Manchester United came out strong and dominated the first half against Chelsea. However, Rafa Benitez made some astute tactical changes and altered the flow of the match in favor of his side. In the second half, nearly all traffic was flowing against Manchester United’s goal, and Chelsea nearly walked away with a 3-2 victory.
After being benched against Real Madrid during the week, Wayne Rooney returned to United’s starting eleven, playing in an attacking midfield role behind Javier Hernandez. As has been the case all season, Michael Carrick stayed deep in the midfield and operated as United’s primary distributor. He acted as the pivot point around which Tom Cleverley could rotate and look for creative passes and attacking space.
Chelsea’s shape remained the same as it has been in recent games. In midfield, Lampard paired with Ramires. Both looked to attack the penalty area late and coordinate and support each other’s forward runs. The coupling worked to limited effciency, however. More often than not both players’ desire to roam pulled the other into unfavorable positions and limited their impact. Hazard started on the bench with Oscar, Mata, and Moses supporting Ba as attackers.
In the first half, Chelsea had a large amount of space between their defense and their midfield. The result was a lot of room in which Hernandez could operate. The additional room allowed the striker roaming space to make runs behind Chelsea’s defense. United’s first goal took direct advantage of this shortcoming: even though he started from a deep position, Hernandez had the benefit of space. When Chelsea’s lack of spatial control forced them to step forward and pressure Carrick, the space was made for Hernandez’s run.
Chelsea’s lack of definite shape or ability to control midfielder space meant United were on the attack. In the first half hour or so, United looked as though they were on course to put five or more past Chelsea. There was simply no countering threat or defensive strength from the Blues.
This is when everything changed for Chelsea.
In the 52nd minute, Rafa made two key changes. Swapping Victor Moses for Eden Hazard was fairly straight forward. This change alone didn’t change Chelsea’s formation or tactical play, but the introduction of player with a greater degree of quality than his counterpart undoubtedly helped. Hazard’s strike in the 59th minute was an example of a superior player making something happen through individual ability.
It was the other change that really affected Chelsea. Lampard came off for John Obi Mikel, greatly altering Chelsea’s shape in midfield. The introduction of a more defensive-minded player gave Ramires a greater degree of license to roam forward. When Lampard was in the match, he and Ramires had to remain in a conscious push-pull system, making sure one was covering for the other during forward runs. They were not always on the same page tactically in the first half, and a lack of defensive compactness in midfield allowed United room to prove.
This new room for attack in midfield created Chelsea’s second goal. David Luiz powered forward into midfield after a United attack, immediately turning defense into a counter attack. United’s stretched defense failed to cover Ramires’ run down the right flank, and he was allowed the space to make a run behind their line and score.
While Chelsea fans may be reticent to give him any credit, Rafa deserves a fair share of praise for changing Chelsea’s fortunes in the second half. United looked too exhausted and limp in defense to repel Chelsea’s increased pressure in midfield. In this first half it looked as though Chelsea would be lucky to escape only conceding two goals. At the end of the day, the Blues may feel unlucky not to have won the match outright.
Chelsea now can look forward to match on home turf against United. It will be interesting to see what both mangers make of the tactical ebb and flow in this match, and what changes they see as necessary.