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

Chaotic Chelsea

Manchester United v Chelsea FC - Premier League
Deflating defeat
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Prior to kickoff, Manchester United had supposedly more turmoil and crisis than Chelsea, but after a comprehensive victory which exposed significant flaws in our defense, midfield, and attack, we are the team truly in a state of disrepair. In fact, the only person who can walk away from that match with their head held high is Robert Sánchez, who produced a fantastic display, and needed to with the abject performance from all others involved.

There were more than a few headscratchers with the lineup decisions, and it does seem to appear that, as I have pointed out before, the glue that holds the defense and offense together was our missing-through-suspension Conor Gallagher. I would love to see how this match would have played out had his more two-sided game been implemented in the midfield, because I do feel that there would have been some changes it the overall gameplay and perhaps even the outcome. He probably should avoid getting suspended.

Pregame predicted starting XIs

We fared a decent chance if the predicting starting XI were what it actually seemed to be (pictured above). Instead, Pochettino pulled a Guardiola and over-thought the situation, putting Cucurella at right back, Colwill at left back, and opting for his seemingly preferred centre-back pairing of Silva and Disasi. Cucurella has been decent when man-marking a talented winger (like against Bukayo Saka), and in fact is fifth in the league in successful tackles per game (3.1), but he was given the run around by Alejandro Garnacho - and that certainly did not change after Reece James replaced him. In fact, quite obstinately, United attacked Reece James even with the halftime substitute Sergio Reguilón, and our right side was quite easily overwhelmed by that pressure and overload far too often.

One only needs to note how many defensive third turnovers Cole Palmer had (including the one that led up to their first goal) to realise that something just wasn’t right with our ability to transition out of defense. That’s not to blame Palmer exclusively, because we were either dispossessed or turned the ball over 17 times in our own half (you can see who all was culpable below), and that does not count contested balls where a challenge was put in - they won 24 tackles at a 71% rate to our 19 tackles at a 63% rate. To put that into perspective, look at the times we were dispossessed in our own half (many) versus how many times we were dispossessed in theirs (few), and contrast that with their dispossession map (many in ours, few in theirs.) Please make note while observing these that while we also had 55% possession, a massive 81% of the play took place in the middle third or our defensive third. Our possession was futile.

Loss of possession

Not only did our lineup changes affect us, but theirs from the previous weekend did them, much to the opposite effect. The energy that was brought to their press, notably from literally all angles, was also coordinated and overwhelming. In fact, United’s PPDA was 9.2, which is significantly higher than their average of 13.0 in the league. The midfield was quite open, but the problem was we were rarely even able to transition into it, and so it made their defensive cover that much easier. It also explains why when we were able to penetrate deep, we were a threat. Unfortunately, that happened too sparingly and we are far too ineffective at finishing.

We should note that our defensive structure, coordination, and resolve were all quite poor. Colwill goes down softly while challenging for a header in our own 6 yard box on their second goal, which is possibly even the most forgivable of the aggreviences. For their first goal, despite that it comes after a corner and such a miserably failed attempt to transition the ball forward, with Jackson’s pass to Enzo both horribly placed and timed made worse by Jackson’s slip immediately thereafter, both our centre backs are drawn towards the near post and crosser Garnacho. This gives McTominay a free goal, unmarked because of our defensive confusion, because nobody is worried about to whom the ball would be crossed. Cucurella is out of position horribly which leaves Garnacho free, but both Maguire and indeed the goalscorer McTominay are free while standing unmarked around our penalty spot. Enzo had just pushed on, so despite the turnover, he is marginally excused...but what was Caicedo doing? Nothing but watching the play develop around him, unaware of the glaring opening down our right (that Cucurella had allowed), but failing to properly adjust to any of that ball movement. He was a passenger, and needs to do significantly better considering his price tag.

There were quite a few differences between the sides - our defensive midfielders (plural) and our wingers were not adjusting properly to the runs from deeper positions of the United players, while their sole defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat individually cleaned and dusted the entirety of our attacking thrust. Their wingers adhered to their positions, never deviating from stretching our back line, which was often in a back three because of attempted attacking contributions from the fullbacks inevitably turned the ball over, and the ball was given to their wingers before the rest of their attack committed. Our attack came through our fullbacks, often carrying the ball forward only to be pressed into making poor passes leaving them out of position, which shows why so often we played it back- under which circumstances we only seemed to lose possession in deeper areas under more pressure. Their effective pressing was, well, depressing. We shall not pass (map.)

Pathetic looking pass map

Despite setting some purely pathetic stats in the last few seasons, this is now the first time in United’s history that they have gone 12 (TWELVE!) games unbeaten against us. If we expect to remain one of the elite in the Premier League, things need to change immediately. Otherwise, we look like a mid-table club, we play like a mid-table club, and we will remain a mid-table club. Also, we need to give Armando Broja a better look.

It is significantly more repugnant that, as I am about to publish this, United are losing lost to Bournemouth by three goals to nil, and so while they might have been on a high winning manager, player, and goal of the month, they are still more vulnerable than we proved them to be. With a thorn in their side from the Premier League points deduction, don’t expect the weekend to be any easier. Everton did just dismantle a Newcastle side that that whalloped us 4-1, so despite the claim that our schedule becomes easier, it might only appear that way unless we start playing well.


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