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Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, FA Cup: Tactical Analysis

Kante’s goal takes Chelsea into the semifinal of the FA Cup

United’s aggressive pressing

In the opening stages of the match, United disturbed Chelsea’s possession by showing them wide before aggressively pressuring the forward passing options, along with maintaining a numerical advantage along the backline.

Rashford and Mkhitaryan would begin in positions either side of Luiz, before one of them would move in diagonally to apply pressure and block the pass to the central defender on that side. Pogba and Herrera would position themselves in areas around Kante and Matic to block forward passes to them, while Young and Valencia covered Chelsea’s wing-backs. After the pass from Luiz to an open wide central defender, the other player in United’s front two would move to block the pass back inside to Luiz and pressure the ball—the defender was thus forced into the choice of having to carry the ball past pressure or trying to hit an early ball forward.

This system allowed United to press with one less player (2v3) from the front, while not being at a disadvantage as Chelsea’s spare man (the other wide central defender) would be unreachable with the ball.

Upon the forward passes, United’s central midfielders would move towards the receiving player. The video below shows the first two times Cahill passes the ball up to Hazard, where he is immediately pressured by Jones from behind and Herrera providing additional support from the inside. Upon the first pass back to Cahill, United’s players move forward to close down the space around the ball and continue pressure on the ball—leading to Jones intercepting the pass and United having an opportunity to counter.

The aggressive manner in which United were competing for the ball inevitably resulted in the accumulation of a number fouls, but they effectively disturbed Chelsea’s possession.

Here’s a situation early where Chelsea find the forward pass to Willian, who’s moving towards the ball (with Hazard central). While he’s able to flick the ball first-time to Costa, he he is then immediately fouled by Rojo. Meanwhile, Pogba and Herrera both turn and move towards the ball upon the forward pass to provide support to the backline, while Jones is narrow and Smalling provides cover—maintaining a 4v3 numerical advantage.

Here Chelsea use a different approach in a similar situation, with Willian remaining wide in order to open the passing lane towards Costa, before moving inside to receive the lay-off. Noticeably Rojo had moved up to get close to Hazard on this occasion, while Smalling remained back to cover Costa.

United’s defending was covering the wide areas well (to prevent switches) and was shifting quickly to pressure the ball when Chelsea tried to play forward in wide areas as well. This did allow for more space for the front three to dribble with the ball when they were able to receive passes centrally. Here’s an example of Hazard getting the ball from Cahill in the center and able expose the backline with one deft turn.

These forward passes from the middle central defender for Chelsea were effective when used.

United covering Chelsea’s front three with the ball

When the ball was in Chelsea’s half, United allowed their central midfielders to move up and play freely, while Young and Valencia would move up the wings. Rojo could play long passes forward (notably the pass for Rashford’s chance) while they played long form goal kicks to Pogba in midfield (and Fellaini when he came on). Later in the game they were able to create some pressure moments around Chelsea’s box through long balls from the back and numbers around the box for the second ball.

When in possession, Jones and Darmian pushed into central midfield—where they maintained narrow positions, which allowed them to be close to Willian and Hazard, and pressure them to prevent a Chelsea counter if United lost the ball.

From the situation above, United lose the ball centrally and Hazard gets the ball, but he is immediately pressed, and fouled, by Jones to prevent a counter attack.

Herrera’s red card

After the red card for Ander Herrera, United brought on Fellaini for Mkhitaryan to maintain two central midfielders, leaving Rashford on his own upfront. The numerical advantage that Chelsea now had in building from the back allowed them to progress into United’s half, forcing them to drop back defensively and not continue the pressing with which they began the game.

At the start of the second half, Hazard and Willian began moving more freely and overloading to the left, dribbling and holding the ball to draw United’s midfielders over, before looking to find spare players with passes back inside—both were now able to receive the ball facing play, as opposed to with their backs to goal and under pressure in the first 35 minutes.

Initially, Azpilicueta was able to take advantage of this by pushing higher and finding space for a couple shots. In a similar situation, where Willian held the ball on the left, Kante found space in the middle for his goal.

Chelsea continued to create situations around the edge of the box for long shots when they had sustained possession in United’s half, while they created additional chances through counters from deep and moments where United tried to push up and press high later on in the game.


United’s early pressing and aggression created some chances from counters and caused Chelsea problems in establishing their usual possession game. Just before the red card, Chelsea began finding ways to create through more narrow positioning of Hazard, and the front three both playing short combinations and dribbling with the ball. After Herrera was sent off, United were unable to continue the high press, dropping deep instead, which allowed Chelsea to sustain possession around the box. United maintained good control of the first pass to wide areas, as well as inside the box, but overloads and drawing the central midfielders wide would open up spaces centrally for chances—leading to Kante’s goal.

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