Eden Hazard, a spectacular winger, played as a false nine. Wayne Rooney, an aging, divisive forward, played as a false…something. Pedro, historically a right winger for his previous club FC Barcelona, “played” on the left and only created chances when the wings were swapped. Anthony Martial, always a striker, was slotted into a position known as “not a striker.”
Peculiar tactics by Dutch managers in the Premier League did not work at all in the cluttered December match-up between two struggling giants.
As a quality influence map will show, Martial was the only Manchester United player whose influence stretched to the final third. Chelsea’s squad sat so deep that none of their player influence positions roamed into the final third. A sad indictment of last year’s league winner’s and this summer’s highest spenders.
Possession percentages will grant Chelsea some leeway – the London side was content to stay back, not concede, and move forward with a point. Only holding 33% possession over the course of the full ninety, Chelsea and new interim manager Guus Hiddink simply wanted to escape without conceding a goal.
United, of course, fell prey once again due to their inability to create chances. With quality players playing in and around the final third (or those who are supposed to be positioned in that area, based on the above map), it remains a mystery that the squad can only sniff at the opposition’s goal. Looking at this particular match, it’s clear where the Red Devils’ problems come from.
Though the chances are spread out all over the final third, the players that created them weren’t placing them into the correct positions. Of the ten United chances created, six were either back passes out of the area or square outside the area. Two more were forward, but led to nothing in the box. Of the final two, one was played close to a teammate while the other had no runner to receive it.
The problem for United in this match lay in player positions.
Wayne Rooney should by no means still be the primary forward in this Manchester United side. It’s understandable that Louis van Gaal, considering his precarious position all season at the helm of United, would continue to use the controversial legend in hopes that Rooney would spark some passion in the Red Devils. Or, at least, get inside the box when other, far more forward players were looking to play the ball to a forward.
Thus far, that has not been the case.
The young French forward, on the other hand, should absolutely be playing on the front lines. Many have slated Martial for his lack of goal-scoring efforts since his arrival to the Premier League. But, in his starts at centre forward this season, he’s been surrounded by players either adjusting to the Premiership or failing to adjust to Martial’s incisive style of play.
Juan Mata, who has dealt with Rooney and Radamel Falcao over the last two seasons, fails to find Martial on several of his darts in behind. Ander Herrera, who has until recently fallen out of favor with van Gaal, has not received enough practice time with Martial to achieve nearly any level of understanding with the French forward. Though Herrera remains one of the brighter players in the United line-up considering the lackluster season-and-a-half since he’s been in Manchester, the ever-changing philosophy of van Gaal has hindered his development.
Finally, Memphis Depay and Wayne Rooney. The Dutchman, who reveled in constant success when in Holland, has found the Premier League marginally more difficult to shine in. While he’s been in and out of the squad, Rooney has found little love for Martial when the Englishman is slotted behind the young forward. The fewest chances between two players have been created between Rooney and Martial, causing a divide in the attack that has stalled the offense to a near halt.
All of these observations were consistent with yesterday’s match-up.
For Chelsea, little praise is left to be awarded. Though Hazard is one of the best players in the world, his role is not, nor has it ever been, that of a false nine. When played wide and allowed the space to dribble, the Belgian is among the best around. When forced into a position that limits his creativity and gives centre-backs an opportunity to press him, Hazard finds much less fruit in his endeavors forward.
Though, to be fair, no help was found around him. For the most part, Pedro found himself on the left side of the attacking midfield, a position unfamiliar to him and a role just as uncomfortable. Filling the position that Eden Hazard has left is as close an insurmountable task as any, to say the least. Of course, not this year’s Hazard – primarily, the legacy left behind from a season seemingly long gone for Chelsea. When the Belgian is on the left, creating chances and goals with his technical ability and seemingly endless vision, there is promise and prowess in the Chelsea attack. When not doing that, there is typically little happening in areas that are prime spaces for scoring efforts.
As shown above, the chances created in this match primarily came from the right, though three of Chelsea’s seven chances came from Pedro. But what came from the left? To answer succinctly, nothing at all.
The remainder of the chances came from right-sided players, particularly Willian and Ivanovic, who at least attempted to play in men around the box. By the score line, however, it’s clear that none of those chances came to fruition.
While the left remained broken for both sides, it’s the centre of the attacking force that remains largely at question. Rooney was insufficient as has been the tale of the Englishman since day one of last season, let alone the current one. Diego Costa, on the other hand, has been so impotent thus far that Hazard was made to lead the attack in the Braz-Spaniard’s stead.
The only shining light of this midseason fixture is that neither side has anywhere to go but up. For Chelsea, that means outside the relegation battle and into the top half of the league table.
For United, that means reasserting their position on the top four. I mean, for real this time. Van Gaal has quite the job to do, but perhaps not for much longer if he can’t persist against opposition like Chelsea, who are in a massive slump.