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Having emphasised the need for United to move away from 4-4-2 in recent seasons, certainly against stronger sides in the division and in Europe, United’s best chance to end a terrible run of results without a win at the Bridge on Sunday may actually come from keeping the ball wide, and attempting to exploit the Chelsea left side. A lopsided 4-2-3-1 with Rooney deep is a likely scenario, as Ferguson will probably cede possession to the home side in the centre (given the current form of their trio of playmakers, Oscar, Mata and Hazard, ahead of Ramires and Mikel). Getting the ball wide, and with pace, could be United’s best approach.
Valencia role is key
The manager rarely drops Antonio Valencia for the biggest duels in the season, and he should slot in just ahead of Rafael at right midfield. He will be asked to assist in central areas at times when United are without the ball – much as he did versus Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final – but it is when they gain possession that Valencia can cause Chelsea, and Ashley Cole in particular, problems. Whisper it, but Cole hasn’t been as ‘fantastic’ as Redknapp (either of them) would have you believe in the last couple of seasons – he certainly had a good run in the Champions League last term, and finished the season strongly, but errors have crept into his game with age, and his decision making has off for a while (Chelsea have conceded a few goals down this side of late). Cole likes to get forward with gusto, and whilst his link-up play with Hazard is obviously a worry for Ferguson’s men down the left, United are expected to employ a counter-attacking strategy and should seek to capitalise in behind when the Englishman is caught high up the pitch.
Rafael influencing the game in the attacking zone
With United right back Rafael coming of age this season, his link-up play with Valencia tomorrow will be paramount. Ferguson gains two advantages by deploying the two South Americans in tandem. Firstly, he ensures that the duo double up on the exciting talent, Hazard; the Belgian having a lot of success (particularly at home) at receiving the ball in wide areas and then making the diagonal dash into the penalty area at speed. Hazard has already earned Chelsea two penalties this season, and Rafael will have to be less imprudent and more focused in terms of his defensive positioning in order to counter the trickster. Valencia’s work-rate and positional acumen will be key to combating the threat of both the Belgian and the thrusting runs of Cole.
Secondly, Rafael’s confidence in getting forward to support the attack is well known, and he has great natural energy and a good cross. If he can time, and execute, his surging runs well tomorrow both he and Valencia can cause Chelsea considerable worry. It was Rafael’s goal at Anfield that got United back into the game, and Valencia’s thundering run that led to the winning penalty being awarded. Last week versus Stoke City, both Valencia and Rafael worked very well in tandem again, with two goals coming from that right side, – in a game where United scored all four of their goals from crosses. Rafael also showed great courage this week in the game versus Braga where after a mixed first half (there was little width provided by Cleverley which didn’t help), he came alive after the break with the introduction of Nani who hugged the touchline. Rafael continually offered an outlet to the Portuguese, and sought to overlap at every opportunity.
Terry absence a bonus
As well as trying to exploit Cole’s lax positioning, United will also be pleased to see Luiz in the covering left centre half position rather than the suspended Terry. The Brazilian has been superb since a short period of ‘playstation football’ around 12 months ago, but he tends to save his more erratic performances for the bigger games. He often takes too many risks in defensive positions, and his over-zealous approach can mean that he is too rash in the challenge at times. Van Persie, so adept at dragging the centre half out of position (mostly down the United left) may seek to work the same strategy with Luiz, leaving Valencia to combine with Rooney in behind. On the other side, Welbeck, who is favourite to start ahead of Nani and Young, will seek to interchange with the oncoming Rooney, with the onus once again being on a fluid attacking approach with slick passing.
Tactics sheet: Can Rafael and Valencia exploit Cole’s attacking forays? Luiz will need to make a decision whether to follow van Persie out or provide cover to the left. Rooney and Welbeck will seek to interchange and get beyond van Persie.
On paper, the fixture should be quite an open one, much in the same vein as last season’s epic 3-3 draw; both sides are the highest scorers in the league, with 19 and 21 goals scored so far for both Chelsea and United respectively. United have conceded first in over half of their games this season, and though this has often jolted ‘a response’ by the Manchester side (winning all but two), Ferguson will hope that his side can take the game to Chelsea and use the space on the counter as effectively as possible. A fully rested Ferdinand, partnering Jonny Evans, who is starting to find top form again – in behind a well drilled midfield – should aid the cause, in a game where a win would be fantastic, but a draw is acceptable.