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Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Breaking down Chelsea’s impressive first half and United’s second-half improvements.

Chelsea with the ball

Chelsea had a good opening to the game, as their spare man during building allowed them to move past United’s first two lines of defence and find their creative players consistently.

From the back, Chelsea’s back three had a 3v2 advantage, with Lukaku positioned on the right by Rudiger and Martial on Azpilicueta on the left—leaving Christensen free. United’s second line behind them consisted of Pogba on the left (to cover Kante) and Sanchez on the right (on Drinkwater).

Martial would consistently remain on the left and close to Azpilicueta to prevent him from advancing with the ball in the final third, where he can play quality passes behind and into the box, while Lukaku and Sanchez could switch-over and change which man to pressure on the ball from midfield.

The switchover on the right could occur when Sanchez attempted to press through Drinkwater’s back passes, Lukaku could drop back onto Drinkwater and allow Sanchez to press the ball individually, or Lukaku would be central and on Christensen during high pressing when United lost the ball.

During the latter, Rudiger would have a great amount of space ahead of him, into which he could quickly carry the ball, all the way forward to the final third. The same situation could occur with the middle opening up for Christensen to carry the ball forward, bypassing the two front lines of pressure.

Furthermore, circulation of the ball and mistakes in pressure (Sanchez being too aggressive compared to his team-mates when pressing on his own) would allow Chelsea to circulate the ball and find the spare man to play forward.

Although United faced some problems through closing down higher up, their cover behind provided a solid base to deal with advances and forward passes. Matic and McTominay controlled the middle by marking Willian and Hazard, as well as successfully switching over to pressure the ball when Chelsea found a spare man to advance in midfield. The fullbacks could remain tight and cover Chelsea’s wing-backs wide, while they maintained a spare central defender at the back up against Morata.

Switches, rotations in positions, dribbling, and the front three combinations would provide Chelsea with opportunities to break United’s defensive structure, as well as breaking away from their man-marking to receive the ball. Hazard could drop into midfield, switch positions with Alonso, and overload with Willian on the right to combine and open up spaces for Willian to dribble into. Moses, through the usual switches, as well as counters, could take on Young (although he missed a couple of opportunities to play passes inside to create), while Alonso’s early cross from an early switch would create the chance which resulted in Morata hitting the crossbar.

Chelsea were also quick to take advantage of opportunities to counter or attack quickly when United were unorganised, which would lead to good chances and Chelsea taking the lead. Hazard and Willian carrying and running with the ball on the outside of United’s defence would lead to them scoring the first goal, while a quick free kick would provide Azpilicueta with the opportunity to carry the ball forward and play a pass behind United’s defence for Hazard. Unlike the previous meeting, Morata wasn’t in the position to benefit from this situation, where he can finish these chances first-time in the air.

Manchester United’s attacks

United created chances through their quick counter attacks on the left, crosses, and the front four playing narrow to combine in and around the box.

United could keep the ball at the back with the back four, two sitting midfielders, and Pogba dropping back, while Chelsea would defend with a zonal approach to apply pressure to the sides and in numbers. This gave United some problems when trying to play forward in the middle, and required strong individual plays by Lukaku (to hold off pressure), Martial (dribbling and strength), Sanchez (quick turns), and Pogba (wide and quick shifts of the ball) to keep the ball.

They would attack on the sides through the fullbacks moving up and putting crosses into the box. Primarily these would come from Young moving back onto his right foot to deliver far post crosses, where Lukaku was always at the far post and ready to attack across the front of Chelsea’s defenders—the player attacking the front post could alternate between Martial and Sanchez. But United were unable to get the ball to any of their targets in the box from their crosses, and many of their organised attacks resulted in them losing the ball in the final third—where they would respond with high and aggressive pressing, allowing them to sustain some of their attacks. By sustaining attacks in a few instances and having numbers forward centrally, they could combine through short passes centrally into the box in order to score their equalising goal.

Most of United’s counters were initiated by Pogba, who would carry the ball forward quickly and past defenders, before playing passes behind Chelsea’s defence or winning free kicks. With Lukaku and Martial remaining wide of Chelsea’s wide central defenders, they could quickly pull off them and find space wide. Martial receiving the ball wide of Azpilicueta would allow him to take the defender on and put crosses into the box. From this position, they created a good chance for Sanchez joining the box at the near post from the right. By moving inside from the right his run couldn’t be tracked, and he managed to get his shot on target, but without enough power to beat Courtois.

Second half

The second half saw United close down distances at the front more effectively, which created a much faster, direct, and transitional game. As United pressed higher, Chelsea would play forward to the frontline earlier, especially long and high passes behind, and would create sustained periods of pressure at both ends of the pitch.

United playing on the front foot and pressing higher up meant that Chelsea were unable to maintain the same possession that they had in the first half, and would get pushed back deep in their own half for long periods without being able to keep the ball through their outlets when they regained the ball.

Lingard on for Martial then gave United much more energy, movement in the final third, and fluid rotation between Lingard and Sanchez to create chances and compensate positions defensively.

This rotation of positions would lead to Lingard joining the box to score United’s second goal, after Lukaku moved wide of Chelsea’s defence on the right, drawing Rudiger out and taking Alonso out of the game on the inside (not close enough to double up and too far out to cover Rudigers position in the box) before playing a cross into the box. With Rudiger and Alonso out wide, Christensen was drawn out beyond the near post, leaving the space behind for Lingard to attack and score.

Upon conceding, Chelsea created two good opportunities to score, before making changes. Giroud replaced Moses, which saw Chelsea switch to a 442/424 for the remained of the game, as well as replacing Drinkwater with Fabregas later on. United responded by bringing Bailly on for Sanchez and switching to three defenders at the back (343) in order to deal with Chelsea’s strength and power in the air of the front two from crosses and set pieces, which saw them see the game out.


Chelsea had the greater first half and created enough opportunities throughout the game to score more goals, but were unable to beat De Gea more than once. United improved in the second half with their pressing, before Lingard brought a new dynamic to their attack, which saw them take the lead and see the game out.

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