United’s early pressure
To start the game, United were very aggressive with their pressure and created a fast and intense game. From the front, United pressured high and in numbers to cover Chelsea’s forward options, surround the ball to prevent switches, and sustained pressure to win the ball.
They were even more aggressive in their pressuring of Hazard and Morata when receiving the ball with back to play—going through the back of them, fouling, and making sure they made contact with them to try to put them off their game.
Tight and aggressive pressure had caused Hazard problems in the past where it limited his offensive game, but his role in this game, along with past experience, allowed him the freedom to find solutions to influence the game—free to move into midfield and wide to receive the ball, making it difficult for United to constantly pressure, foul, or mark him out of the game. Morata, however, has had some problems maintaining his composure when the opposition are forceful against him, where he isn’t able to win free kicks and can concede free kicks through his own reactions to regain the ball.
United were able sustain their pressure to the sides early on in the game, preventing Chelsea from switching to the far side in order to make use of the spare men to advance.
With the ball, United would play up the wings. Long and early passes up the wings gave opportunities for Rashford and Lukaku to chase the ball down, put pressure on the central defender moving wide, and win throw-ins high up.
On the right, United could also make use of the dribbling of Mkhitaryan and Matic, and one-touch play from throw-ins to pass the ball inside to Lukaku. The first time Lukaku received the ball here he turned and played it out wide to Young, who moved the ball onto his right foot and crossed it into the box for Rashford’s chance. The second time Lukaku could turn quickly on the edge of the box, losing Christensen and shooting around Azpilicueta to force Courtois into a good save—strong hands from the goalkeeper to push the ball away from any potential rebound.
Chelsea breaking pressure
The difference for Chelsea in this game compared to the previous meetings (home and away) was the switch to three midfielders, which benefited the team especially during broken play, but also during build-up from deep through switches. In the past United had managed to force Chelsea down predictable passing routes, such as forward on the same side to the dropping Hazard or Pedro into zones of pressure, where they could regain the ball, counter, and cause Chelsea to lose confidence in their short building.
With the extra man deep, United’s plan to apply continuous pressure on the ball in wide areas and also close down Fabregas and Bakayoko in the center of the pitch was unsustainable. In the moments when the pressure lagged, Chelsea took advantage by finding the spare man and quickly advancing into United’s half.
Chelsea usually broke the press through Fàbregas, who could find the wide central defender advancing free on the outside or use the run on the outside to have space on the ball himself. For example, the first time Chelsea broke the press, he used Azpilicueta to carry the ball forward on the outside of him, before receiving the ball back to play out to Alonso—which resulted in Jones putting the ball in his own net.
In the following situation, Cahill could take the ball all the way up into United’s half, before finding Alonso on the outside. As Chelsea then attacked in the final third, Hazard could hold the ball against pressure, draw multiple defenders towards him and then either draw fouls or switch to Azpilicueta advancing into space on the right.
Another key player in breaking the press was Christensen, especially when United attempted to counter. When United won the ball, they would play long and forward quickly to wide runners (Lukaku and Rashford) or behind Chelsea’s defence—where they would look to win throw-ins, free kicks, or corners. But Christensen was able to win the ball often in these situations, and then have the composure to hold the ball and either start the attack and allow another player to clear the ball out of pressure.
In the following situation, Christensen broke through Lukaku’s pressing by using his body shape to show for the pass back to Courtois, waiting until Lukaku took the bait, and then finding Cahill free on the outside through the passing lane that Lukaku’s movement freed up. After a few more passes, Christensen then found Fabregas on the outside, where Chelsea could use their typical movement where Azpilicueta would run ahead of Fabregas to open space for him (2v1 against Matic) to face and play forward. As they then approached the box after Fabregas’s pass, Bakayoko would have a chance from the cross.
Bakayoko would continue to cause problems throughout that game with his runs behind United’s midfield off the ball, where Morata was sometimes able to find him after some strong holdup play. Even if he didn’t get the ball, Bakayoko’s runs created problems for United’s defence, including on Chelsea’s goal.
Twenty minutes prior to the actual goal, Chelsea already tried the typical Azpilicueta pass, starting with a quickly taken free kick to find the open space for Azpilicueta to advance on the outside of Matic (2v1 again) and then put in his cross for Morata, with Bakayoko making the outside run.
The breakthrough goal came after Chelsea shifted United to the left through possession, before switching to Azpilicueta advancing forward on the right. As above, Jones was once again drawn forward to him, but was too far away to actually pressure the ball, while Bakayoko’s run behind Jones drew Smalling away from the middle. Since Bailly was holding back to cover Alonso joining the box on the far side, Morata was left free in the middle.
After conceding, United changed their approach through substitutions. They switched to a back four, with Jones, who was already on a yellow card, getting replaced by Fellaini, who would be used as a target man for long balls and crosses, as well as Martial replacing Mkhitaryan.
Chelsea switched to playing long from Courtois after taking the lead, which would prevent United from having the opportunity to press them high, but also allow United to win the ball in their half to start attacks. United had numbers back to win the ball, width from the fullbacks to escape Chelsea’s attempts of pressure from the front, and circulated the ball before advancing up the wing or finding a spare man to play the long ball forward to Fellaini joining the box—where he could win the first ball to lay off to a teammate or shoot himself. Martial and Rashford were always supporting him to compete for the second ball, with both fullbacks moving up high, and both Matic and Herrera being aggressive from behind to sustain attacks and pressure on the ball.
In response to United’s changes in attack, Chelsea brought Rudiger on for Zappacosta (moving Azpilicueta up to wing-back) to give them more strength in the air to deal with long balls, crosses, and marking Fellaini during set pieces—except the first corner, where Smalling used Fellaini and Rudiger to block Cahill, prompting Rudiger to react quickly, switch over and follow Smalling’s run. Rudiger’s intensity aided Chelsea when defending wide, and he also won or blocked balls around the box, including on the shot by Fellaini which was saved by Courtois.
Although Chelsea sacrificed their short building and possession to control the game with the ball (after United’s changes), they were still able to create a number chances to stretch their lead.
With Fellaini back to compete for the ball in the air from Chelsea’s long goal kicks, he could find himself involved with the ball at his feet, after United had recovered it, where Chelsea were able to win it from him—such as the Bakayoko chance. Furthermore, a few times when he received to feet in midfield or around his box, he would lose the ball and let Chelsea in for a quick attack—he was back early from injury, so that could’ve been a factor.
Chelsea were also able to attack and win free kicks from United’s long goal kicks, often by winning and heading the ball directly to Morata with his back to goal and behind United’s midfielders. Upon receiving, Morata would turn quickly (either into space or past pressure from behind) and aggressively take on United’s backline with dribbling and power.
Later in the match, the final changes made by Chelsea were to see the game out, with Drinkwater replacing Fabregas (extra defensive energy) and Willian on for Hazard. The latter also had Conte switch formation to four midfielders ahead of the backline (541) to aid wide defending, particularly since United had brought on Lingard for Young at left back.
United tried to disturb Chelsea’s attacking players with their early aggression and cause similar problems as they had in the previous game. With Chelsea’s switch to 352, however, they had the numbers to find spaces wide of United’s midfielders through switches, and free up Hazard to receive the ball and influence the game.
United’s changes after conceding caused some problems on Chelsea’s goal, requiring blocks and a save by Courtois, but Chelsea’s changes gave them the extra support required at the back to see the game out, while continuing to create chances.