Manchester United vs. Chelsea: Champions League Preview
Manchester United welcome Chelsea to Old Trafford for the second leg of the Champions League Quarter Final tomorrow, taking a crucial 1-goal advantage into the tie. Progress to the next round (any form of draw or win will be enough), will offer a timely psychological boost to United as they approach the final hurdle in the league calendar and look forward to an F.A. Cup Semi Final versus City. It is of course a great tribute to Sir Alex that United are in the hunt for a potential second ‘treble’, as despite having the best squad of players in the Premiership, Fergie has had to cope with medium to long-term injuries in the form of Ferdinand, Carrick, Anderson, Valencia and Park – as well as suffering the mixed form of talisman Wayne Rooney in the last 12 months.
Probable starting line-ups
I can’t imagine either Ferguson or Ancelotti will want to make too many changes to their starting line-ups from the first leg; though Fergie will perhaps ponder Nani’s inclusion ahead of Giggs and Ancelotti will be tempted to start from the beginning with Malouda and Anelka this time around – and given Rooney’s deep role, perhaps Mikel. With Chelsea having to take the game to the home side in search of the equaliser, Ancelotti will surely stick to the 4-4-1-1 from the home leg, with Ramires acting as a third central midfielder when without the ball. United should start with a similar system, though may well maintain a slightly deeper back line than normal (with less adventurous fullbacks), keeping the space between the two bands of four as tight as possible.
The key to the tie will once again be the battle in central midfield, and in this sense Fergie’s tactical ploy last time around worked a treat as both Park and Giggs alternated roles to join Carrick in the centre. In tandem with Rooney dropping very deep this had the effect of providing extra verve and control in central areas, alleviating the pressure which was all too evident in the corresponding Premiership tie (see chalkboard). Whilst Essien, Ramires and Lampard didn’t have poor games, the aforementioned quartet of United players worked hard to stifle attacks at their outset and disrupt any fluency that Chelsea had managed to muster. Rooney in particular has excelled in his deep lying role, and whilst he perhaps doesn’t have the finesse to make the trequartista role his own, he seems to be developing an entirely new role for himself, coming very central and deep when without the ball to disrupt the momentum of the opposition, and finding space out wide once the team have the ball (see chalkboard below) – an ‘eight-plus’ role of sorts!
This was pre-empted in a piece we wrote back in November entitled ‘Why Manchester United must now revert to a 4-2-3-1 system’, stating:
‘3. Release the attacking energy and enthusiasm of a certain Wayne Rooney (at least until the summer!), allowing him to play off the front man and interchange with the other members of the quartet.’
The energy required for such a specific role and the large amount of space that it creates between it and the striker is such that you can’t see this being a sustainable strategy for Ferguson going forward; however, don’t fix what isn’t broke, and in combination with the wide attacking midfielders, it is a strategy which offers penetration and variation, and for this reason we could be seeing a lot more of it before the season’s end.
Rooney v Chelsea: Passes received (click to enlarge)
Credit: Total Football Application
Essien v United (PL): 50/54 pass completed (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Whilst Rooney expertly marshalled Essien off the ball; Park and Giggs worked to nullify Ramires’ runs from wide positions to centre areas; it was Carrick who provided a more general defensive shield in front of the back four, asked to track Lampard’s runs from deep and concomitantly work in tandem with the fullbacks (including Valencia) to initiate counter attacking moves. With 7 interceptions and 8 key tackles/blocks, offering nimble and precise passing going forwards (36/41 passes completed), he rightly came away with the man of the match award (see chalkboards below). Carrick’s positional discipline then will once again be key.
Carrick v Chelsea: Passes (click to enlarge)
Carrick v Chelsea: Interceptions (click to enlarge)
Credit: Total Football Application
If controlling the midfield (or at least nullifying the Chelsea threat given their penchant for more patient approach play) is vital to the outcome of the game, then so will be how both teams utilise possession once they have the ball. In possession, United will seek to hit Hernandez and Valencia early either via Carrick, or indeed Ferdinand – whose return was fantastic at the Bridge, not only for his commanding defensive performance, but his leadership and distribution of the ball. In this respect, a surprise start for Mikel could be on the cards given Chelsea’s vulnerability on the counter attack.
Chelsea will seek to exert greater influence in wide areas, and thus Bosingwa and Cole’s link play with Malouda and Ramires could be key. With the duo of midfielders likely to come inside when on the ball, the overlapping fullbacks will provide the necessary width and seek to run directly at fullbacks O’Shea (Rafael is a doubt) and Evra. In the first leg, it was notable how many times Drogba and Torres had to come out wide to receive the ball given that central approaches were easily dealt with by Carrick and centre halves in particular; Rafael and Evra were alert to this danger and to that of the oncoming fullbacks however, often pairing up with Valencia and Park respectively, and stifling the threat early; Valencia did a fine job as an auxiliary right back then, but staying high and wide, effectively pinning back of Ashley Cole back, could be the formula for success on Tuesday.
The interesting dilemma is once again up front, where he has yet to find a fruitful combination; whilst Chelsea have undoubtedly improved their consistency of performance since Torres’ arrival, the Spaniard has yet to find his way around the Stamford Bridge turf, and for once the ‘hounding’ it is not a mass media ‘agenda’. Torres has struggled in terms of his movement, when to go and when to look for the ball to feet; basic link play, and worryingly for Chelsea, he seems to still be carrying the psychological burden of a poor
World Cup in South Africa. The logical choice then would be a pairing of Anelka and Drogba tomorrow evening, but with Abramovich reportedly still interfering in proceedings (substituting Drogba and not Torres last week was a farce), don’t be surprised to see the ex-Liverpool man start the game. Anelka’s clever movement from deep will perhaps provide the variation to the play sorely missing last week, and his 7 goals this year in the Champions League mean that United will have to be very wary of Frenchman if he starts.
Man United will be looking to halt their poor record versus Chelsea which started at the juncture of Mourinho’s arrival. It is not in their nature to sit on a 1-0 lead, but it is also likely that Chelsea will have the lion’s share of possession, as their calm and authoritative approach play will need to be at its best if they are to have any chance of redeeming the tie. Fergie will extol the virtues of counter attacking, and for this reason the quartet of Giggs, Rooney, Hernandez and Valencia could all play a big part in determining the outcome of this game. If Chelsea are able to take the game into extra time (as Kevin McCarra predicted in this column last week), United have quality from the bench in the form of Nani, Berbatov, Scholes and Anderson, which could be pivotal.
Referee: Benquerenca (Por). Eccentric, controlling and authoritative, both teams will have to be on their best behaviour.
Prediction: 1-1 Hernandez and Anelka, United to progress.
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