The challenges for the new-look Chelsea continue, as the Blues welcome old title-rivals Manchester United to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. After a run of matches where Chelsea have travelled to their north London neighbors Tottenham and flown to the distant land of the Ukraine, they return home to face Sir Alex Ferguson and the men in red from Manchester.
Both teams are coming into this match with a few questions to be answered. For Chelsea, the new guard is in with Frank Lampard absent with a recurrence of his calf injury and John Terry serving the second of his four-match domestic ban. The Blues are also coming off the back of a defeat at the hands of Shakhtar Donetsk in which Shakhtar were simply a more cohesive side, having been together for 2-3 years and posed questions about how quickly the transformation into a passing side might be going.
For United, they faced SC Braga at Old Trafford, but once again made hard work of a side that they would expect to beat at home. They conceded two early goals, going behind again early, and needed to conjure up some moments of magic to escape defeat, eventually winning 3-2,
If nothing else, the form guide would indicate that there should be goals in this one, especially when you look at the possible attackers on display and the fact that both defences have looked a bit shaky in recent matches.
The attacking talent on display is wonderful, but Ferguson has some tough decisions to make in that part of the pitch.It’s a rare circumstance when you have a dilemma whereby all four of your strikers have a case for starting in a big match. Robin van Persie leads the team in scoring with 6 goals in all competitions. Javier Hernandez is coming off a brace that rescued the win against Braga, despite spending much of the season as a substitute. Wayne Rooney is, well, Wayne Rooney. And Danny Welbeck offers them a little something different with his all-around ability on the ball.
It’s a real issue for Ferguson because ideally, he’d like to play 3 out of the 4, as it allows him to partner two of his strikers who all actually complement each very well, and it frees Rooney to play in behind as an attacking midfielder, something that I think has been his better position all along given his willingness to track back and defend.
However, to get three of them on the pitch, it means he has to sacrifice his tried and true principles of deploying two wingers, and he has played with the idea, but to limited success.
Will Ferguson play the diamond?
Before you even consider how Chelsea are going to play, you have to decide whether or not you think Ferguson will go with two up front and two wider players, or if he will play with the diamond. He has stuck with his tried and true 4-4-2 with flying wingers, despite much of Europe shirking away at the idea of playing that way, and it has brought him success. However, he only has two true wide players on his squad right now in Antonio Valencia and Nani, with the latter not really being in his good graces and likely gone in January. He also has four wonderful strikers and playing 4-4-2 means that two of them have to sit on the bench.
The trade off is the diamond midfield with one wide man or none. However, Braga pulled the former apart rather easily to the tune of 2 early goals, and it has it’s limitations, as we found out when we tried to partner Didier Drogba with Fernando Torres and stick Malouda on the left of the diamond. Doing so weakens a diamond because you lose the solidity that the base of three midfielders provides, despite the lack of width.
The other problem is that Manchester United aren’t really blessed with a great set of central midfielders, and that is one of their two biggest weaknesses.
United have a problem in the center of midfield. They have no Roy Keane.
The one problem that Chelsea haven’t had in recent years is a lack of players who can break up play in the center of the park with tackles and strong play. United’s current problem is the opposite. They don’t really have that type of player in their squad,
Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, and Tom Cleverly are brilliant passers of the ball and can create chances for their attackers and retain possession on the ball. Without the ball, none of them closely resemble a Roy Keane or a Claude Makelele or even a a Lassana Diarra in their ability to win it back.
The only player that closely resembles that type of player is Darren Fletcher, but he’s still playing his way back into fitness, and I’d argue that he’s not really a holding midfielder or a destroyer in the center. He’s more of a box-to-box energy player giving United something similar to what Ramires gives us. But he needs to be aided by another ball winner.
What happens is that you now introduce the ability for an opponent to try to attack you on the ball through the middle, knowing that if you can get by the midfield, you can run 1 v 1 at their center backs (which I’ll get to in a moment). You saw last week what Michael Kightly of Stoke did to them when given the opportunity. This week, they’ll have Eden Hazard, Oscar, and Juan Mata all able to do the same and pick a pass.
United’s defence is a real work in progress, at least until Nemanja Vidic comes back.
I don’t think United would have quite as many issues at central defence if Vidic hadn’t gone on the shelf with another long-term injury. The fact is that Vidic very well might be the best center back in the world and losing him, Chris Smalling, and Phil Jones to injuries have left them a bit thin in the middle.
It’s left them with a pairing of Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, who have been isolated many a time by a midfield that doesn’t provide them with an adequate defensive shield.
I don’t think that Rio Ferdinand has lost a step of pace or that he’s suddenly become a bad player, but I think the absence of a midfield protecting him and a center back partner to protect him has left him exposed. Ferdinand’s strength was never really 1 v 1 defending. He was always much better when asked to bring the ball out of defence and cover for the other CB in an almost a sweeper role. It’s why him and Terry formed such a good partnership for England and why he and Vidic were the best partnership in the league.
Evans doesn’t do that for him. If nothing else, Evans is a player that’s very similar to Rio himself. He wants to play the ball out, but he’s better at covering than defending a man 1 v 1. This is where that lack of midfield shielding becomes a problem because once you get beyond the midfield; your players can run at two CBs who aren’t the greatest 1 v 1. Now you throw in the fact that neither Patrice Evra, nor Rafael really defend well, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Final point: Who starts in goal for United?
It is a fair question because of David de Gea and his inability to command his penalty area having to face three of the better ball-attacking defenders in the Premier League in David Luiz, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic. The problem is that his deputy, Anders Lindegaard, isn’t nearly as talented as a shot stopper.
De Gea’s been a real mystery in that he’s a brilliant shot stopper, but he’s woeful at commanding his area. He flaps at many crosses and corners too often, and it’s seen United concede goals. On the other hand, if you play Lindegaard, you also lose some of the miraculous saves that de Gea is capable of pulling off from shots, and the switching of goalkeepers does upset the harmony and rhythm of your defence. It will be a really interesting question to see the answer to.