All too often, we hear the phrase ‘chess match’ or ‘tactical battle’ in a footballing context used to describe a match that was relatively uneventful and boring in more polite terms.
However, in many cases, these games do not have any outstanding tactical battles, but that was not the case for Chelsea’s match against Manchester United this weekend.
In the game of chess, the most basic tactical principle is to establish control of the centre. Similarly, in this match, the main tactical theme was the battle in midfield, where formations and numerical advantages dictated which side was in control.
The contest ended 1-1 after a couple of late goals, but just 14 total shots were attempted from open play, the same tally United managed in the first half alone against Tottenham Hotspur in midweek. Nonetheless, the match was a gripping watch for those keeping an eye on the tactical side of things.
Much like he did at Brighton & Hove Albion, Graham Potter has mixed things up in terms of his side’s formation from match to match, so it’s never clear what exactly his side will shape up to look like until the line-ups are announced, and sometimes not even then.
On this occasion, his starting XI made it clear that he was using a 3-4-2-1 shape, while United came out in their favoured 4-2-3-1 system with a near-full strength side.
Potter would have quickly realised that his choice of formation was a mistake because it gave the visitors a big advantage in midfield, where Chelsea just had two players against a trio.
Of course, United still had to exploit this imbalance, for which Erik ten Hag must be credited for his tactical decisions. He aimed to stretch the spaces between Chelsea’s attackers out of possession, thereby opening passing lanes into midfield.
Usually, the wide attackers can be pulled away by keeping the full-backs deep and wide, but this is not always the case against a side coached by Potter, who at times allows his wing-backs to get as forward as necessary out of possession and defend with a back line of just three. To prevent this, Ten Hag asked his wingers to stay close to the touchline, forcing the wing-backs to stay deep.
Christian Eriksen was asked to push forward in the build-up phase in midfield, which often pinned the two Chelsea midfielders back and freed up Casemiro. The Brazilian international was still being cover-shadowed by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but he could be found via lateral passes from the full-backs.
Once he received the ball, Chelsea’s midfielders had no choice but to go and close him down, and then it would simply be a case of United using their numerical advantage to play it around and get past them.
Largely thanks to this, United were quite clearly in the ascendancy in the first phase of this game. They had over 57% of possession and were up in the shots department 6-1 until the 35th minute of the match when Potter made a crucial decision.
Anyone could recognise Chelsea’s issues, but what separates Potter from most other managers is his willingness to act quickly to solve them, even in the first half. So, in the 36th minute, Marc Cucurella made way for Mateo Kovačić as Chelsea switched to a 4-1-2-1-2 shape with a diamond in midfield.
With that, the midfield battle was completely turned on its head. Now, the home side could go man-to-man as Mason Mount marked Casemiro, Eriksen was watched by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Kovačić kept an eye on Bruno Fernandes. Jorginho was an extra man for Chelsea, so he was able to cover for anyone who was bypassed or out of position.
The weakness of this defensive shape was its lack of width, which the opposition full-backs were poised to exploit, but the front two worked hard to get out to them whenever possible. Moreover, Chelsea’s newfound numerical advantage in midfield meant that one of their midfielders could move out to close down any advancing full-back.
It is no exaggeration to say that the first-half substitution from Potter was game-changing, and the statistics back that up:
Chelsea established more control in the game after that, but they still did not look too dangerous in possession and had a tough time creating chances.
They were sometimes able to pose a threat in transition after winning the ball back in midfield, so Ten Hag tried to put an end to that by replacing Jadon Sancho with Fred early on in the second half. He was successful, as the Blues failed to create a single chance in open play until the full-time whistle was blown.
As we approached the end of the match, both sides seemed happy with a goalless draw, as was exemplified by United’s substitution of Eriksen for Scott McTominay. The Scotsman did have a big impact on the game, but not how his coaches would have liked because he gave away a penalty with five minutes left.
Jorginho converted that to set Chelsea on course for a perhaps slightly undeserved win, but there was yet another late twist in the tale in stoppage time.
United threw everything they had at Chelsea in search of an equaliser, and they eventually found one when Casemiro headed Shaw’s cross goalwards. Kepa Arrizabalaga got a fingertip to it, but it hit the post and just about crossed the line before he could claw it back out.
So, although there was plenty of drama and some blunders in the endgame, both contestants shook hands and accepted a score draw at the end of a very intriguing tactical battle.
Stats courtesy Opta via WhoScored.
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