Unfortunately, the post-match analysis of a terrific game has been and will continue to be dominated by discussions of the officials. I’ll leave the debate over the decisions to those elsewhere but it is impossible to escape the conclusion that they ruined a finely balanced game. There could be no arguments over Branislav Ivanovic’s sending off but the second booking for Fernando Torres after he was caught by Jonny Evans (yes Torres probably should have been sent off for a stamp on Tom Cleverley before half-time but two wrongs don’t make a right) and the failure to spot an offside in Manchester United’s winner altered the path of the game. We’ll never know what would have transpired without these errors but we can assuredly state that the game’s dynamic was changed significantly.
Regardless of the influence of Mark Clattenburg and his team, there was a highly interesting tactical element to the game. Roberto Di Matteo’s selection and system were as expected, playing in their usual 4-2-3-1 with the dynamic trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar roaming behind Fernando Torres. Despite the undoubted wealth of the West London club, Di Matteo has surprisingly few options available to him. He seemingly only has two choices, being the team he selected yesterday or a slightly more defensive line-up (on paper at least) with either Ramires or Ryan Bertrand occupying one of the wide spots. This limitation could well prove costly as the season develops, with the manager heavily dependent on the form and fitness of some key players.
The Manchester United squad is entirely different, however, with an array of possible selections and tactical setups available to Sir Alex Ferguson. With a variety of attacking combinations at his disposal, Ferguson can alter his system depending on the opposition and has done so this season to good effect. Although United have been weak defensively, they are scoring goals for fun.
Chelsea’s predictability afforded Ferguson the perfect opportunity to formulate plans specific for the game. As was suspected, his ‘revolutionary diamond’ was dropped in favour of a variation of 4-2-3-1 with Wayne Rooney playing in the central attacking area behind Robin van Persie. The diamond is an outdated and inefficient system anyway and is a result of Ferguson’s desire to get as many forwards into the same team as possible, rather than a moment of tactical genius. United have achieved favourable results with it, but they have done so in spite of it rather than because of it.
More to the point, given the way Chelsea play it would have been a mistake to use such a system. It would have left the defensively weak full-backs exposed to Hazard and Mata, whilst it would have placed a heavier reliance to attack centrally where Chelsea are strongest defensively themselves.
Instead a lopsided 4-2-3-1 system was used, with Antonio Valencia hugging the right touchline and Ashley Young tucked inside on the left. The comparison between the passes received by each gives a clear indication of their respective roles at Stamford Bridge. Valencia almost exclusively received every pass in as wide a position as he could possibly hold, whereas Young was given the freedom to float inwards and affect the game in more central areas.
There were a number of reasons for such an approach. From a defensive point of view, it was an acknowledgement of the respective attacking prowess of the two Chelsea full-backs. Whilst Ivanovic has improved his attacking output this year, Ashley Cole is undoubtedly the better attacking player. As many teams tend to do, United were happy to give Ivanovic freedom to receive the ball in slightly advanced areas whilst ensuring Cole never received such time.
It was from an attacking perspective that this slant in shape proved so effective however, with three of United’s four key moments being defined by it. The first goal and Ivanovic’s sending off were a result of Young using his acceleration to spin in behind the defence from a central position. Their second goal and a constant source of danger for the first 25 minutes at least was provided by Valencia isolating Cole, often with the support of the advancing Rafael. Hazard has a habit of not doing his defensive work – he was dropped from the Belgium national team starting line-up against Scotland for this very reason – and the away side exploited this perfectly as they raced into a two goal lead.
Of course, Chelsea responded excellently and recovered to pull the game level courtesy of a superb Mata free-kick and a header from Ramires. The notable difference in the two teams in their style of attack is that whilst United had a system and attacked according to it, Chelsea rely on the brilliance of individual moments. The attacking trio behind the blunt Torres were again excellent, as was Ramires who seems to cover enough ground for two people. Indeed, the home side looked most likely to score again until the two quick red cards.
It is impossible to know how the game would have played out without the extremely harsh decision to dismiss Fernando Torres, although with the man advantage you would have made United favourites to reassert themselves over the final 20 minutes. What we can conclude is that Ferguson got his tactical setup spot on and gave United every chance of leaving Stamford Bridge with three points.