From an analysis standpoint, Sunday's game between Manchester United and Chelsea was simply fascinating. The first half of the game was dominated by United, who went into the break with a 2-goal lead that probably should have been larger. The second half was an absolute onslaught from Chelsea, and was probably the best half of football that the club has played this year.
So how did such an abysmal looking start turn into a game that Chelsea were unlucky not to win? Credit really has to go to Rafa Benitez here, for making a simple adjustment that many have been asking for over the last several months.
During the first half, Chelsea looked much like they have defensively under Benitez since he took over. They generally set up in banks, with the last line of defense playing narrow and deep. In the game's opening few minutes, there were a pair of instances captured by the broadcast that perfectly illustrate how we wanted to defend:
In the first, you can see that we've got three organized banks of defenders, with very little space between any of the lines:
There isn't really too much available to the United attack, and they wouldn't create anything close to threatning on this foray into Chelsea's half.
The second screen is one you've likely seen already today, as I used it to start the discussion about Javier Hernandez's goal:
This one ended up badly for Chelsea, but only after some issues with the Chelsea defense.
One of the main problems with Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole failing to move forward after the second cap is the space that gets opened up between the pivot and the defense. Teams that play very direct football have caused Chelsea loads of problems all year, and it's largely due to having too much space with which to work between the lines.
For an example of the space issue, we need to look no further than mere seconds after our first screen cap. The United attempt to get the ball forward would be easily cleared by the organized Chelsea defense, and end up with United regaining possession deep in their own end. Chelsea weren't pressing overly hard during the opening minutes, but they were picking up the opposition relatively high up the pitch:
Jonny Evans has recovered the ball, and has decided to play it ahead to Michael Carrick. Demba Ba has moved up the pitch to cut off easy passes back to Rio Ferdinand or David de Gea. juan Mata is racing up the pitch to join him. The next bank of the defense has also advanced into the United half, and can be seen in the next screen:
Here we have Carrick preparing to advance the ball to Tom Cleverley as Juan Mata closes him down. The next bank of the Chelsea defense sits basically even with Victor Moses, leaving little space between the lines for United to exploit.
Now Cleverley has the ball, and is looking to advance it:
Here's where the problem starts to be obvious. We can see all of Victor Moses, Frank Lampard, and Ramires in this screen. Oscar is hidden by the FA Cup logo in the upper left, but he would be visible in this capture if the score was not being shown. Cleverly sees something up the pitch, and he's making a pass between Ramires and Lampard. So what is it that he sees?
Well, Cleverley clearly saw an awful lot of open space. David Luiz would manage to get this ball because Hernandez did not come back to it, but just look at the massive amount of space between the Chelsea lines. if Hernandez gets to this ball, He's got both Kagawa and Rooney with about 15 yards of free space ahead of them, and Nani is running at the Chelsea back line as well. That wouldn't have been good...
For weeks, Chelsea have been a team caught between two minds. The attack and midfield try to pick up the ball early, and leave little space between those lines. The defense sits entirely too deep however, leaving acres of space in front of our last line of defense for the opposition to play balls into. Benitez wants the team to play compact, so something needs to be done about this.
While the early second half substitutions of Eden Hazard and John Obi Mikel for Moses and Lampard will be viewed by most as the biggest change Rafa made, even before their first touch Chelsea were playing notably different football.
Here we have United taking possession shortly after the break. Chelsea are now using two banks of three, and they have backed the pressure off on the opposition's center backs. What's more noticeable comes next though:
Notice that now, the Chelsea back four have kept a tight gap with the next bank of the defense. This is partially due to the midfielders playing a little deeper when United control the ball, but also partially due to the defense playing higher than they did in the first half.
With Chelsea playing far more compact, the relatively direct United attack struggled to sustain possession. As Chelsea spent more and more time in the attacking third, you'd see the second major change that Rafa made. Whenever Chelsea's attackers lost possession, you'd see them rush to close down any outlets and recover the ball immediately.
Alex Ferguson noted after the game that United appeared to tire in the second half, even though the Chelsea squad has had far more in the way of fixture congestion to deal with. Chelsea also have a fairly young squad though, and quite a few United players are getting a little long in the tooth. It would make sense that Chelsea would look a little better as the game wore on, making second half pressure that much more likely to be effective.
For pressure to be successful though, the defense has to remain compact. if there are easy outlets available to start the counter, an attempt to apply pressure could well lead to chances on the other end. Chelsea's center backs spent the second half of yesterday's game playing as high as I've ever seen them, as can be seen in the following screens:
This strategy worked wonders for Chelsea, as it played perfectly to the strengths of the squad. Chelsea's squad is one of the most gifted on the planet in tight spaces, and shrinking the field plays right into their hands. David Luiz does a fantastic job of challenging for balls that are in front of him, and a high line allows him more opportunities to do so.
The press also makes Chelsea's attack look far more dangerous, as often times the opposition is caught out of position when the Chelsea players nick the ball back quickly. With players like Hazard, Mata, and Oscar on the pitch, turnovers in the opposition third are just deadly.
From day one, Benitez has been talking about the importance of Chelsea playing compact, and he's absolutely correct on that issue. He's struggled to make that happen though, without blunting his attack to do so. During the second half on Sunday, he finally appeared to get the balance right. Now we just need to hope he continues it.