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

Breaking down Chelsea’s frustrating home defeat

Chelsea with the ball

United began the game by pushing up to pressure Chelsea high. Kovacic’s dribbling made the difference against this pressure, where he could carry the ball forward past James and Matic to take Chelsea up to the final third. However, when reaching the final third there were a lack of options ahead of him centrally, with only two switches out to Willian and James on the right resulting in long shots from the edge of the box.

United stopped Kovacic’s progression when they began to press higher up from the middle, with Fred moving over to close down Kovacic making a difference — stopping him from carrying the ball through midfield and recovering the ball on a couple of occasions. During this period Chelsea would make more passes back to Caballero and he would be often forced into playing long balls up to the frontline.

Chelsea created a few opportunities when they were able to recover the ball from long play, with Pedro, Kovacic, Mount and Willian all in positions to fight for the second ball. Pedro was often the player causing United the most problems through his intense pressure and finding passes to Mount and Batshuayi running behind United’s defence. Counters also provided situations from broken play for Chelsea to create, but for the most part, they didn’t create many opportunities in the final third.

United with the ball

United advanced forward by taking advantage of the distances between Chelsea’s fullbacks (starting deep in their backline) and United’s wing-backs (on the midfield line). Predominantly moving forward on the left, United were able to find Williams free and in space behind Chelsea’s midfield — Chelsea’s front three matching United’s back three and the midfielders matching United 3-v-3 as well. Martial moving out wide to the left would cause problems early on by pinning James back, which created the space for Williams to receive the ball.

Chelsea tried to push up in the middle and press from the front, but they didn’t always sustain frontline pressure together, and this would provide time and space for Maguire to find Williams free and in space on the left to move forward.

As the first half continued, James began to push up higher and press Williams (pushing him back to a deep position), which solved the early problem of Williams allowing United to break through Chelsea’s pressure.

United created a couple of opportunities for Martial by combining inside from the wing when they reached the final third, where he would then combine and carry the ball into the box and shoot, but did not threaten Chelsea otherwise. Where United were clinical was in one of the two moments when Chelsea had injuries and were down to ten men on the field. United broke through Chelsea’s midfield twice (once with Kante off and the other with Jorginho temporarily in the backline for Christensen) and took the lead with the latter chance.

Second half

Chelsea had more of the ball in midfield and inside United’s half during the opening stages of the second half, but possession was only moving wing-to-wing without being able to create.

Chelsea were able to create opportunities when playing through United’s high pressure, but also not consistently. Playing passes into the middle of the frontline, especially with Willian and Pedro on the inside and Mount making runs behind from deep, but holding onto the ball from these passes, is what made the difference. When keeping or recovering the loose ball in these areas Chelsea would go into the box and cause problems for United, but losing the ball would leave Chelsea open to counters.

Chelsea would pay for not taking advantage of those situations, by losing the ball and giving up counters from which United won set pieces, and would go on to score their second goal of the game.

Maguire caused problems from all set pieces with his runs around the back. For the goal he was marked by Rudiger. While Zouma is perhaps the strongest player Chelsea have in the air, and thus better suited to mark Maguire, he would also go on to be beaten in the air by Maguire during a free kick later on in the game — hard to find a solution 1-v-1 against Maguire in the air with this approach.

Following the goal Chelsea made their final change to bring on Giroud for Batshuayi, which improved them in various ways. The defensive corners Chelsea faced following the change were won and cleared by Giroud in the air, while the threat he poses from offensive set pieces is obvious. Giroud also brought his qualities as a target man to help Chelsea when playing long and through pressure, allowing them to keep the ball to avoid counters and bring the midfielders and wingers into the game in scoring positions — crucial if you want more goals from the wingers and midfielders. Finally, as an option in the air for crosses, he would score a goal that was eventually ruled out on replay for marginal offside.

United were put under much more pressure during the final stages but made a number of good blocks to stop Chelsea’s shots reaching the target, and they would continue to defend deep with numbers to see the game out.


Both sides managed to find paths through the opponents’ pressing during the initial stages of the game before slight adjustments provided solutions. Both created a couple of opportunities to score, but United were clinical to take advantage of the situations when Chelsea were down to ten men through injuries. Playing through United’s pressure and into the frontline was how Chelsea were able to create in the second half, but when they lost the ball, they were open to counters. United always threatened through Maguire during set pieces and extended their lead, before Giroud came on and made a difference for Chelsea with the ball and during set pieces. But United’s defence were able to block Chelsea’s shots and saw the game out.

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