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Flaws in Chelsea system exposed by United in 3-2 loss

Shaun Botterill

I was all ready to do a long match analysis post regarding Chelsea versus Manchester United, but the events of the game itself rendered a serious analysis rather moot. Instead, I satisfied myself imagining* Mark Clattenburg being attacked by cobras raining down upon him from the heavens, which was a nice biblical punishment for that cluster[fun] of an officiating performance at Stamford Bridge.

*I don't actually want Mark Clattenburg to get hurt. Imagining cobra rain is cathartic. For best effect, make sure you turn the sound on in your head. And make sure he doesn't shout anything heroic like 'Then we shall fight in the shade!' because that just ruins the whole thing.

But the lack of a holistic match analysis doesn't mean there weren't individual aspects of the game that merited attention. We can, broadly speaking, break up the defeat into two main phases -- twenty of United dominance, forty from Chelsea and then red card mania as Clattenburg opted to ruin the whole thing.

From an analytical point of view/because I am a masochist, the most pressing concern is that first twenty minutes. The officials ruined the match, for sure, but without conceding twice very early on it would have ended up as a comfortable Chelsea victory with or without their intervention. So, since Match of the Day 2 mostly focused on the fact that one of our defenders has crazy fair and is foreign so must be incompetent, let's dig a little deeper.

This is literally the first thing I noticed from kickoff:

Fifteen seconds into the match, and Ashley Cole's about to pick up a long ball forward from John Obi Mikel twenty five yards into the Manchester United half. He's in line with Fernando Torres and the visitors' back line. He's wall ahead of both Oscar and Eden Hazard. Cole is basically playing as a left winger here.

Presumably the hope was to pin Rafael da Silva and Antonio Valencia back on that flank. I mean, I assume that there was some kind of plan involved here, otherwise it's even more lunatic than it looks. If there was a plan, though, it worked about as well as invading Venus with tanks built entirely out of butter.

Here's the second thing I noticed:

The most obvious issue here is David Luiz's error. He challenged Robin van Persie on an unwinnable ball and was therefore turned pretty easily, allowing the centre forward to drive into space. But that's not actually the major talking point. Notice instead the movement of Ashley Young. Ostensibly Manchester United's left winger, he'd moved into the centre as the ball came into van Persie's feet. The defence is set up properly here, however, so without a second mistake they were able to adequately cover for David Luiz and his odd challenge, forcing United into a shot from range.

And then the third:

Chelsea are in a back three. Their true centre backs are both deployed on the flanks, while Ramires has dropped deep to pick up the ball between them. This is compensating for the fullbacks both off playing silly wingers, but still leaves the Blues with problems distributing out of the defence (four at the back rather than three plus the pivot in the centre makes for more, easier passing options). A high press from United can and will get a team playing like this in trouble.

So, from the first three minutes of the match, we see three key factors: The fullbacks were deployed very, very high up the pitch on the attack. Chelsea were switching into a back three with one of the double pivot midfielders between the centre halves, who were pushed very wide to cover for the absence of the centre backs. And Manchester United's wingers were making runs into the centre.

The positioning of defensive players on the attack is not a problem in theory -- when Chelsea were on the defensive it was the standard two banks of four and using Oscar to harrass and harry United (see the second screencap, where the fullbacks were deep and able to cover for David Luiz's error). However, using fullbacks as auxiliary winger means that it's very easy to be caught on the transition, and if the ball is lost in midfield you're well and truly boned.

This sort of positioning was a feature of Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea. Centre backs too wide and therefore isolated, fullbacks over-committed, a game that relies on possession and cannot deal with fast breaks on the transition and is therefore superbly maladapted to the Premier League? Why did this seem like a good idea?

The depth of the error became obvious very quickly. Observe:

I'm not going to do a full analysis of the goals conceded, mostly because CareFreeChronicles already has (and you should read it). But here, a dangerous pass from Eden Hazard to Juan Mata turns into one of those midfield turnovers that we absolutely couldn't afford to give up, and that led to an impossible situation: David Luiz and Gary Cahill versus all three of Rooney, van Persie and Young at the same time. I'd expect United to score 50 to 70 percent of the time this happens, and there's nothing the two centre backs could have done about it.

The second goal wasn't the result of basic flaws in defensive shape -- three individual errors (Ashley Cole's the most egregious) saw Robin van Persie get free and score United's second. But the first goal was an issue with the system, exploiting some concerning flaws that were already extremely obvious in the short time before the opener.

So, why is this happening?

The most obvious answer is the selection of the third band. Oscar, Mata and Hazard all favour playing centrally, and although they're all comfortable on the wing the natural inclination is to attack right down the middle. That means the fullbacks have to be pushed up to compensate, leading to issues on the transition. United exploited that problem immediately here, and although Chelsea recovered magnificently, we have to look at that opening spell at the reason three points were dropped at Stamford Bridge.

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