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

As much a match of chess as football

Chelsea FC v Manchester United - Premier League
By the skin of their teeth
Photo by Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images

While I closely follow virtually all non-violent sports with Chelsea Football Club obviously far and away the priority, chess is also right up there — and yes, chess is a sport. I have either played or coached both all my life, which may correlate to the joy it was to see the match between Chelsea and Manchester United play out as tactically reactive and adaptive as each move on a chess board — wonderfully entertaining, even if it ended without the ideal result. At least both Graham Potter’s and Trevoh Chalobah’s records remain intact.

Truly brilliant managing showed the qualities that both sides have available to them at the moment. Based on a run of results, even an 87’ penalty from Jorginho couldn’t separate the sides from what needed to be a goal-line technology approved equaliser. We’ve now drawn with United each match back to our semi-final win in the FA Cup over 2 years ago and have not beaten them in the Premier League for nearly 5 years.

Graham Potter’s demand for both fluidity between our positions in both active and reactive play with flexibility through marking and covering requirements has been the most conspicuous aspect of his regime, but it doesn’t always come off flawlessly. When the team selection isn’t correct, adjustments are made without hesitation, even if that includes substitutions during or, in this case, before the halftime interval.

Starting XI’s and Potter’s adjustments
Soccerway and Homecrowd

The supportive background Potter applies with both his Social Sciences and Leadership and Emotional Intelligence degrees will go a long way in keeping spirits high. Half-hour substitutions can be detrimental to a player’s individual confidence and thus their quality, especially in a camp like Chelsea’s. It is a delicate balance that Potter has navigated apparently better than his opposite thus far, noting that Cristiano Ronaldo was absent because Erik Ten Hag has no intentions of coddling his superstar.

United made just one change on their team sheet from their comprehensive defeat of Tottenham, adding Christian Eriksen to the midfield in place of man-of-the-match Fred. That decision laid their intentions bare by adding a possession-oriented midfielder. Having two more attacking players congesting the midfield than likely what Graham Potter would have expected, their counter to our pinned-back double-pivot was clear, and combined with our hesitancy to put them on such a high press made us easily second best at the start. Just as we see Potter pulling off underperforming individuals, when Jadon Sancho proved to be inadequate, Fred was introduced, and their midfield became even more steadfast. Erik Ten Hag tends to not haggle - the man means business. We were far outplayed in the first half hour, and our xG map shows just how lacklustre our attack left us in that period.


Based on his 3-4-3 shape at the start, Potter clearly had an expectation of possession, which we did not see more than 36% of in the opening 15 minutes, and in fact had only 42% until our initial change in the 36th minute. The spike from our shifting into a 4-3-1-2 and thereby adding bodies to the until-then overrun midfield hit its peak until the halftime whistle as Chelsea enjoyed 63% of the possession. The diamond-shaped midfield offered more passing lanes, so our possession increased, but the links between our defense, midfield, and attack were an unconcealed issue, and as we may chalk it down to injuries, glaring and similar issues persist. How weak we were in our passing scheme is an issue. I’d rather suffer a beating than once again see the limitations of our pass map, but you may torment yourself with it below.


Those early adjustments can mean one of two things: the opposition has caught us out with something unpredictable and a tweak needs be made reactively or our own starting formation or personnel has been selected incorrectly. Now twice in three games, it seems as though the latter is the more factual. The clear indication of the need to change was before the tenth minute, and their sequence of passing would take far too many screenshots to replicate entirely. From a ball out from De Gea, they completely bypass our midfield - and not like previous matches where it has been passed over or around on the flanks, they go straight through it - nearly snagging a goal at the end.

Midfield control gone out the window

Potter thankfully saw the ease with which we were being played through and after Mateo Kovačić was brought on for Marc Cucurella and the defense was converted into a back four, both a stronghold on defense (good) and a missing final product (bad) became apparent. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang again finished with both an astonishingly low number of touches and a downright poor conversion rate. Raheem Sterling was on the ball plenty yet had zero shots. Knowing as we do now that Kovačić was struggling for fitness and that we are dealing with multitudes of injuries in key positions again, the coming few weeks will be telling. Forward productivity will be key with a midfield and back line that continues to diminish from injury.

While the early tactical adjustments had an impact on the game, the latter effected the outcome. Continuing to see the introduction of lively and young academy players is surely part of the reason that Potter was brought in, and so his utilisation of them while established professionals are faltering is likely a benchmark of how the club will operate. A far cry from and much more wisely done than our similar American-owned operation.

All in all, our stats remarkably similar to United and we play a similar game. They are third, behind Chelsea and Manchester City, in metres progressed per passes completed this season and are quite similar in both direct and build-up attacks to us. They play smart football and are able to respond to situations developed within the game well. The similar and pragmatic approaches by both managers has been helpful to restoring some sense of resiliency to their respective back lines, albeit to the detriment of each of our attacks. Neither of our bivariant levels of control are as promising as Manchester City’s, but it is safe to say that the story might have been different if Potter had a fully available squad.

Late goals are the mantra right now

The resilience of this team is touted by our ability to nag late goals, with 6 goals in the final half hour of our last 6 games, it does look like Potter still does not know who his best attacking players are and is still seeking confluence. Pleasant as the points accrued may be, it’s a shame that in his absence, Reece James’s trim looks fresher than the Chelsea players on the pitch. Also, give Broja more minutes.


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