Sunday, Chelsea take a trip to Manchester and Old Trafford to face Manchester United to face a United side that has struggled a bit to find themselves under new manager Louis van Gaal. It won’t help United that Chelsea are still unbeaten in the league, have only drawn twice this season, and are coming off of an emphatic 6-0 win over Maribor in the midweek. However, after a slow start to the season, the Red Devils have started to find their form, having lost just once in their last five and three straight at home.
Dominating the headlines are two big factors. First, Jose Mourinho meets one of his mentors in Louis van Gaal for the first time since the two met in the Champions League final in Madrid when Mourinho, as manager of Inter Milan, got the better of Van Gaal’s Bayern Munich to clinch an historic treble. Second, after his sending off against West Ham, Wayne Rooney will serve the last match of his three-match ban, depriving United of their appointed captain.
The match, however, speaks for itself with Chelsea having the opportunity to go 8 points clear of United’s neighbors, Manchester City, and United having a chance to continue their momentum ahead of next week’s Manchester Derby.
Despite their weaknesses, United’s strength in attack rivals any of the sides in the Premier League.
Coming into this season, Van Gaal had a big job to do. The main thing was to refresh a side still badly needed rebuilding. Last season, United were not able to strengthen in the areas that they needed, and consequently, the job was rather similar this year. In building this side, Van Gaal has been able to bring in top-quality attackers in Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao to join an already formidable attack force of Rooney, Robin van Persie, and Juan Mata.
Di Maria has brought them an energy in attack that they sometimes lacked last year and is very much suited to the style of play that has been associated with United over the years. He’s very comfortable on the ball, has pace, and plays a very direct style of game by driving at defenders to push them back. It’s not that dissimilar to the way that Ryan Giggs made his name for United, but the difference is that Di Maria tends to play a bit more centrally rather than out wide.
Chelsea fans will remember Falcao, as his last meeting with the Blues was in the 2012 UEFA Super Cup where his first-half hat trick propelled Atletico Madrid to a 4-1 win in Monaco. Since that time, Falcao has suffered a rupture of his ACL and missed most of last season and last summer’s World Cup. Questions have been asked about his ability to regain what made him the top striker in Europe before his injury, the quick burst of pace over the first five yards and the agility to turn defenders, but his movement for United has been reminiscent of his play before the injury. The goal return hasn’t been there, though, as he scored his first goal for United just two weeks ago against Everton, but his movement and overall play has been positive and he remains a threat.
If United’s attack is their main strength, their main weakness is in central defence.
While United have strengthened their attack, their defence was an area that needed addressed. With the departures of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, the center back position needed addressed, and in came Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind. With the arrival of Luke Shaw from Southampton, Patrice Evra was deemed surplus to requirements, and Alexander Buttner decided his future lay elsewhere.
However, United haven’t been convincing this season defensively, conceding 12 goals this season, 5 goals to Leicester and 2 to West Brom, and recording 2 clean sheets against Burnley and QPR. To be fair, Van Gaal has experimented with his defence, switching from a back 3 to start the season to a back 4 now, and United have had to endure injuries to Phil Jones, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling, meaning youngsters such as Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair have had to step in.
Regardless, it’s a telling sign that United’s two most experienced defenders are Rafael and Evans, and they have not really filled the spots left by the departures of Ferdinand and Vidic and have had to rely on defenders that are a bit short on experience. It’s been a problem for them, and may be why Van Gaal has opted for such a strong attack, at least until January where United will most likely strengthen that defence.
Louis Van Gaal has finally settled on a 4-4-2 diamond to allow three of Rooney, Mata, Van Persie, and Falcao to start, but it also may be a weakness.
After a couple months of trying a back three and other shapes to maximize the talent at his disposal, Van Gaal seems to have settled on a 4-4-2 diamond, playing Rooney or Mata in behind two strikers and giving Di Maria freedom to get forward from the left of the midfield four. There is one problem. After loaning Tom Cleverley for the season to Aston Villa, and with Michael Carrick just coming back from injury and Anderson being ineffective, United don’t quite have the numbers in midfield to play four central midfielders in their diamond. As a result, they’ve been asking Antonio Valencia and Di Maria to operate as the sides of the diamond.
While that’s strengthened their attack, it has left their holding midfielder slightly exposed, particularly to counters that start wide and come back through the middle where the midfield is outnumbered. That weakness is slightly mitigated by the presence of Rooney, who is willing to track back and fill the gaps ahead of the midfield. However, with Mata playing there, it leaves the responsibility to the holding midfielder alone to break up attacks, and when he doesn’t, the center backs are exposed.
Chelsea have a bit of a striker crisis at the moment.
While Jose Mourinho solved his striker crisis from last season, where the combination of Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, and Samuel Eto’o were unable to provide a consistent threat, this year’s striker crisis is a bit different. With Loic Remy limping off after 13 minutes against Maribor with a groin strain and Diego Costa a question mark after his many ailments over the week, Chelsea face the prospect of going to Old Trafford with just Didier Drogba available from the first team.
Since his return to Chelsea, Drogba has provided the experience and leadership that was needed after the departures of Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, but at 36, he isn’t the force that he was in his first stint at the club. In the matches he’s played, he’s looked a step slow to every ball. That could just be a lack of sharpness, or it could be a sign that his decline is greater than anyone thought. Regardless, if Drogba is called upon, he is one of the best big-match strikers that anyone’s seen, and he does have the confidence of having scored his first goal since his return in the win over Maribor.
With all that said, Mourinho did hint that Costa has a “little chance” of playing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his name appeared in the starting 11 at Old Trafford.
So how do you beat United?
The one thing that should scare United fans going into this match is that Chelsea’s big strength is United’s big weakness at the moment – the counterattack. Every team that’s had success against United have been able to catch them in transitions one of two ways: by sitting deep, absorbing pressure, and breaking as West Brom did, or by applying pressure to their back line, forcing them to have to play decisive passes, and picking them off, as Leicester did. Frighteningly for United, Chelsea are adept at doing both, and should be worried about the lightning transitions, especially when you look at the goal scored by John Terry midweek.
The other concern for United should be the effectiveness in creating chances without basically conceding the counterattack to Chelsea. The way that United play with the number 10, whether it be Rooney or Mata, and Di Maria being the main creative forces behind the striker and the fact that their fullbacks play so high up the pitch leaves the possibility that they leave the door wide open for Chelsea to waltz through, particular because Mata will be going up against the duo of Cesc Fabregas and Nemanja Matic, and Shaw and Rafael will have to deal with any combination of Willian, Oscar, and Eden Hazard wide. It leaves Daley Blind as their protector of the back four, a role that he’s not really well suited to playing.
For Chelsea, they will respect the United attack, the fact that United are United, and the fact they’re at Old Trafford. That means that I don’t expect an expansive attacking game from the Blues, especially when you do have to guard against two great finishers with good movement in the box. However, I do think that Chelsea will be able to find some holes in that United side, particularly as they have to come forward and especially if Chelsea score first. Keep in mind that most of United’s problems have come when the opposition scores first or the opposition comes back to level the score. Keeping everything tight and secure early on could be the key to unraveling United later in the match.