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Chelsea vs. Manchester United, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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The #LVGout circus rolls into town on Sunday. Visitors to Stamford Bridge will be afforded a rare glimpse of an empire collapsing before their very eyes.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Season So Far

"Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack! Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack! Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!" [REPEAT AD INFINITUM]

Manchester United’s 2015-16 has been a long, hard slog for the fans: having dominated English football for a generation and spent unfathomable sums on several shiny, new players in the last few years, the Red Devils have a divine right to infinite success reasonable expectations of silverware in the short-term. However, reality works differently to theory and, if this season has proved anything at all, it’s that logic and the Premier League have had a rather acrimonious falling out and may never speak again.

Having assembled an incredibly expensive squad of attacking players and hired an out-and-out maverick as manager, United have somehow become a team of uniquely exasperating, utterly impotent mediocrity. While certain sections of the fanbase have been even more frustrating than the team – reacting to watching a merely ‘good’ side as though it were an affront to basic decency, or a denial of a human right – there is no denying that United have punched below their weight. How much of this is Louis Van Gaal’s fault – and let’s not forget that Van Gaal has committed the cardinal sin of Not Being Sir Alex Ferguson – is open to interpretation.

It seems more sensible not to blame Van Gaal for United’s problems and instead remember that this is a work in progress and a job of almost unprecedented difficulty. Additionally, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that simply spending a nine-figure sum on a new set of players is extremely unlikely to immediately produce the kind of success people who spend nine-figure sums on new sets of players want. However, modern football doesn’t work like that and so Van Gaal has been repeatedly sacked by the press and everyone’s solution to United’s problems is – surprise! – for them to go and spend another nine-figure sum on a brand new set of players.

The Season Ahead

"Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack! Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack! Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!" [REPEAT AD INFINITUM]

All but out of the title race and very much out of the Champions League, saving face is all that United can reasonably hope to achieve in the coming months. Winning the Europa League would likely be considered more of an insult than getting knocked out of the competition at the first opportunity, so expect all available resources to be dedicated to securing fourth place, winning the FA Cup and appeasing the fans by taking more risks in build-up phases of attacking play.

Then there’s the small matter of the manager’s position: it seems all but certain that Van Gaal will be binned at the end of the season, unless face is saved in the manner outlined above. The spectre of José Mourinho will continue to haunt Old Trafford until it’s impossible for him to get the job, and that’s a fact that Van Gaal will have to get used to very quickly. With the UK press doing all it can to oust him and secure more easy ‘Special One’-themed content opportunities, Van Gaal’s life isn’t going to be much fun.

Tactics

"Defend! Defend! Defend, defend, defend! Defend! Defend! Defend, defend, defend! Defend! Defend! Defend, defend, defend!" [REPEAT AD INFINITUM]

Even though Man Utd thought they were getting a kind of ‘Tomy® My First Barcelona/Bayern-Style Juggernaut’ kit when they hired Van Gaal, with all the associated 4-3-3, tiki-taka, gung-ho thrills, they’ve actually got a smart and astute tactician who quickly recognised that trying to play that way with Man Utd’s players would lead to undesirably frenetic contests likely to end in defeats.

That being the case, they’ve generally lined up in a more solid and safety-first 4-2-3-1, with occasional positional modifications or changes to player’s attacking movements depending on the opponent. The focus is always on dominating possession and controlling the game, rather than scoring goals.

While this seems rather paradoxical, there’s method in the madness: Van Gaal famously believes that playing well leads to a high number of goals, rather than a high number of goals being a signifier of a team playing well. This contrasts markedly with the beliefs of the greatest manager of our time – that guy who recently signed with Manchester City and who is on record as saying that playing well leads to a high number of goals, rather than a high number of goals being a signifier of a team playing well. …what’s that? … Oh.

One of the fans’ understandable frustrations has been with Van Gaal’s positional tinkering: right-backs have played at left-back for long spells, left-wingers at right-back, second strikers in midfield, actual strikers on the wing… you get the picture. As annoying as it undeniably is, however, to be expected from the man who turned Bastian Schweinsteiger from an inconsistent winger into one of the best anchormen in the world, to give just one example.

With all the criticism of Man Utd’s attacking tactics this season, it’s been easy to overlook the fact that Van Gaal has created a remarkably sturdy unit. What the oft-cited "Man Utd have only scored once in the last 11 first halves at Old Trafford" fact didn’t say was that they didn’t concede in any of those games either.

This is obviously admirable and shows that the base for a great team is being created, but it ignores the obvious problems that 1. most supporters would choose to watch a team that scores four per game and concedes four instead of one which doesn’t score any or concede any either and 2. no-one cares if the base for a great team is being created if it means they don’t get to watch one right now.

Strengths

Their most obvious strength is their ability to hold the ball: 56% is the Premier League’s highest average possession figure and their (sterile) domination allows them to protect themselves and limit the opposition’s scoring chances without retreating into their half and hunkering down to weather a storm – a rare quality which most great teams of the modern era have strived for.

Indeed, only Man City have allowed fewer shots on goal this season and only four teams’ keepers have had to make fewer saves than Man Utd’s. The keepers used this season have largely excelled: 75.6% is the division’s sixth highest save percentage. In short: unless they do something stupid like try to outplay Arsenal at the Emirates, you probably won’t get many chances to score and you probably won’t be able to take the ones you do get.

They also have very high levels of organisation and aggression. Their defensive shape is usually exemplary and they make a high number of tackles, interceptions and fouls for a team that sees so much of the ball. Surprisingly, they actually make more fouls than any other Premier League team, which shows how hard they work to win the ball back when they lose it.

While it hasn’t been seen in great quantities of late, this is a squad full of players who can produce moments of individual brilliance and turn a game in an instant. Chelsea would be stupid if they pretended otherwise.

Weaknesses

As the world and his wife is well aware, Man Utd’s attack is beyond blunt: 81 shots on target all season is the Premier League’s 5th lowest figure, with a bang average 9% conversion rate on top of that. Their build-up play is slow and ponderous and their opponents usually have the easiest job in the world, dropping back to defend their box and then pouring forward on the counter.

At the other end, despite their impressive defensive figures, the perception exists that they have something of a glass jaw due to individual weaknesses, a lack of recovery pace throughout the defensive unit and players being used out of position. Simply put, it’s a good thing Ashley Young’s injured, otherwise Eden Hazard, Oscar and/or Willian would’ve made mincemeat out of him. That said, United are still going to have to contend with Diego Costa trampling Daley Blind half to death if and when the opportunity comes.

There’s also something in the popular idea that Man Utd’s strict adherence to their system comes at a cost: their defending well means they don’t score because their best attacking players don’t have the freedom to express themselves; when they loosen up and go gung-ho, they end up wide open and overrun (their defeats at Leicester last season and at Arsenal and Wolfsburg this time around are usually held up as solid evidence for this).

Likely XIs

Both managers seem to have stumbled across settled cores of late but both have made changes around those cores. It seems sensible to expect more of the same here.

This writer has a sneaking suspicion that Van Gaal would take a draw and will use a very defensive double-pivot with Fellaini as the uber-defensive second striker to get it. As for Chelsea, Eden Hazard could make a return at Oscar’s expense. The rest of the team picks itself.

MNUCHE

Prediction

A surprisingly dramatic 1-1.