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

Breaking down Chelsea’s unfortunate home loss to Manchester United

First half

Chelsea started the half with possession from the back, up against United’s pressure. They managed to work the ball to the spare man successfully in order to break United’s pressure and advance into midfield with the ball as a team, before attempting to create chances upon establishing their position with the ball.

Typically, the key contest during the first half was Chelsea playing the ball into Kovacic who would then take on McTominay to either hold the ball under pressure and progress past him (leading to attacks in the final third), or lose the ball and allow United chances to counter.

As the half went on however, Chelsea could no longer break United’s lines as efficiently when building with the ball (United dropping off slightly), leading to them losing ball when trying to play more directly to the frontline (United winning first and second ball) and holding on to the ball in deep positions for longer amounts of time — providing United with a platform to recover the ball high from mistakes. United won the ball high up on a couple of occasions in precisely that manner, and one these short counter attacks with speed from their frontline provided them with the penalty and the subsequent goal to take the lead.

In the final stages of the half, Chelsea once again began to break through United’s pressure (making use of Kovacic’s dribbling, followed by switches to James on the right) and once again advance forward as a team with the ball to create chances from the right in the final third, but without making a difference to the scoreline before halftime.

Second half

Chelsea’s midfielders shifted their positions and go from a more rigid 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 with the ball in the second half, which had a positive impact on their performance. With two sitting players (Kovacic and Jorginho) and Gilmour playing higher up, they provided United with different problems, especially in trying to key the press during midfield rotation.

For instance, in the first half, the decisions and distances were clear: Lingard would stay on Jorginho while McTominay and Fred would push up onto Kovacic and Gilmour (dropping for the ball). But with the rotations, where Kovacic could drop to collect the ball, moving Jorginho moved forward and Gilmour to the left (behind McTominay), McTominay would get caught between moving up to press and holding his position (because of Gilmour) — Lingard and James pressuring Kovacic didn’t produce the same amount of recoveries of the ball. This freed up Kovacic and would see Chelsea pushing United back in midfield.

Chelsea could also play forward with much more consistency after the change, where they could move up to midfield and play inside United’s half (Zouma’s long diagonal ball leading to Hudson-Odoi’s chance inside the box), find spaces behind United’s central midfielders to advance forward with the ball and create chances (Gilmour or Pulisic moving inside to receive from the wing), and allow the wingers to have more of an influence on the game in the final third than during the first half.

Despite Chelsea’s improvement and the chances they were creating with the ball as a team, it would be an individual goal from a long ball up by Caballero to Batshuayi that would see them draw the game level. United changed following the goal to bring Martial on for Lindelof and match Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 shape, but it would be, once again, individual quality that would change the scoreline and decide the game through Rashford’s free kick.

Conclusion

United’s pressure limited opportunities for Chelsea to progress forward and create chances in the first half, while also recovering the ball high up to set up short counters — resulting in them winning a penalty and taking the lead. Chelsea’s change of midfield setup for the second half saw them move forward with the ball quickly, creating chances and taking away the opportunities for McTominay to recover the ball high and set up short counter-attacks as he had in the first half. However, the difference-makers in the second half were the individual qualities of Batshuayi and Rashford, and that would decide the game.