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Manchester United 2-0 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

United’s defensive control provides them a platform to attack

United’s defensive control

In order to disturb Chelsea’s usual possession, United set up to:

  • Allow Chelsea to make the first pass to the side before initiating pressure.
  • Press Chelsea in wide areas while blocking passes back inside; creating zones where they can sustain pressure.
  • Aggressively and tightly mark Chelsea’s forward passing options.
  • Have a spare man at the back and in midfield to provide cover to their pressing.

Their pressing of Chelsea would begin with United’s front two against Chelsea’s back three (as they did in the previous meeting). They were positioned either side of Luiz to allow them to quickly shift towards the first pass wide, while Pogba and Fellaini would move up to mark Chelsea’s central midfielders. Young and Valencia moved up to cover the wing-backs, and they would use Herrera and Darmian to mark Hazard and Pedro—leaving Costa between Bailly and Rojo.

As Chelsea moved the ball to the side, United shift across to press the ball and mark the options around the ball. In the following example Cahill gets the ball with back to play, but he is forced to turn and play forward with the ball as Lingard had previously pressured his pass back to Begovic. He passes to Hazard who is under immediate pressure (and is thus forced to play first time): Fellaini moves from Matic to continue pressure on the ball; Lingard pressures Kante from behind; and Rashford leaves Cahill to close down the space around Matic.

Along with the sustained pressure on the ball in these areas, United have cover from both Pogba in midfield (the far side midfielder would switch from man-to-man to zonal as the ball moved up the opposite wing) and Rojo in the backline.

United continued to cause problems for Chelsea’s possession by applying markers and pressure to Chelsea’s first forward pass to the feet of one of the front three coming short, while passes behind the defence were both matched and supported with cover (where they would slow down the attack, win the ball or foul the man on the ball).

When defending around their own box, United’s defenders had a numerical advantage, were aggressive to compete for the ball and make clearances, and marked Chelsea’s options in the box—such as Darmian following Pedro’s run across and Pogba following Kante back into the box.

The intensity and aggression of their central defenders was particularly important in the second half, where, upon the introduction of Fabregas, Chelsea began playing long passes behind the defence for Costa to compete for. Costa is very good at dominating these situations, especially in the box, and United’s central defenders were alert and strong to both follow the pass and prevent him from pushing past them with the ball to create an opportunity to shoot. Throughout the match the defenders also tried to provoke Costa in order to get him sent off or to put him off his game (as well as Costa doing the same to them).

Controlling Chelsea’s counter attacks

In addition to defending Chelsea’s possession, United dealt with the threat of Chelsea’s counter attacks very well, from both set pieces and when they lost possession in Chelsea’s half.

United maintained at least two players back around the halfway line on their own free kicks so that when, for example, Chelsea tried to counter from United’s free kick in the first half they were able to delay the attack, before the players that had been inside Chelsea’s box (for the free kick) were able to get back and win the ball. United also had numbers back on their corners: Valencia marked Hazard, Herrera was on the edge of the box by Pedro and both Darmian and Rojo were in midfield to provide cover.

When United lost the ball high in Chelsea’s half, the balance they had in possession (always maintaining four players behind the ball) allowed them to have a numerical advantage, while Herrera and Darmian would both be close to Hazard and Pedro to prevent them breaking freely, as well as pressuring them immediately if they were to receive the ball.

United with the ball

With the ball United would play long from De Gea, finding Fellaini in midfield (either centrally or moving to side). When he was able to win the first ball centrally he could flick the ball forward onto Chelsea backline, where Rashford and Lingard were quick to apply pressure to the second ball—resulting in an early chance for Rashford.

In possession, United maintained numbers in deep areas to keep stable possession and provide balance as they advanced. Valencia and Young would move up as the wingers; Herrera and Darmian would remain close to the backline in fullback positions; Rashford and Lingard moved wide and between the lines to receive the ball and look to advance in wide areas; and Pogba and Fellaini were free to move for the ball at the back and move forward into Chelsea’s half (moving wide in the final 3rd to support the wide striker and winger on the ball).

By advancing up the wings and taking the ball to the side of the box, United were able to create further problems for Chelsea. Even when Chelsea were able to win the ball out wide, they would be under pressure to clear the ball and forward options were blocked. From there United could recover the ball and look to quickly attack the box.

Sustained possession in these areas led to high crosses to the second post (Fellaini and Pogba making a arched runs around the back), where United could keep the ball in play even if the ball went over to the other side. Their second goal came at the end of just such a sequence of play with Pogba chasing down an overhit cross (from a free kick out wide) after Chelsea failed to get out of their own half for the first four minutes of the second half.

Finally the front two were important for counters in different ways. When they won the ball, they would always have Rashford finding space to run in behind Chelsea’s defence (both centrally and wide) to create immediate chances. His mobility gave him a big advantage over Chelsea’s defenders in these situations, and he continued to cause problems throughout. When the counters were delayed, Lingard was often there to receive and keep the ball for the team as support joined.


Similar to the pervious encounter, United were aggressive to press Hazard. But while Chelsea were able to cause problems in the last game was by consistently getting the ball to Hazard to keep testing United’s players pressuring him and draw a series of fouls—eventually leading to a red card—in this game, Chelsea made more errors when trying to play the ball forward from the back. United also held on to the ball for longer periods in the first half, further reducing the opportunities Chelsea had for getting the ball to Hazard. Later in the game United were prepared to defend their own half for long periods to maintain their lead, bringing Carrick on to prevent Chelsea having a numerical advantage in midfield, while also having threats to counter when they won the ball.

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