In an ideal world, Chelsea would have come away as the winners from Old Trafford, perhaps by a 1-0 scoreline gifted by the magic of Willian, the brilliant Brazilian who once again rose to the occasion as he has done so quite frequently as of late.
But there is nothing in the world that hates following a script more than football, and as such, we finished the encounter on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline after a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde performance.
Differences between the first and second-half statistics illustrate the game’s flow quite well.
In the first-half, Chelsea were clearly ahead in nearly every single attacking category. United were ahead in every defensive one. That is to be expected when Chelsea were the team with 58% ball retention to United’s 42%, and on their own home ground, even. The 88% pass success to our opponent’s 80% was also another good sight.
Chelsea were even winning aerial duels against United’s talls like Romelu Lukaku and Paul Pogba, which was useful since it looked like crosses were United’s only method of attack and we all know of Mourinho’s love of tall players.
But then came United’s equalizer, against the run of play, via Lukaku, signalling the beginning of Chelsea’s downfall.
In the second half, Chelsea still managed as many shots as the home side, but kept finding themselves stymied by the Red Devils’ defence and their own shortcomings.
It was a much more even half on the stat sheet as well. Chelsea’s ball retention dropped by 5%, pass success by 4%. Meanwhile, United’s rose by 3% as they improved their pressing and Chelsea were forced back. Or perhaps the blame lies more with Conte, for going from more proactive first-half to a more reactive second. Chelsea tried more long passes and let United have the ball, in stark contrast to what was working in the first half.
The home side also started to dribble and beat our players 1-v-1 more often, finding more passes leading to shots against our goal. One of those was Lukaku’s cross to Jesse Lingard for the winning goal. Pulling wide to cross the ball is something that the former Chelsea youngster had done plenty of times for Everton, but this move still surprised many who have only seen him play as a more static muscle-man under Mourinho.
Other than number of tackles, United continued to edge the defensive stats in the second-half, with a huge number of interceptions showing how well they were occupying spaces to frustrate the blues.
Chelsea still fashioned multiple good chances to score, but David De Gea kept out all but one.
As in the Barcelona game prior to this one, Chelsea once again posted better numbers in total shots (14 vs. 10) and shots on target (7 vs. 5) than our favored opponents. But, crucially, 80% of United’s shots came from inside the penalty area, more than Chelsea both in terms of percentages and raw totals, and those, in general, are considered to be higher quality chances. Chelsea still edged the expected-goals (xG) statistic, but reality failed to meet said expectations.
xG map for Manchester United - Chelsea. One of the nice things about United's defense not working is that a Jose-Conte league match can be full of excitement and event. pic.twitter.com/75fth9yKTN— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) February 26, 2018
United massively favored their left side (top half in the graphic below), while Chelsea were a bit more balanced, but it appears that the pitch may have been a bit slanted from one side to the other.
On individual stats, two names from United jump out.
Lukaku had a pretty good outing, converting one of his three shots and providing the assist for the second goal (his lone key pass). To support one specific narrative, he led all players in “bad touches” (5) and was dispossessed 3 times (only Morata with 5 had more). Pogba lead the team in dribbles, which does make you wonder how good he would be if Mourinho could play to his strengths more often.
Even as limited as these sort of statistics may be, they make it very clear that Willian had yet another stellar day on the job, leading all players with 10 dribbles, and Chelsea in fouls drawn (5) and shots (4). Hazard was no slouch either, especially in key passes (4).
Meanwhile, Morata’s ball retention was almost as bad as Lukaku’s, despite almost equalizing for the Blues.
Interestingly enough, the goalkeeping stats highlight the strength of each player involved. De Gea made 6 saves and Courtois 3, and the Belgian recorded one claim and one punch from many of the crosses attempted by United.
In the distribution department, De Gea went along with his team’s plan by going long most of the time. 14 of his 20 attempted passes were for more than 25 yards, and he found one of his teammates on 7 of those. Meanwhile Courtois was able to play out from the back for most of the first half, but was unable to do so as often in the second one. On those punts, he was worse than his counterpart by completing just 2 of 6 long passes.
Both United and Chelsea were quite similar in terms of long vs. shots passes attempted, with each going route one around 9 to 10% of their attempts. United however were clearly more direct than Chelsea, as 69% of the Red Devils’ passes were in forward motion with 39% directed to their attacking third compared to Chelsea’s 34%. They also had less passes directed at their defensive third, with 17% versus the Blues’ 26%.
Action zones were almost balanced on a 30-40-30 division, though the sum at the graphic above goes to 101% instead of 100%. The perks of rounding numbers upwards!
With regards to possession, Matic was United’s main outlet. Playing deeper than his midfielder companions, he was often the one man responsible for United’s transition from defence to attack. The Serbian had the most touches and passes recorded in the game between the two teams, and completed 89.7% of his 78 attempted passes. He was also pretty good in hitting long passes with 5 out of 7 completed; unlike youngster McTominay, who got one pass right in five attempted.
Once again, the stats back up what was seen on the pitch. United tried their best at making advantage of Lukaku’s immense presence on our box, with 18 crosses attempted by their players. 12 of those were concentrated in 3 players, each with 4 crosses attempted: their fullbacks in Valencia and Ashley Young plus attacker Alexis Sánchez, whose lone cross met by the Belgian lead to an amazing first-hit volley and a quick intervention from Courtois.
Much of our game’s flow went though Willian, who recorded 91 touches to 57 passes attempted, and 46 of those completed. But speaking strictly on passing terms, Christensen had most of the possession volume by completing 65 (92.9%) of his 70 passes on what was a David Luiz-esque day for him with the absence of Cesc from our starting lineup. Props also go to Kanté, with a 94.6% passing success rate, and Eden’s 92.3%.
In the crossing department, Chelsea were not as busy as United as they only went on this path 14 times in the match. However, a rare sight: Marcos Alonso completed all of his 2 attempted crosses! Neat!
And another player who tried to make up for Cesc’s absence was Danny Drinkwater. The Englishman completed 4 of 7 passes for 25 yards or more, although those were certainly not as dangerous as the ones coming from our Spanish maestro. There was also a high volume of long passes from the backline, either in attempts to find the wing-backs — who were unfortunately not very great in supporting our offensive — or getting out of United’s pressure.
But once Cesc got onto the pitch as a sub for Drinky, he was the major coordinator of our offensive actions. He would have had an assist if Morata’s second half goal was not incorrectly deemed an offside. At last, he made 18 passes in the 14 minutes he stayed on the pitch, completing 16 of them — including 3 for 25 yards and beyond.
One area which we may often forget but is still very important in the (English) game are aerial duels. And in this department, United were kings.
All 6 aerial duels that took place on either box were won by the Red Devils last Sunday. And this includes Lingard’s straight shot at Courtois’ to make the match 2-1.
But United were also quite good in occupying space, which is somewhat of a speciality in teams lead by Mourinho during big games. They were able to make 18 interceptions to Chelsea’s 6, as well as 12 blocks — 7 of them in the second half — against 13 from Chelsea. Of course, they were not perfect and the Blues still found ways to infiltrate their defence and take good shots at De Gea, especially via counters. But it was a good hustle by our opponents nonetheless.
So apparently Chris Smalling is having a pretty good season at United, which is something everyone but myself had taken notice. Last weekend he continued the trend by completing 6 tackles in 7 attempts, and 5 interceptions to frustrate our plans while going clean on fouls.
As the last man on midfield and one of the two players set by Mourinho to hound Eden, Matic had the most tackles attempted in his team with 9. He completed only 4 of those, but did well in other defensive aspects such as interceptions (4) and clearances (3). We miss you boo.
It is also telling that 9 of United’s 13 fouls recorded throughout the match were made by 3 players. Two of those were midfielders Matic and Pogba, but there was also Valencia who was constantly asked to handle the hotness that is Willian in his current form and the potential deep, dangerous crosses from Azpilicueta towards Morata (even if they have not been working as properly in recent times).
What was a rather common sight during the game was having three of United’s players with nowhere to go but sideways when they had the immense presence of 1.68m (5 ft 6 in) Kanté in front of them. All for good reason, as the Frenchman was once again a big influence in a match against United with 4 of 5 tackles completed, and 2 interceptions. His partner in crime Drinkwater was also pretty good in this area, as was Moses who has now reversed roles by doing quite well defensively, and providing little to nothing going forward. Both went 3/4 in tackles completed and attempted, respectively.
Somehow, Morata found a way to show his worst in defence. He was the Chelsea player who drew the most fouls in the entire team, with 3 recorded in the 90 minutes he stayed on the pitch.
As for player positions, wide defenders on both sides were allowed to push forward. The centre-backs sat deep, with United’s Matic and McTominay dropping back more often than Chelsea’s to make up for Pogba who was often carrying the ball and joining United’s attacks on the left side.
Speaking of which, even Sánchez was unable to contain himself and drifted from the right wing to centre, often heading left along with his teammates. And Lukaku rarely left his post as the team’s target man.
As for Chelsea, Morata and Eden were often next to each other when they had the ball. Willian drifted wider, but would approach his partners in the attacking line quite often to string together the Blues’ moves forward.
It was truly a tale of two halves on Sunday. The first one was made worse by United’s goal, which would not happen had referee Martin Atkinson done a proper job by stopping the play upon the clash of heads between Lukaku and Christensen. Instead, the Belgian’s goal near the end of the half only increased United’s confidence to go with the momentum they were already building after Willian got his opening score.
In the second, United improved their pressing to disallow Chelsea from playing the same game that had them on edge in the first half. Combined with the Blues basically inviting pressure from their opponents and Lingard’s introduction in place of a highly ineffective Anthony Martial to change the game’s dynamics, it all went awry for us.
Even if we were able to find goalscoring opportunities, they were not nearly as good as the ones from the first half and were dealt with ease by De Gea and United’s defenders.
Overall, the team deserved better. But last Sunday was just not meant to be our day and by the looks of it, the next one won’t be ours either.