Manchester United play host to Chelsea on Sunday in a game that will give an early indication of where the title will be heading come the end of the season. Early predictions have put Manchester as the destination for the Premier League trophy but it would be unwise to discount a Chelsea team with experience and a double-winning manager at the helm.
Playing each other so early in the season gives both sides a chance to size each other up without the fear of losing too much ground should either side come away with a defeat. Andre Villas-Boas faces his first serious challenge in the form of a free-scoring United side and their talisman Wayne Rooney who’s scored two hat-tricks in a row.
But the Portuguese can take heart from the fact that his side have a good league record against the Red Devils, winning three out of the last four meetings and earning 22 points from 19 Premier League visits to Old Trafford – six points better than any other club.
Most of Chelsea’s attacks occur from the left side with Ashley Cole giving the width needed in their 4-3-3 formation.
Against Bayer Leverkusen, Cole, Florent Malouda and Juan Mata shared a total of 80 passes between each other and received 177 passes from the rest of the team. In the Premier League the Blues have made 340 passes to the left wing compared with 295 to the right.
The graphic on the right shows the way in which Chelsea lined up on Tuesday night. Malouda (15) and Mata (10) took up positions close to each other and they were flanked by Cole (3).
Manchester United’s ability to deal with this threat will depend on how they line-up on Sunday. Last season Sir Alex Ferguson opted for a 4-4-2 formation that helped them to three wins over the Blues and this year it has produced 18 goals already. The pace at which the front four (Wayne Rooney/Javier Hernandez/Nani/Ashley Young) are playing at should discourage Chelsea’s full-backs from making too many forward runs.
However, the midfield will also be important as Anderson will need an able partner in the absence of Tom Cleverley. Against a three-man midfield there is a danger of finding yourself in 2 vs 3 situations.
So far the Brazilian has played a more defensive role; making 16 tackles and six interceptions to Cleverley’s six and three. Michael Carrick is most likely to deputise in the holding midfield role; he made eight interceptions against Benfica on Wednesday and completed 90% of his passes on a night where United were unusually sloppy in possession.
In that game Rooney struggled as a lone-striker and as the match wore on he dropped deep to pick up the ball, meaning United had no focal point for attack in some periods of the game. Hernandez will take on this role on Sunday, leaving Rooney free to roam in the space between midfield and defence (an area Mata will also look to exploit).
Chelsea are still to find some fluency, especially in attack where their 59 shots have produced 7 goals; compared with United’s 18 goals from 61 shots. Torres’ contribution of two assists in mid-week suggests a slight change in fortune for the misfiring forward but whoever starts in the main striking role should take heart from the fact that United have conceded the most shots in the league.
Based on the reigning champion’s strong start I’m betting on them to win but they will need to show a strong defensive resolve against a Chelsea side that will be out to prove a point.