After taking maximum points from their first two league games, Chelsea headed into Old Trafford knowing that they didn't need to play catch-up. As a result, Jose Mourinho would have been more than pleased with the 0-0 draw against Manchester United, despite the manner by which the team drew -- although the Blues created nothing, they stifled the defending champions on their own turf, and were especially effective at keeping Robin van Persie at bay.
That said, there was plenty to examine, both in terms of how the team set up and how the plan was executed on the pitch. Let's dig in.
#1: David de Gea (GK), #3: Patrice Evra (LB), #4: Phil Jones (RB), #5: Rio Ferdinand (CB), #10: Wayne Rooney (CF), #15: Nemanja Vidic (CB), #16: Michael Carrick (CM), #19: Danny Welbeck (LM), #20: Robin van Persie (CF), #23: Tom Cleverley (CM), #25 Antonio Valenia (RM).
#1: Petr Cech (GK), #2 Branislav Ivanovic (RB), #3 Ashley Cole (LB), #7 Ramires (CM), #8 Frank Lampard (CM), #11 Oscar (CAM), #14 Andre Schurrle (CF), #15 Kevin de Bruyne (RM), #17 Eden Hazard (LM), #24 Gary Cahill (CB), #26 John Terry (CB).
The big story, so far as personnel decisions go, was the choice to use new signing Andre Schurrle up front. Selecting the Bayer Leverkusen man rather than a 'true' centre forward brought cries of 'false nine' and '4-6-0' from observers, and Mourinho added fuel to those flames with his pre-match comments:
I go for mobility. I want to try to win the game. I do not come with a defensive team despite not playing with one of my strikers. But instead of playing with one target man, I play with four attacking players and they are willing to try to create problems.
If that was the plan, it failed. Schurrle settled into a role as a rather ineffective spearhead in a 4-2-3-1, chasing balls over the top in a first half that paralleled Demba Ba's against Aston Villa (sans offsides, of course). This was no fluid, interchanging front four.
Apart from the surprise selection at striker, Chelsea lined up in fairly standard fashion. Without David Luiz, the defence was unchanged. Ashley Cole started at left back, John Terry and Gary Cahill were partnered in the middle, and Branislav Ivanovic took over at right back.
The midfield was also fairly typical. Ramires and Frank Lampard had started in both previous matches, and they retained their places at Old Trafford. Juan Mata was dropped after a disappointing 60 minutes against Aston Villa. Replacing him was young Belgian Kevin de Bruyne, leaving Chelsea with the same attacking trio that started against Hull, with Eden Hazard on the left, Oscar in the centre and de Bruyne on the right. It was more static than usual, because the interchange leaves open spaces that cannot be allowed against a team of United's calibre, but it was still a creative, potent attacking force.
Manchester United, meanwhile, made one change from their opening day victory against Swansea City. It was, however, a major one, with Wayne Rooney coming in for Ryan Giggs. This was seen by many as a move to calm the transfer rumours down, which I suspect is severely over-inflating the importance of said rumours to football clubs. A better explanation is that Rooney's a far more dangerous player than Giggs, and that using him as a number ten would give Robin van Persie further support as the Dutchman looked to breech Chelsea's rearguard.
The hosts were lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 hybrid, and their pivot was just as improbable as Chelsea's -- Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick were the ones tasked with shielding the defence. Not that it needed too much shielding, as Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand flanked by Patrice Evra and Phil Jones formed a rather robust back line. Completing the set were Danny Welbeck on the left wing and Antonio Valencia on the right.
United made no changes to their formation during the match. Because he'd started with Rooney, David Moyes didn't have much in the way of impact substitutes available to him and he ended up making a pair of like-for-like switches in the second half, pulling off Valencia and Welback for Ashley Young and Ryan Giggs respectively.
Mourinho had far more available to him off the Chelsea bench, but by the time he got around to using it, Chelsea had more or less decided to settle for a draw. Fernando Torres was brought on for de Bruyne on the hour mark, which pushed Schurrle to the right wing, and the Blues shifted to a 4-3-3 when the German was replaced by John Obi Mikel with three minutes to go, with Oscar moving to a wide forward position. Cesar Azpilicueta's introduction was purely a timewasting move.
None of the changes from either side -- with the possible exception of Torres, if we're feeling generous -- was designed to cause the other problems.
It's difficult to find a side that would favour a possession-based game against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Barcelona would, one suspects, and the new-look Bayern Munich would also presumably give it a go, but those are the only teams in world football who wouldn't take an essentially conservative approach for an away game against United.
Chelsea are a team that can play effectively on the counterattack. With Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Andre Schurrle all starting and Frank Lampard capable of quick balls to the flanks to release them, they simply needed Manchester United to push forward, open up some holes (especially behind Phil Jones and Patrice Evra), and pounce. It's a fairly basic idea, and it failed for two reasons.
The first and most obvious is that David Moyes also opted for a counterattacking game. United rarely came forward in numbers and only committed their pivot midfielders when Chelsea were tied up deep in their own half. It was surprisingly negative football, but it makes some sense when one considers just how top-heavy this United side is.
In Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley, Moyes had at his disposal a double pivot that can be expected to keep possession but runs into real difficulty when exposed. They also have the Premier League's best centre forward in Robin van Persie, which means that they require fewer players forward to be dangerous. Indeed, their most incisive attacking move involved only van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck rather than the whole supporting cast.
Although a home draw was a worse result for Manchester United than it was for Chelsea, a loss would have been far, far worse for the hosts, and the reward of potentially getting an extra two points by committing themselves to the attack wasn't worth the risk of giving Chelsea the space to break into, especially so early into Moyes' tenure as manager. Playing on the counterattack, then, was the optimal strategy for both teams.
What happens when you get two sides whose goal is to absorb any pressure and push forward on the transition? Mostly long-range shots and a whole lot of nothing. If you're lucky, you might see an early set-piece goal force the losing side to actually do some attacking, but, with both teams' centre backs in fine form, that never looked particularly likely either.
The only possible outlet for goals was the Chelsea right. On the left, Eden Hazard and Antonio Valencia combined to essentially nullify the other. Valencia put in a fine shift defensively, winning six tackles as an ostensibly attacking player, and he can probably claim to have bested his opponent on the night, but he was so focused on dealing with Hazard that he never really manifested himself as an attacking threat in his own right.
On the other flank, it was the combination of Kevin de Bruyne and Branislav Ivanovic against Danny Welbeck and Patrice Evra. Welbeck was more inclined to move centrally than Valencia, which gave the Chelsea players more room to push up the pitch (which in turn meant Evra could attack Ivanovic with less interference). Neither side made particularly good use of that space, however -- de Bruyne was disappointing in a wide role, while Ivanovic marshalled Evra extremely well whenever the left back did come forward.
The other reason why Mourinho's counterattacking plan failed was because the players who would have been key in executing it had relatively poor games. The manager pointed this out after the match:
Our counter-attacks and passes, to go from defensive situations to attacking situations, was not the best. We had very creative players in attack, very fast players in attack, but the ball possession was not the best, we lost simple passes. There were a lot of mistakes. In those terms, we didn't give what we could or what we should.
This under-performance by the attacking midfield band has been a theme since about minute 25 of the opening day match against Hull City. Neither of Hazard and de Bruyne had outstanding games, and on several occasions their collective first touches to start the defence-attack transition were woeful. Not only did they lose simple passes, even when they did connect they forced their targets to break stride, killing any momentum they might have had going forward.
United played very tight, collapsing their lines as best they could and squeezing out the attacking midfielders, leaving Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley to pounce whenever there was a loose touch or a poor pass, which was altogether too often. The Chelsea attack, especially Oscar, only looked dangerous when United's lines were set and they could drive at them from deep. That's fine, but it's not exactly conducive to counterattacking football.
Would Juan Mata have helped? It's difficult to say. He's the slowest of the available attacking midfielders, has negligible defensive value and his rare off-games tend to come when Chelsea see less of the ball than their opposition. That said, Mourinho set up the side in a 4-4-1-1 off the ball, giving Oscar a free role defensively that Mata could easily have replicated, and it's not difficult to imagine his quality when in possession giving United more trouble than they had with the starters.
Andre Schurrle's selection as Chelsea's starting centre forward came as a major surprise. After all, he's not one of the three recognised strikers on the squad -- Fernando Torres and Demba Ba have both started up front for the Blues this season, and Romelu Lukaku has two substitute appearances there as well. There had been no indication prior to the match that Schurrle was in Mourinho's plans up top.
Although Schurrle has played the position before in Germany, he's hardly a natural fit to lead the line in England. His movement isn't as good as Ba's, he's neither as strong or as fast as Lukaku and he's never really played a false nine role like Torres did against Hull City. What was the motivation for this choice?
Aside from passing, the one thing that Schurrle can do better than and of our centre forwards is run with the ball. He's a very good dribbler, and that's the type of player United's centre backs have difficulty dealing with. If Schurrle had been able to pick up possession between the lines and drive at either Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand, Chelsea would have created more chances than they did.
But the Blues were never given enough space to execute that plan. That shouldn't come as a surprise, because against Chelsea United deliberately looked to lock down the space between the lines, as former coach Rene Meulensteen describes in the Independent:
You need to set up traps. You know the dangers come from the likes of Juan Mata in between the lines so don’t give them any space, defend half-sideways so you can step in front and then hit the spaces, get in behind them.
This led to United defending in two very tight bands of four, seriously restricting the space Schurrle had to play with. Without the ability to drop back and pick up possession, he began to drift left and right, seeming to prefer lateral movement to quick vertical penetration.
It was instructive to note just how disconnected Schurrle seemed from his midfield. As he tried to pull off sideways, the likes of Ramires and Lampard were hitting balls over the top that he was completely unprepared for. United's centre backs rarely had anything to do -- Schurrle wasn't making himself available in the right places. Even when he was in a position to attack the ball, his movement wasn't good enough to trouble either Vidic or Ferdinand, and the one time he was found by a long pass forward, he immediately played the ball back for no gain.
Schurrle's a wide forward by trade, and a very good one at that. But he's clearly not as comfortable starting in a central position and making runs into the channels as he is starting on the flanks and scything inside. Indeed, the only moment in which Schurrle looked at all dangerous came when he cut in from the Chelsea right, lost Patrice Evra and then hit the crossbar with a thumping shot. That he was offside means that the effort was struck from the official records, but the move itself is indicative of where Schurrle's strengths lie -- and they're not at centre forward.
That experiment lasted for an hour before Fernando Torres was introduced. In Torres' first match of the season, he played a fascinating false nine role. Here he was utilised as a more traditional centre forward, but although he had more of an impact on the match than Schurrle managed, it was still more or less insignificant. Torres ended the game with 19 touches and a well-off-target header.
That Torres was brought on was a curious decision, especially in light of the way United were set up defensively. Both teams were happy to play deep whenever the other was on the ball, which suggested that a disruptive player like Lukaku would have been a better solution if Mourinho had wanted to seriously trouble United's defence. What he was hoping to achieve with Torres is far less clear, unless he was simply injecting fresh legs with which to press the home side.
If Chelsea's choice of centre forward caused some bafflement, there was no such doubt surrounding Robin van Persie. Widely regarded as the most dangerous player in the Premier League, van Persie combines lethal finishing with excellent, deceptive movement, and is almost impossible to stop from causing havoc.
That Chelsea's defence managed to do just that is incredibly impressive. Equally incredibly, it's being more or less ignored. The last time van Persie registered zero shots on goal in a league match in which he played the full ninety minutes was on December 23rd, 2012 against Swansea City. He had only gone three league games without a shot on goal as a Manchester United player prior to Monday's game, and in each of those games he'd managed an assist. Never before had van Persie been shut down to this degree.
Chelsea coped with him by staying deep and tight, denying him the space to make those dangerous runs. When van Persie beat a man, someone was always there to sweep up, and Branislav Ivanovic in particular was excellent at coming inside and dealing with the problem if one of his defensive partners was in trouble.
Following van Persie meant letting other players have more time on the ball, which led to Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney having superficially good games, but neither is anything like as threatening as the Dutch striker and, aside from a wasted chance from the former in the 56th minute after being well fed by Rooney, neither popped up in anything approximating a dangerous position. Even while Chelsea were marking van Persie into oblivion, they weren't allowing him to drag open holes in the rest of the defence for others to exploit.
It's very difficult to beat John Terry and Gary Cahill in the air, and with Ivanovic also in the starting lineup, United found it nearly impossible to get crosses into Petr Cech's area (this was true of the Blues' attempts to find Andre Schurrle at the other end of the pitch as well). With their approach play thwarted by some superb covering, crosses failing to make any impact and dangerous set plays limited by disciplined defending, the hosts simply couldn't find a way through.
There was one avenue, however, that they failed to exploit. Last season in particular, Chelsea had issues with cutbacks and low crosses, and we know from Meulensteen that United were well aware of this problem:
There’s no point putting all these high balls in because they’re very strong in the air with John Terry, Gary Cahill and Petr Cech. Low, hard balls and cutbacks hurt Chelsea.
Why, then, didn't they try it?
The answer is that we were far better equipped to deal with cutbacks against United that we were last season -- or, indeed, in the match against Aston Villa, when Christian Benteke scored after a simple pass from Gabby Agbonlahor. Here, the wingers tracked back, helping force the player on the ball to simply drive a cross into the area rather than aim it, and the pivot players reacted very well to the possibility of a cutback, dropping very deep into the penalty area to form an impenetrable defensive wall.
Considering that neither Frank Lampard or Ramires is a true holding midfielder by any stretch of the imagination, their role in helping to keep United at bay was especially impressive (even if Lampard was perhaps a little fortunate not to be called for a handball blocking Tom Cleverley's shot). The defensive pressure forced the home side into taking shots from range rather than from inside the box, and that meant that Petr Cech had a relatively easy day.
Although Chelsea and Jose Mourinho have taken flack for their 'negativity' at Old Trafford from neutrals and supporters alike, this was not a game destined for a stalemate from the beginning. Schurrle starting up top did not make the lineup any more defensive than usual, and although it was clear that the manager was happy with the draw in the second half, the football wasn't negative.
The Blues lacked quality, however, as they tried to move the ball forward. Ramires was back to his usual aggressive self, which resulted in a vastly reduced pass completion rate, while Lampard's attempts to find the front four were regularly thwarted by poor control or a weak second pass. The football could certainly have been better, but much of that was was a result of poor execution rather than design.