Chelsea's 2-1 win over Manchester United was one of the more exciting games we've played in recent memory, although it wasn't particularly compelling from a tactical standpoint. The two teams lined up broadly as 4-4-2, with United on the verge of becoming a 4-2-3-1 for most of the match and Chelsea more traditionally shaped. After the win over FC Copenhagen, which saw the first deployment of the Chelsea flat 4-4-2 in some time, the consensus was that the formation worked wonders against the rather rusty-looking Danes but might fall apart if faced with a stronger team, who could take advantage of the weak centre. Common consensus, it seems, was wrong. Why?
The midfield battle was contested by Michael Essien and Frank Lampard for Chelsea and Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick for Manchester United, but things were made much more interesting by Wayne Rooney's free role in between Chelsea's lines. Essien did his best to drop a little deeper to pick the England forward up, but that left Lampard, who didn't have a great game and is hardly a commanding presence anyway, alone in the centre. The compromise was Ramires coming infield, which gave Patrice Evra the freedom to link up with Nani on the United left, leaving them doubled up against Branislav Ivanovic.
Darren Fletcher was deployed in an interesting position, playing a strange version of right winger - he was mainly there to peg Ashley Cole back with the vast majority of United's play coming through Evra and Nani. He did have a major impact though, more or less stopping Cole from going forward, which left John O'Shea in an individual battle with Florent Malouda, which went pretty poorly for the Chelsea man. At the other end of the pitch, Javier Hernandez found himself up against the combination of John Terry and David Luiz, and the young striker's impact was as a result minimal. His presence, however, forced Chelsea to play a very high line, opening up the space that Rooney exploited so well.
Carlo Ancelotti commented before the match that the 4-4-2 could sacrifice possession for quicker play, but in the first half we didn't see much 'quicker play,' first ten minutes aside. Neither Fernando Torres nor Nicolas Anelka was seeing very much of the ball, which meant Chelsea as an attacking force were rather non-existent. They weren't great in open play in the second half (the 54th minute equaliser), either, but they were much better when Didier Drogba and Yuri Zhirkov came on in the second, primarily because of Drogba's ability to give them an outlet in the air. Not one of the starting centre forwards on either team managed to win an aerial battle, according to the Guardian's chalkboards.
Let's look at the passing now. I'd imagine Chelsea didn't do particularly well here - we didn't have that much of the ball for most of the match.
Figure 3: Individual passing for Chelsea and Manchester United, 3/1/11. Powered by Tableau.
Nope. Michael Essien did a cracking job, but Carrick and Scholes held possession significantly better than Chelsea's midfield. Of course, that wasn't what the Blues were really going for - their most dangerous play came on surging runs from the wingers, especially Ramires, whose failure to keep Evra from advancing upfield was slightly mitigated by Evra subsequently being out of position. When your wide players are providing most of the threat from their runs, the team isn't going to look very good at passing.
Jumping back to the team passing again, it's amazing to me how both sides got much worse at completing passes as time went on. Normally you see one side seizing control in a match and a corresponding bump in pass accuracy, but here we simply see a steady downward slope from both Chelsea and United as the game became more and more frenetic.
Anyway, the 4-4-2 didn't really help us that much, and United were able to exploit our shape a little to free up space for their more explosive attackers. We won the game through what appeared to be sheer bloody-mindedness, never really dominating possession but throwing bodies forward like mad to try to get the equalising and winning goals. I wouldn't come anywhere close to saying that the tactics got Chelsea their win (a 4-3-3 would have nullified Rooney and kept Evra/Nani from doubling up on Ivanovic) - to me it looked more like they simply worked harder than they have done in the past few months to ensure the win, outplaying their opponents one on one in the second half.