United with the ball
Manchester United’s possession saw them with numbers deep in order to both keep the ball with stability and require Chelsea to open up their defensive block in order to pressure the ball from midfield. Fluid movements between their midfielders and attackers dropping back for the ball allowed for different offensive setups to arrive to Chelsea’s box, but they struggled to break down Chelsea’s defensive block in order to create chances from their final third possession.
By keeping the fullbacks deeper initially, as well as having support from the midfielders dropping deep for the ball, Chelsea’s front two couldn’t find the situations where they could pressure the ball and be followed by support from behind. Instead, when Chelsea’s wide central midfielders or wing-backs moved forward to pressure, they would open up space behind them for United to play into. One of the most frequent situations United created was drawing Victor Moses forward to press Ashley Young in midfield, opening up the wing for a pass behind Chelsea’s defence and to create a 1v1s for Alexis Sánchez against César Azpilicueta — but Azpi won most of those duels.
On the right, United could use the threat of their speed to cause Marcos Alonso problems and draw Antonio Rüdiger out to pressure Marcus Rashford moving wide. Alonso dropping off prevented the Red Devils from beating him on the outside, but gave them time on the ball to move forward. When the left wing-back got tight to United’s attackers upon receiving the ball, he ensured that he won the ball and cleared it to prevent them from getting into good positions to cross.
From the middle, Sánchez could find spaces inside or between lines where they could create space for the man on the ball by having numbers in the middle to make a number of short passes. Paul Pogba moved freely on the left, Nemanja Matic found space by moving forward centrally, and the two of them would consistently find switches to the fullbacks through the space left on the far side of Chelsea’s midfield three, shifting over to the side of the ball. Ander Herrera remained deep and on the right to always ensure that he wasn’t too far away to support the two central defenders for any of Chelsea’s counters.
Although United could move into the final third frequently, they couldn’t create many opportunities to score. They had a couple of opportunities from long shots, but otherwise they could only cross the ball into the box which often had few numbers in there to attack the ball (especially when Rashford was wide) while Thibaut Courtois claimed a number of crosses and deliveries from set pieces.
Chelsea with the ball
United’s defensive setup held their height for longer than Chelsea’s, and had more mobility than Chelsea’s front two in order to pressure the ball and close down distances. They again though waited for the right moments to press with fewer numbers to defend with, which again contributed to the more careful and slower speed of the game.
Chelsea’s back three would see Rashford and Sánchez positioned either side of Gary Cahill, and they would show Chelsea to the left to play forward through Rüdiger more than Azpilicueta on the right.
With Cahill on the ball they would close him down slowly, but they would also give him time and space to receive the ball, at which point he would have few options. Long passes to the frontline and wing-backs from Cahill had some succese success but also allowed United to directly compete for the ball and win it back with Chelsea’s block open.
When Rüdiger advanced with the ball, Rashford would move out and begin to press with intensity, where by running outside from the inside to pressure him he would cut off the central passing options and isolate Rüdiger on the ball, forcing the centre-back to play forward or turn on the ball to play backwards. Ahead of Rüdiger there were United holding a higher midfield block and a more aggressive approach to hold their position — which would leave them more open defensively.
Tiémoué Bakayoko had some initial space on the outside since Hazard was tracked by Herrera, Pogba followed Cesc Fàbregas, Jesse Lingard stayed on N’Golo Kanté, and United’s fullbacks covered Chelsea’s wing-backs. But Matic would then shift over to close Bakayoko down. His initial starting position centrally did allow him to support the backline and win second balls if Chelsea played long to Olivier Giroud.
Direct play to Giroud saw Chris Smalling and Phil Jones using great strength and aggression to compete with the Frenchman for the ball, but this also left them vulnerable when Chelsea were playing directly during counter attacks since Eden Hazard and Giroud could find themselves 2v2 against the pair of central defenders. For the most part United controlled this well, but Hazard’s individual quality allowed him to exploit this and win the penalty to score Chelsea’s goal.
In the second half, the speed of the game increased with more of Chelsea’s counter attacks being successful enough to take the ball up to United’s box and to be joined in by numbers in support. However, losing the ball would then allow United to attack against fewer numbers back to defend and with more space to use. United also had a number of set pieces which gave them a better opportunity to score with more numbers inside the box, but wasted the chances they did have.
United’s main change was Romelu Lukaku coming on, who gave United a target inside the box and an option to hold defenders off before finding teammates in and around the box to create chances. As the game went on, they committed more players forward and inside the box, with Juan Mata taking over in place of Phil Jones to have as many attackers on the pitch as possible, but they still couldn’t break Chelsea’s defence.
Chelsea had chances from their counter attacks to extend their lead, as well as being able to move up the pitch by holding onto the ball or winning free kicks. This management of the game extended to the end where they could kill time by making late changes and holding on to the ball in the corner to see the game out.
Chelsea continued to show how strong their defence can be, as they were able to hold on for the narrow victory. United grew into the game in the second half after not being able to speed up the game with the ball in the first half, and their changes improved them, but missed opportunities from set pieces and the strength of Chelsea’s defence denied them from scoring.