Chelsea attempt on Sunday to forget the complete and utter horrible performance against Steaua Bucharest with a trip to Old Trafford in the FA Cup. It is quite conceivable that by Friday, the Blues will essentially be out of the running for every trophy this season. First on that agenda is to head to Manchester to take on the Red Devils.
United will be feeling the effects of their own failures. Having been eliminated by Real Madrid from the Champions League in somewhat controversial fashion, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men should be looking to rebound from that defeat with a chance at winning the domestic double again.
We know United rather well, so there shouldn’t be any surprises in their squad with essentially everyone fit except Phil Jones, so let’s look at what I think Chelsea should expect from the Mancunians.
First question that must be dealt with is, who does Ferguson start at striker?
For me, everything for United starts with the decision of who to play up front. With Robin van Persie slightly off form and the apparent falling out of favor of Wayne Rooney, the selections get a bit trickier. Danny Welbeck proved to be quite effective at closing down Xabi Alonso midweek to deny him time and space on the ball, but van Persie failed to put away his chances, and you still have Javier Hernandez on the bench.
My guess is that Ferguson starts Wayne Rooney with either van Persie or Hernandez. The reason I think so is that Hernandez has always caused our defence problems with his movement, resulting in lots of goals from him, and I think Rooney will be quite unhappy to have not started against Real.
However, I’m not entirely sure of my guess simply because it would be much like Ferguson to start the same side he did against Real, hoping that they’d be sufficiently unhappy enough at their exit to put on a performance.
Second question with United is, how do you deal with wide players?
I also expect that despite not playing against Real, Antonio Valencia will start on the right side for United. Valencia in recent times has been one of the few wide men who have legitimately given Ashley Cole real problems, mostly because of his pace, power, and ability to beat him to the byline. If Ferguson starts with a combination of Rooney/Hernandez up top, the ability to stop the crosses coming in will be vital because both men are capable of peeling off the defenders and converting them.
The other problem Valencia poses is that he’s a very good defender on the right, which adds to the danger because you can’t overlap on Rafael at right back and Eden Hazard will probably be forced into 2 v 2 battles in attack and defence. In recent seasons, it’s been Valencia’s ability to track back and to take advantage of a left winger not tracking back that’s been a key to United’s success.
On the other side, I would not be surprised to see either Welbeck make a cameo in a wider position or another start for Nani. Nani has given us problems in the past, predominantly because of his ability to really create something from nothing. If there’s one player that can produce that little bit of unpredictability and magic, it’s Nani, but he also contributes less defensively and can sometimes be a bit of a head case. The other option is Shinji Kagawa, who’s more of a creative midfielder coming from wide, a la Oscar or Mata.
Third, you must put crosses in on David De Gea, but restrict long shots.
David De Gea’s positioning on set pieces and crosses is still terrible. He doesn’t really command the aerial battle like you would expect him to, and it’s one side of his game that he’s not really improved in England. However, the flip side is that he might just be the best shot stopper in the Premier League.
From watching him, the one thing he does well is get good positioning and angles on the initial shot, which enables him to react to deflections, etc. In that sense, he sometimes looks like a giant ball magnet because it seems that he gets to literally every shot you take at him unless you produce the spectacular. However, you can still get at him during set pieces and crosses, although the return of Nemanja Vidic has helped their vulnerability in that regard.
Fourth, United’s midfield is and has been their main weakness. However, exploiting it is much harder than it looks.
The easiest weakness to find in United is that their midfield of Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Anderson will never jump out at you as “world class.” However, it’s very hard to exploit that weakness for two main reasons.
First, when not in possession, the selections of Rooney or Welbeck provide essentially a third midfielder in defending. Both Rooney and Welbeck are very willing and capable of closing down the midfield from a forward position. In essence, United do attack in a very 4-4-2 manner, but they defend more like a 4-2-3-1, meaning that you really can’t isolate their two central midfielders.
Second, if the United defenders do one thing really well, it’s that they fill in the gaps when the midfield is exposed. When that defence is at their best, one of the two center backs usually covers for any mistake the midfielders make, while the second center back acts as a sweeper. In turn, both fullbacks retreat and defend much deeper with the protection of their wide man in front ahead of them. What that does is it prevents you from essentially stretching them wide and trying to play long, diagonal balls because of the fact that one of the center backs and the opposite fullback are usually in position to head it away.
Essentially, while they’re not spectacular, they have a lot of protection if they make errors during a match, and, of course, they keep things nice and tidy and simple.
Fifth, the final part of four doesn’t really apply to Chelsea.
Romania was a complete farce. The combination of matches played with just the general ennui about the side meant that Steaua Bucharest could look like world-beaters at home. Had they put chances away, surely that tie would be done and dusted.
One of the main problems is the side’s inherent lack of an ability to play things simple. Too often, one or two players attempt overly elaborate passes or flicks that don’t come off and concede possession. Very rarely do you see the side just keep it nice and tidy in the midfield and wait for a moment. Too often, you see someone trying to force a square peg in a round hole. Against United, they will hurt you if you do that. As they proved in beating Real at their own game, United can counterattack with the best of them, and given the gaps that we’ve been ceding to the opposition when we attack, I fear for the side.
However, losing this match, I don’t think, would be the worst possible thing. Given the fact that we’ve already played 50 matches with 10 more in the league to play, losing in both competitions and not having to deal with the fixture pile-up could easily be for the best.