power. Loftus-Cheek looks to outmuscles Fabinho attempting to drive forward with Willian and Eden Hazard ahead of him. The match against Liverpool had Chelsea playing a different brand of football with lower possession and more counter-attacking.

Against other opposition, Sarri prefers ball domination with purpose. He wants to drive forward with runners in transition creating passing lanes for Jorginho. Ruben Loftus-Cheek gives Chelsea another dynamic in attack by dropping deep and being able to run towards the penalty area.

Tipping point

With the fight for top four intensifying with only a handful of matches left to play, both Chelsea and Manchester United will need three points to take them one step closer to qualifying for the Champions League.

After Tottenham Hotspur narrowly beat Brighton in midweek, both teams need to keep pace. Chelsea have the opportunity of winning the Europa League but face a tough task in beating Eintracht Frankfurt. A potential final against Arsenal or Valencia awaits if they pass the German side. The Blues will want to prioritise a top-four finish over relying on a European cup win.

Sound familiar? The Blues went onto to win the Champions League in 2012 after finishing sixth in the league. Given the disastrous week for Manchester United will need to produce a special performance against Chelsea. Based on recent form Chelsea will be considered slight favourites. A narrow 2-1 victory for the Blues with Eden Hazard and Olivier Giroud amongst the goals is the prediction here from TFA.


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