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Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

Use your head!

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Much can be made of the player selections for this match. For Chelsea, there are no surprises nor changes to the backline since the return from international break. Trevoh Chalobah is currently the preference in the right of our back three. When Thiago Silva is deputizing centrally, Chalobah is being given the best possible guidance available. To boot, with a +7 goal differential over the previous two games — and two clean sheets —, Thomas Tuchel is continuing on with what has worked.

Lineups
Soccerway

Side note: I believe Andreas Christensen will get his time. His omission is likely due to Chalobah’s training as the future right sided center-back and unrelated to Christensen’s current contract situation (ed.note: we hope!).

The two changes to our midfield were predictable: Marcos Alonso and Ruben Loftus-Cheek for the injured Ben Chilwell and N’Golo Kanté, respectively. Loftus-Cheek came on midweek against Juventus as Kanté’s replacement and did well enough in his stead, while Alonso started off this season in great form, so giving him the nod for Chilwell seemed a certainty.

A loss of both forward width and central presence in comparison to the Juventus match
WhoScored

Our left side carried on much the same as it had done, where the loss of Kanté seemed evident on our right. As only a loss of a player of Kanté’s quality can do, we lost both the width and central presence which allowed our front line and Reece James to perform so effectively in previous games.

Our wingers were Hakim Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi, both of whom entered the game in a rich vein of form and were likely chosen due to merit on recent performances. Werner was chosen to lead the line after scoring in extra time midweek and Tuchel stated that he was converting a lot in training and deserved the opportunity. It seemed justifiable, even with the omissions of potent striking options such as Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, Romelu Lukaku, and Kai Havertz.

Chelsea v Manchester United - Premier League
Werner was chosen to lead the attacking line
Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

Manchester United, under new advice and management, approached the game with a logical and well-formulated plan. Their back seven were all extremely defensive minded selections, and the McTominay-Matić-Fred midfield were the equivalent of a triple pivot with a design to shut down our wingbacks. Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho were split wide and high, surely per instructions to keep Chalobah and Antonio Rüdiger honest in their positioning and minimize their offensive threat.

United clearly showing a lack of central forward presence
Who Scored

The headlines all talked about how absurd it was to leave Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench, But with the main tasks of their front two being to press, track Chalobah and Rüdiger runs, and stay as high as possible in hopes of a quick break, Ronaldo satisfies virtually none of these qualities. In fact, bringing him on for their goalscorer in the 64th minute was more puzzling than leaving him on the bench.

This game was just like the Burnley 1-1 draw from three weeks prior: Chelsea were utterly dominant on the night in most aspects of the game, including possession, shots and, unfortunately, also individual errors. Despite our maintained possession, we were also struggling for true goal scoring opportunities. With our shot creating actions so bountiful (31), our goal creating actions amounted to a measly one.

31 shot creating actions, 1 goal creating action
FBREF

United had an equal amount of goal creating actions from a fraction of the chances. What this means is a few things:

1) Our shots were generally either low percentage opportunities, being blocked by their defensive setup, or simply not hitting the target;

Lots of shots, few on target and many blocked
WhoScored

2) Our xG, even with the penalty, varied from 2.5-2.9 in different sources. This means we also underperformed, just as we did in the Burnley game, and should have gotten more goals from the few clear chances we created.

xG
Infogol

The goal missed in the fourth minute was reminiscent of our free flowing football of the previous two matches, and might have affected the entire outcome of the game. Tuchel harped on this miss in his post-match conference, and more or less blamed the draw on the early missed opportunity.

While Hudson-Odoi is through on goal after being sent in from a flicked header by Alonso, Werner minimizes his teammate’s chance here by actually bringing his run away from goal before the shot is taken. This neither opens Werner up to receive a pass from Hudson-Odoi, nor gives him the best chance at a rebound opportunity. Hudson-Odoi’s shot is from a low probability angle, and David de Gea makes the save more comfortably than he should have been left to do.

Hudson-Odoi has to shoot, as Werner has pulled his run away

It was only our best chance because there were not many great ones on the day. Although this was in the fourth minute, a few ambitious shots or missed headers aside, our next best chance would come in the dying embers of the game.

United’s chances however were fewer and farther between, and yet they scored first.

The goal conceded is inexcusable for two reasons. If Jorginho uses his head, both in his decision-making and to actually project the ball back to Édouard Mendy, he is in the clear. Trying a Berbatov or Conte-like first-touch off of a skied clearance while under pressure from two of the league’s fastest players is both unwise and our greatest mistake in the game. To give up on the chase, being the sole pressure as our final defender, is equally erroneous. In the second frame below, it becomes clear why you’re taught as a kid to play until the whistle.

Defensive control from the first to second frame is inexcusable — NEVER give up on the play

Had Jorginho not thrown his hands up wondering why he himself had made such mistakes, his pursuit could have actually made a difference. Knowing they had time, Sancho and Rashford slowed down to sort out how to beat Mendy. Had they been under pressure and without that afforded time, Sancho may have passed to Rashford, who would have been offsides and would have negated their goal. Without that pressure, Sancho has the time to correctly choose to pass into the corner of our net.

Apparently we are not the only ones who cannot stay onside

United have been a bogey team for us lately, with only one win in our last nine. Mistakes were made today that could have changed that — Alonso should not be taking corners if he is on the pitch. He is a goal threat due to his size and ability to find himself on a loose ball and finish it. His deliveries are also slower and more lobbed than others’, making its flight easier to predict and defend. Ziyech does much better as the preferred taker, and our direct kick outlet started producing greater opportunities once he started taking them.

A greater concern remains entirely on the selection and timing of our substitutions. Because we are not Chelsea physios and do not know the levels and lengths to which players are allowed to exert themselves, this comes with a caveat.

Yet, Werner has now shown repeatedly that without space to run in behind and open up channels for teammates’ penetrating runs, he is not viable as a no.9. In the games since the injuries of our two strikers, we have gotten a plethora of goals. Going back to that Malmö game, neither Chilwell nor Kanté have added more than a goal apiece to our totals. If we are relying on everyone to score, particularly our strikers need to carry more weight.

Werner’s stats show him much more as a provider of chances, rather than one who converts them
FBREF

If our striker isn’t firing on all cylinders, he needs to be replaced with enough time that the replacement can have an impact. Until Lukaku or Werner demonstrate on the pitch (not in closed-door training) that they’ve earned the minutes they’re given up top, perhaps we should stick to more versatile and mobile options. We got the point and stayed atop the league, but need to also keep momentum to stay that way.

Nevertheless, KTBFFH.