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Manchester United 1-3 Chelsea, FA Cup semifinal: Tactical Analysis

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Breaking down Chelsea’s impressive win over United to book a place in the FA Cup final

First half

During the first half, Chelsea looked to move forward as a team with possession, sustain a high position from there, and create from overloads on the right and crosses into the box. United were much more direct when they had the ball, often looking to attack spaces behind Chelsea’s backline early from Fernandes’ passes behind and utilising the speed of the front two.

Chelsea played forward from their own half against both aggressive and half pressure from United. United’s wing-backs found it difficult to push up and pressure Chelsea’s wing-backs from these positions, while the front three would find themselves being playing around by Chelsea’s back three and midfield two — United’s central midfielders left in empty spaces ahead of their backline.

From here, Chelsea could either advance up to midfield through spare players to break pressure (United waiting for mistakes to counter), or, when United were able to engage with a full press, the direct option to Giroud was always an available outlet. Although United couldn’t engage much higher up, they always kept numbers back to maintain defensive control and drop to positions where they could counter into spaces if they were to win the ball — Chelsea were also not so dangerous with attacks from these positions.

United’s buildup from the back would often encounter a full press from Chelsea: the wing-backs pushing up to United’s wing-backs, 3v3 versus United’s back three and Chelsea’s central midfielders tight to United’s. Fernandes dropping into spaces in midfield would be their main way of playing through Chelsea’s pressure, and whenever he collected the ball he would play long and behind Chelsea’s backline early to use United’s speed. Chelsea’s backline showed great recovery speed (as well as Caballero out early to clear the ball) to control these situations well.

Manchester United v Chelsea - FA Cup: Semi Final Photo by Matthew Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

In the final third, with less space to exploit, United are much less creative or dangerous. Instead, their possession moves mostly to keep the ball, waiting to win a free kick, corner, or penalty that will give them chances from which to create and score.

When Chelsea reached the final third, they often overloaded the right wing with Willian, James and Azpilicueta. Overlaps to get behind, rotations, and crosses from deep were the way to find Giroud or Alonso joining the box from the far side, as well as being able to win set pieces to again attack the box with numbers. Other than the chance for Alonso at the far post, United dealt with these crosses into the box well — with the extra man at the back.

The main change in the first half came from United’s injury-enforced substitution, with Martial going on for Bailly and Solksjær switching to a 4-2-3-1. Now when Chelsea attacked the right wing with the same overload trio, United would have to compensate in a different way while they would also have one fewer central defender in the box to deal with the crosses. At the end of the half, Chelsea took advantage of this by Willian finding Azpilicueta with space behind United’s backline. As Azpilicueta put the ball into the box, Giroud now found himself marked by Lindelöf (rather than the physically stronger Maguire when playing with three central defenders), whom he easily brushed out of his way to get to the ball and flick the ball past De Gea.

Second half

United continued to have problems defending the wings as the second half started, while Chelsea’s high pressing would see Mount recovering the ball high up once again, going on to have another shot on goal from outside the box, which De Gea was unable to keep out.

United soon made changes to bring on Pogba and Greenwood, while having more of the ball. Up by two, Chelsea were more selective with their pressing, and could wait for United to make mistakes while dropping back. When Chelsea did press, they pressured aggressively and in numbers — United’s main outlet was to give the ball to Pogba or the odd occasion where Fernandes found space dropping back to break pressure.

United again would reach the final third with the ball and not be a creative threat against Chelsea’s deep block, with only Fernandes’ long pass from deep finding Rashford attacking the space behind Chelsea’s backline to have a chance to score. Winning free kicks and corners were again key to their creation against Chelsea’s deep block, from which they used blocks well to find Maguire with a free header twice.

Chelsea, on the other hand, were a constant threat with the ball. Kovačić could break from midfield and carry the ball past United defenders, while attacks on the wings constantly got Chelsea behind United’s backline before finding attackers inside the box (chances for Giroud and Mount from low crosses). De Gea made a couple of good saves, but Chelsea continuously getting behind United’s backline on the wings would ultimately see Alonso’s cross put into his own net by Maguire.

United’s most creative moments in the final third came towards the end of the game when Martial moved out to the left and carried the ball into the box, from which United would win a corner (Matić free header inside box) as well as a penalty to pull back a consolation goal.

Conclusion

United threatened with counters from deep and set pieces during the first half, while maintaining good control of deep defending to concede only a few chances from Chelsea’s crosses. Despite De Gea’s mistakes for goals, United’s change to a back four was their main downfall of the game, with Chelsea continuously getting behind them on the wings and creating a number of chances. United still had good opportunities to score from corners in the second half and would have still been in the game with the penalty, but the damage was already done.