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United were able to open up a two point lead at the top of the table as Chelsea were seen off with a fifth straight league win of the season – the best start the club’s had under Ferguson. It wasn’t had all their own way though, wayward Chelsea finishing gives the scoreline a rather flattering edge. Once again though another game ends with injury concerns as both Smalling and Hernandez had to be replaced. Despite that, United maintained their performing-with-flair routine and entertained when attacking, lead by the often unplayable Nani.
Off the back of a tough trip to Benfica this was a very satisfying win but looking ahead there are two big games coming up with Stoke away next weekend but first a trip to Leeds in the Carling Cup. Fergie will have to make full use of his squad once again. Here we discuss some of the key talking points from the game and welcome discussion from both United and Chelsea fans.
The return of Fletcher, a blessing and a curse?
It was a bit of a surprise to see Darren Fletcher’s name amongst the starters today. One league start in six months, against Blackpool in the final game of last season was what a virus had reduced him down to. It seemed likely that Cleverley would be replaced by Carrick in a near(ish) like-for-like swap. Instead, Fletcher who’s probably to the closest United have to a box-to-box player was chosen to partner Anderson.
Whilst much of the post-match attention was focussed on Nani and various defenders, Fletcher was something of an unsung hero in the middle. There was bite to his game and whilst he wasn’t snappy and did at times look a little off the pace, he provided a regular outlet across the pitch and was in turn the busiest of the United midfielders.
Chalkboard 1. Fletcher’s passing (92.2% success rate)
Whilst his passing was often unambitious and regularly sideways and backwards – something often incorrectly accredited to Carrick – it was accurate and reliable. There was something metronomic about it, something that the game had been crying out for from United. This wasn’t a game to play through the middle given Chelsea had superior numbers there, but rather we had the advantage out wide. It’s clearly visible how often Fletcher attempted to spray it wide to Nani – which ultimately proved effective.
There is though one potential downside to Fletcher’s return. So far this season, Anderson has been excellent alongside Cleverley and then Carrick at Bolton. Anderson’s game has been often reliant on who is partner is and how that player plays. So far this season he’s worked well with Cleverley because they’ve moved as a pair up and down the pitch. Both don’t like to be static and having a regular outlet around them has worked perfectly. Today though he was poor and one has to wonder to what extent that was down to being paired with Fletcher.
Chalkboard 2. Fletcher vs. Cleverley heatmap
Comparing Fletcher today with Cleverley against Spurs is rather telling. Whilst Cleverley is seen to be all over the place consistently, Fletcher is clearly much more static. The heatmap shows where a player is when making a pass – Cleverley’s shows he’s nicely divided in different areas of the pitch. That would have suited Anderson who is best when roaming – he would have been alongside Cleverley as the two worked off each other. Fletcher by contrast was much less of a wonderer, great in some ways as Anderson knows he can always have freedom to roam if Fletcher is going to be disciplined and hold deep; but against a three man Chelsea midfield, it was important that the two central midfielders moved together in a pair. With Fletcher holding a deep position it meant that Anderson when going forward was isolated and so he too had to hold a deep rather static position, not something that suits him.
Chalkboard 3. Anderson against Chelsea vs. Anderson against Spurs
Looking at Anderson’s positioning today and comparing it with his positioning against Spurs the difference is obvious. Today, he had to hold a deep position and was unable to get into dangerous forward positions like he did against Spurs. Today only 6% of his passes were made in the final third of the pitch but against Spurs that figure was 18%. It’s also clear that 65% of Anderson’s passes were made within his own half today, yet against Spurs that was only 44%. One reason is without a doubt because of the opposition that United were up against today and the fact Chelsea played a three man central midfield but it’s almost too coincidental that when playing next to a player who on this occasion was static, Anderson too was static and unable to replicate his recent good form.
As Fletcher gets his rhythm back it seems likely that we’ll see more of the box-to-box player he was. Regardless of who his partner was, Anderson’s form was always going to suffer a dip at some point and today he couldn’t play as well as he has lately – that too will no doubt be corrected soon.
Jones passes another test
Phil Jones has been thrust in at the deep end so far in his brief United career. He’s played all bar 75 minutes of the league season and is now in the team because of form rather than lack of numbers. He faced a tough challenge today up against Fernando Torres, who for all his lack of goals, still has fantastic movement.
It takes time for a new defence to gel and play as a unit, so the lack of clarity between Jones and Evans in terms of who should have been picking up Torres for his goal is understandable. Evans saw the run and could have tracked his man but was committed to defending the space behind him. Torres was Jones’ man too mark but didn’t look round and see the run – both he and Evans can take the joint blame. However that rare sign of inexperience aside, Jones (and Evans) was (were) excellent otherwise.
Once again a lung-busting direct run from Jones ended up with a Rooney tap-in but today it was his defensive work that caught the eye. Refusing to be intimidated by the big-reputation players he was up against, Jones was hard in the tackle and unfazed in possession. His reading of the game is far superior to any other defender his age at the moment; he made more interceptions than any other defender on the pitch today (4).
Whilst there were lessons to be learnt by Jones and the other defenders today, there’s little doubt that it was another test passed for him. Few challenges are harder than marking Torres and whilst he didn’t always get it spot on there were times when he did – easy to forget he’s only 19.
Nani’s best performance for United?
Nani’s certainly had easier games in which he’s been able to show off more tricks or have more shots. There is something very satisfying though when doing the simple things so well in a really big match. Nothing Nani had to do today was difficult, it simply required him to do what he’s done all season so far and play for the team.
He scored a wonder goal, a thunderbolt of a shot. It was that powerful that Cech had to do a double-take to check it had gone in, he’d simply not seen it fly past him. Nani could try that another ten times and it probably wouldn’t go in, such is the regular frustration fans have with him when he tries ambitions shots that go wide so often. His goal, as good as it was, isn’t even the reason he deservedly was awarded the man of the match award.
Ashley Cole (in tandem with Evra) has been the best left back in the world for a few years but today he was made to look clumsy and worse than average by Nani. Not so much because Nani has a fantastic repertoire of tricks but because Nani was direct, powerful and quick – attributes that fullbacks hate a winger to have. Cristiano Ronaldo was always credited with great bravery by Sir Alex Ferguson and despite the fact Nani hates the comparison, it’s apt. Nani always demands the ball, he loves to run at players and try to beat them even though more often than not they’ll kick him as he’s just too quick. He provided a wonderful regular outlet today and was one of the few United players to carry the ball and take the game to Chelsea. On top of all that, his decision making was superb and the antics seen in previous years were non-existent.
As long as United play as a team and don’t build a side around Nani, comparisons with Ronaldo’s goal hauls will be rendered pointless. There is though one comparison stat that is intriguing and is valid given Ronaldo’s early years were spent on the wing. Today was Nani’s 100th league game for United…
100 league games: Nani vs. Ronaldo
Yes, Nani is older than Ronaldo was at this stage and has had longer to learn the game having been phased in slightly differently but it’s a remarkable statistic that Nani has contributed a goal or assist at better than every other game so far in his United career. By comparison, Ronaldo wasn’t even at one in every three at the same stage of his career. Nani is unlikely to experience the sudden rush of goals that Ronaldo did when he moved centrally but there may well be more to come both goals-wise and assists-wise. He’s become a real team player (emphasised by the fact no United player won more tackles that he did today) and a vital cog in the United machine.
A look at the opposition: Lampard and Torres
People tend to have such contrasting views on just what Lampard is for Chelsea. My own opinion is that he’s been their playmaker for the best part of 10 years. Whenever I’ve watched Chelsea, every move seemed to go through him at some point as he headed up a midfield diamond or trio. Others point out that he’s not a playmaker and isn’t creative, he’s just a goalscoring central midfielder who times his runs well and is good at finding space. The more cynical amongst us suggest the previous but that he’s only ever late arriving into the box because he’s too slow to get there early; and he’s reliant on deflections and penalties to heave up his goal tally. Whichever category you fall into, it’s hard to deny he’s been a class act and important player for Chelsea.
Ever since being dropped for England’s game away to Bulgaria, there has been quite a public suggestion that Lampard is on the decline – something I’ve believed in for about 12 months. Today though, I think proved just that more clearly than ever before. Deployed as the midfielder at the top of the trio, the game seemed to pass him by, it was just all too quick for him. In possession he was harried and closed down, meaning that the majority of his passes went backwards and he failed to find space easily despite coming up against a two man United central midfield. In truth, he wasn’t able to make any kind of impact on the game and Villas-Boas was brave and correct to remove him at half time.
In Juan Mata, Chelsea have a player much more suited to the frantic pace of today’s game and when he was moved centrally in place of Lampard, Chelsea seemed to tick much better and play at a higher tempo.
Chalkboard 4. Lampard’s first half vs. Mata’s second half
It is rather striking to compare Lampard’s first half and Mata’s second half. Whist Mata showed his usual tendency to drift wide, that only served to stretch United. It’s incredible to see that whilst Lampard was playing 56% of his passes from within his own half, Mata only played 20% from that deep – by being much closer to his forwards, Mata was able to thread balls through to them easier and encourage them to make more dangerous runs.
Lampard shouldn’t be rendered useless though – against lesser opposition he’ll still be incredibly effective no doubt. However the time may be right for him to be phased out of the team. Unlike Scholes, reverting to a deeper quarterback position won’t suit him – Chelsea’s deep man has always been an anchor man, their playmaker’s higher up. Lampard was in fact trialled in a deep role during pre-season but insisted he wanted to play higher up. His decline is undeniably evident and is happening faster and maybe sooner than expected. Villas-Boas will have some big calls to make over the next few months.
There’s been a theory that Mata will bring the best out of Torres because they understand each other well, are Spanish and Torres has previously thrived in the Spanish national side with someone like Mata behind him. I agree that Mata may bring the best out of Torres but for a different reason. With Mata playing higher up and roaming about it’ll encourage Torres to make runs and also move. Lampard likes to be stationary and try to pick Torres out which is easier to defend against; it’s much harder to defend against two players who are both moving. With Mata playing closer to Torres it seems simple to suggest that it’ll become easier for him to play balls through over a shorter distance.
Torres though is a strange one. His movement today was superb and there were hints of the old aura coming back. Runs were good, control was good but the shooting just lacked conviction and he often lacked support. His goal though was brilliant, a super run between the United centre backs and a wonderful dinked finish that De Gea could do nothing about – much credit too must go to Anelka for a perfect pass through.
It’s therefore a shame for Torres that the game and Torres’ contribution will be remembered for this…
It happens to the best players, but even so…
Summary – lucky United or worthy winners?
Relief more than anything was my own feeling when the final whistle went. On another day, had Chelsea’s finishing been better they’d have scored at least three goals. That said, United missed a penalty, hit the post, and had a few good other chances to score too. Villas-Boas deserves credit for setting his team up to attack and win the game, it made for a good open battle.
Were United simply lucky that Chelsea’s forwards had an ‘off-day’ or did United deserve to win for taking the chances that came their way? To me, it was one of those wins that champions get – clinical, effective but could have easily lost the game. The small margins counted and each week a different player seems to be stepping up to make a difference. That said, I think there could have been few complaints had Chelsea gotten a draw, they were much better and at times played some good sharp football. They’ve the foundations to a solid team with some exciting young forwards; maybe though they lack the ability to change their system – too many players who do the same thing and still a real lack of natural wingers.
Sir Alex wasn’t overly satisfied post-match, he felt United were wasteful and gave the ball away too much. It was a far cry from recent performances even if, in patches, the attacking football was phenomenal. The win, despite injuries to Smalling and Hernandez (Ashley Cole’s a lucky boy) is what mattered though. Once again expect the team to be shuffled as some youngsters and players needing minutes come in midweek at Leeds in the Carling Cup. Next weekend sees United travel to Stoke as the best start to a season under Ferguson looks to go on. United are top of the table, have the top goalscorer (Rooney with 9) and the top assister (Young with 5); roll on the good times.