Once again, it’s Manchester United versus Chelsea in the Premier League on Sunday. This time, the match shifts to Stamford Bridge and the fortress that Jose Mourinho has built, and the tenor of the match is a much different one than the first meeting of the season. Back then, both teams had wildly different expectations, so much so that neither showed much in the way of attacking intent and seemed content to play out a 0-0 draw for a point.
This time around, Chelsea are looking to keep pace with title rivals Arsenal and Manchester City, who play Fulham and Cardiff City respectively, and United are looking to close that 6-point gap between themselves and fourth-place Liverpool. In essence, neither team can really afford to drop points in this match, and it could lead to a much more exciting affair, particularly because Chelsea are at home.
Manchester United enter this match with good form in the league, having only met defeat once at the hands of Tottenham, but bad form overall when you consider that they lost three consecutive matches starting with that defeat to Spurs and continuing with lasses to both Swansea City and Sunderland. If that doesn’t make enough of a problem, United also will be without the services of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney (maybe, but we’ll get into that in a minute) through injury.
Contrast that with the fortunes of Chelsea, who enter this match having not been defeated in over a month and having conceded just 1 goal since that match at the Brittania where they lost 3-2. In that time period, Chelsea have seen off the challenge of Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and stifled Arsenal at the Emirates to the tune of another 0-0 draw. More importantly, Mourinho has seemed stemmed the flow goals that the Blues have conceded while also seeing his side be more ruthless at the other end.
Needless to say, it appears as if the two teams are at opposite ends of the playing-fortune spectrum, at least as the top-tier teams are concerned.
United’s two-man team is causing David Moyes problems.
This was the main question that United had last season. Were United at risk of being a two-man team? I always believed that that was the case and that if Rooney or van Persie didn’t score or create it, United don’t find enough goals. That scenario is playing itself out this season, as United have struggled for goals in the absence of both men and have had the occasional issue when only Rooney was fit. The big factor is that van Persie accounted for 26 goals last season in the league and that total is down to 7 this season due to injury. Wayne Rooney has accounted for 9 goals in the league so far, but only Danny Welbeck has more than 3 league goals outside of those two.
The fact is that the above statement holds true. You just can’t see anyone that poses a genuine match-winning threat from the United squad as it stands now, and that’s taking into account the streaky scoring from Welbeck and the non-existence of Javier Hernandez this year.
Also keep in mind that since putting 5 past Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League back on November 27, United have managed 3 goals in one match just three times and have only managed 4 clean sheets in that same period. Chances are that neither one of those figures will change on Sunday.
United’s lack of quality in midfield is now starting to be a real concern.
I never fully believed in how much a good manager can mask over flaws in a team until I look at United’s team last season compared to this season. With the same midfield, Sir Alex Ferguson took this team to the title, whereas this season, David Moyes has taken them to seventh so far. This isn’t necessarily an indictment of Moyes overall abilities, it’s more to highlight the fact that Ferguson was able to hide the massive flaw in midfield with the spare parts that he was given.
Moyes, unfortunately, has inherited a squad with only Michael Carrick who could be considered a regular contributor at the international level. When you have the likes of Tom Cleverley, Anderson, and a returning from two years away Darren Fletcher helping Carrick, there’s going to be some level of concern in that area of the park
Let’s just say that this was the same midfield that saw Ferguson play Ryan Giggs in the middle and convince Paul Scholes to return from his retirement. The difference now is that Giggs is north of 40 and Scholes isn’t coming back.
Since we’ve talked about personnel, let’s talk about the main problem United have, which is how to stop anyone from walking straight through the middle of the park against them.
In many of the matches that I’ve seen from United, there is usually about a 20 to 30-yard diameter circle that you can draw between United’s center backs and their midfield whenever they are on the attack. Whenever you counter them, the midfield isn’t quick enough to retreat to close that space and the center backs aren’t quick enough to risk pushing higher. Inevitably, the team on the counter bypasses their midfield and has a quick player running straight at the two center backs with no one around them in support.
This is particularly interesting because it happened again for the first goal from Swansea in the FA Cup at Old Trafford, and Chelsea will most likely field two players at minimum who like to play in the space between those lines. It doesn’t spell fun for United, unless Moyes can find a way to close that gap and still have Carrick initiating the attack.
While we’re on the subject of center backs, none of them are particularly good at the moment.
Part of the reason this giant chasm in the center of the park opens up is because whoever is picked at center back has to sit deeper due to lack of pace. Nemanja Vidic’s knee problems have slowed him down quite a bit and he is nowhere near the player that he was two or three years ago. Rio Ferdinand is old and currently injured. Phil Jones has been turned into John O’Shea, in that he could be very good at center back but gets moved all over the back line. And Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are, well, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling.
The fact is that teams that have had the most success against United were ones that had players capable of running at the center backs on the counter and running at the back line in general. Given the form of Oscar, Willian, Eden Hazard, and even the confidence of Fernando Torres, this could be an area of real concern, particularly since either Smalling or Jones will probably have to play at right back.
Is Wayne Rooney really out?
This is the real interesting one, because I won’t believe until his name isn’t on that team sheet that Rooney isn’t fit to play any part in this match. With all the warm weather training and the fact that he trained alone all week makes me think that if he’s not fit, he’s got to be close to it. Given the problems that United have in creating goals, this might be a risk worth taking if you think Rooney can give you 30-60 minutes without risking further or more damaging injuries.
Without Rooney, United have a numbers issue in midfield. They’ve been able to survive in a modified 4-4-2 for a number of seasons now because of Rooney’s work rate and willingness to help out his midfield. It allowed him to play both the role of a support striker and auxiliary midfielder to combat most teams playing with any combination of a three-man triangle in the middle. In his absence, the likelihood is that Shinji Kagawa starts behind Welbeck, and he doesn’t offer the same set of skills. Likewise, I think the best option would be to play Welbeck in Rooney’s role, but that means you start Hernandez and leave no way of changing the match through subs, as you won’t have any strikers.
I think if Rooney is even 75% fit, it might be worth the risk to put him on the bench given the numbers situation against Mourinho’s three-man midfield. Also, keep in mind that the only real creative force that have in the absence of van Persie and Rooney is an 18-year-old named Adnan Januzaj.
Will Mourinho pull any tactical surprises?
Last time, Mourinho surprised everyone by playing Andre Schurrle by himself as a lone striker. It didn’t yield any real chances, but it did keep a clean sheet away from home and gain a point, which fits right into Jose’s “draw the big matches away and win them at home” philosophy. However, I don’t know that he entirely had the pulse of his side back then, but this time, it appears that he has his preferred 11 in mind, barring injuries. The other question becomes whether he tries another ploy like he did against Arsenal where he dusted off the old 4-3-3, mucked up the midfield, and simply stamped Arsenal’s midfield out of the match so badly that they didn’t muster a single shot on target until late in the second half.
At Stamford Bridge and against this United side, I would hope that neither of the above are the case. At the moment, he’s finally gotten his front four to play with the aggression and ruthlessness that he’s wanted all season and he’s managed to tighten everything up at the back. This United side doesn’t possess the same midfield potency as City or Arsenal does, and they don’t have a fit match winner of Luis Suarez’s quality like Liverpool do. I would venture to say that Mourinho will set his side out with a bit more positive intent. But I don’t expect him to send them out there with a relentless attack in mind.