Ahead of the Sunday showdown at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Manchester United, I have taken a look at their victory over Stoke City in the previous fixture. Here are the scout notes from that game.
Formations and Applications
Often times, in this kind of analysis, we focus on the difference that formations make for the team (e.g. how 4-3-3 has an advantage of having an extra man in midfield over a 4-4-2). However, formations just tell one side of the story. Most often, it is the certain application of the formation that makes the difference (e.g. whether a winger in a 4-3-3 stays wide or cuts into the central areas). This is clearly highlighted in this game.
Both Manchester United and Stoke City took the field with a 4-4-1-1ish shape: out-and-out striker supported by a partner who drops slightly into midfield; two anchoring central midfielders; two wide men; and the usual back four. Yet, while the Red Devils set out to control the game through passing abilities their midfielders, Stoke were happy to defend deep with their wide men pulled back and their central midfielders stationed in front of their back four. Two very similar formations with two very different applications.
For United, Chicharito played high with Berbatov behind the Mexican. Park, on the left, played a more defensive and narrow role than Nani typically does, while Valencia torments Stoke's defense on the right flank.
For Stoke, Crouch led the attack with Jones in support. Walters, usually a second striker, was pushed out to the left wing and Pennant as the wing partner on the other side. Whitehead and Palacios shielded Stoke's defense.
With Nani and Rooney back in contention for the game against the Blues, it is very likely that Berbatov, who played well in this game, and Park might be left out of the starting eleven.
|Chart 1. All passes made by Scholes and Carrick | Guardian Chalkboard ||
Manchester United maintained 75% ball possession in this game and it is because of two factors. One, Stoke's game plan to defend deep allowed United players the time and space pass the ball around with ease. Two, when given that kind of opportunity, Scholes and Carrick took advantage through slick passing. Each made over 100 successful passes in this game, only a few attempts were misplaced. This allowed United attackers to roam around to create space without having to worry about losing the ball. Scholes and Carrick provided the stability from which United can build their attack.
There is also a certain balance in their partnership. Often in this kind of midfield positioning, one player tends to drift left while another goes right or one pushes up higher while another stays behind, and consequently effect their passing pattern which shows up on passing charts -- one groups to the left while another gathers on the right and so on. But, as you can see in Chart 1, the passing patterns of Scholes and Carrick are almost identical.
This suggests that each of them spend about the same amount of time passing in defensive areas as in offensive areas (and made surging forward runs) and the same goes for their left and right positioning. One plays off of another's movement and position -- a very tricky proposition for the defending team. United played Giggs in place of Scholes against Arsenal and there wasn't such a balance in central midfield due to Giggs's leftsidedness.
The key for Chelsea will be pressing -- both in terms of closing down United's midfielders and their passing options. Chelsea's two midfielder placed on the base of the midfield triangle will have to be sharp and aggressive in their pressing.
Creative Withdrawn Striker
|Picture 1. Berbatov Setting Valencia Free|
A major feature of Ferguson's 4-4-1-1 is that the player in the supportive striker role has both offensive and defensive duties. When without possession, that player puts pressure on opposition's defensive midfielders and defenders. When his team has possession, the player operates between opposition's two defensive lines to link up the play between the midfield and the attack. Rooney usually plays this role for United but Berbatov, his replacement on the day, did this job well.
Picture 1 shows how Berbatov drops back to the center circle to pick up the ball and releases Valencia on the right while Chicharito and Park push forward. By the time Valencia is ready to make the cross, there are three United players in the box. Valencia has been on great form for Untied recently. Take nothing away from him, but his effectiveness on the wing hinges on the supportive role that the withdrawn striker plays for United.
|Picture 2. Berbatov Releasing Carrick|
Picture 2 shows another instance of Berbatov's creative play from his withdrawn striker position. Carrick played the ball forward to Park and bombed forward. Park squared the ball to Berbatov who, then, found a way to slip the pass through two Stoke defenders for Carrick to run onto. Carrick missed but it was a clear cut goal-scoring opportunity for United.
Rooney is likely to start against Chelsea in that role and Romeu, if he plays, will have his hands full in both offensive and defensive phases. When Chelsea has the ball, Rooney will be closing down on Romeu. When United has the ball, Rooney will be looking to sneak past Romeu to create chances for the Red Devils.
Switching Point of Attack
|Picture 3.1 Switching Point of Attack from Right to Center|
Finally, I want to end this scout report with a detailed look at the way United won their first penalty against Stoke. It neatly captures all the points I have made in this post -- (1) dangerous right side of attack, (2) the link-up role of the withdrawn striker and (3) Scholes and Carrick taking turns to join the attack.
Smalling dribbled the ball on the right before releasing Valencia and making a forward run. But they were outnumbered three-to-two. Thus, Valencia changed the point of attack. Berbatov ran up from a deep position and managed to get some free space at the edge of the box. He received the pass from Valencia.
|Picture 3.2 Scholes Finds Park on the Left|
While all the actions were on the right side of United's attack, Scholes had bombed down the left and positioned himself in Stoke's box. Notice how Carrick has stayed back, near Stoke's withdrawn striker Jones. Carrick had his chance to go forward in Picture 2 and this was Scholes's turn. Scholes slipped Park through but the Korean was fouled and United won the penalty.
This game was never going to be an easy one us. Especially after that lackluster performance against Swansea, it seems there is little hope of getting a win. But we have faced against pretty tough opposition at home, Manchester City in their prime, and have beaten them by being organized in defense and being incisive in attack. Do that (easy for me to say, right?) and we will come out of this tie with smiles on our faces.
Further reading: If you think you haven't read enough on Manchester United in this scout report, go read this tactical review of United 2-0 Stoke by The Busby Babe and this tactical analysis of Arsenal 1-2 United by Zonal Marking.
Carefree, wherever you may be...