To Stamford Bridge again, for the third time this season. Crazily, there’s still a fifth meeting between the two sides to come and Chelsea will go into it with two domestic cup wins, a draw and a league defeat against us. Benitez named his strongest side whilst Fergie rested van Persie and was forced into changes as a result of injuries (Rooney, Rafael and Evans) sustained whilst players represented club and country. As ever, we welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Selections & tactics
Fergie elected to go with van Persie versus Sunderland, instead of for today’s tie – presumably given his good run of form for Holland midweek. And on the face of it the gamble seemed to pay off as he scored (or certainly created the opening) the only goal of the game to keep the title momentum on track. But what is less clear is when the manager knew Rooney would not play – or indeed if he knew all along that he wouldn’t, which is another blog in its own right. If Rooney was not to play against Chelsea, then why was van Persie selected against Sunderland? Selecting both he and Hernandez together could have given the team greater balance, and a focal point in attack – as the combination of Welbeck alongside the Mexican has traditionally struggled in terms of ensuring possession of the ball under defensive pressure. Hernandez did of course deserve to start the game given his record against the blues, but vitally, playing high on the last man, he is much more influential with Rooney or the Dutchman in behind. Today, he struggled to impact on the game, despite forcing Cech into a magnificent save from a great header when United came close to equalising.
In terms of the overall lack of control United displayed, it can perhaps be asked whether 4-4-2 was the right formation given personnel. With Kagawa selected against Sunderland, perhaps it was a chance for Ferguson to impose a three-man centre against a Chelsea side typically strong in this area of the field. The combination of Carrick and Jones, with Cleverley just in front has worked well in the past; leaving two from Giggs, Welbeck, Nani and Valencia to fight it out for the wide berths. Although Welbeck tended to thwart the deep distribution of Mikel, United’s struggles were further ahead as the team seemed unsure as to how to deal with Hazard (Nani’s defensive acumen today matched his offensive contribution), and the floating Oscar and Mata. Indeed, it was Mata’s ability to find a pocket of space with no pressure from the central duo, and from the closest player Welbeck, which was to prove fatal – as the Spaniard played a delightful pass over Ferdinand into Ba’s path as the Chelsea striker finished what will surely go down as a contender for goal of the season.
As with the forward roles, we can also ask the question about the selections of Rafael, Smalling and Vidic at Sunderland. Logic would dictate that selecting only two from the three would have made more sense given the quarter final 48 hours later. With Jones fit again, why wasn’t Vidic (who excelled in the game and is showing some form of late) not rested for the trip to Chelsea (with Evans having picked up another innocuous injury). The partnership of Smalling-Ferdinand is not commonly used by Ferguson and for good reason. Both players, whilst being excellent in their own right, often try to cover the same areas of the pitch, and though Ferdinand is adept at dropping into the left-side centre half position, he has settled again into the right-side this season with aplomb. They looked relatively uncomfortable today, and never quite communicated well enough in order to stem the threat of Ba, and Mata and Hazard in behind. With Rafael duly picking up an injury in the North East, it also meant that Valencia (who showed glimpses of his old self on the right versus the Black Cats) had to slot in at right back, a makeshift backline that must surely have whetted the appetite of the South-West London side. Did United’s most consistent player need to start at Sunderland given the options of Smalling, Valencia and Jones available to the boss? All of this debate hints at what a difficult job it must be for Ferguson, and it must be remembered that today saw him make 7 changes to freshen the side. But you can’t help but wonder whether he took Benitez’s side too lightly in his selections and subsequent tactical application today.
Wingers and the systems – harshly criticised?
The post-match Twitter barometer of outrage (always a good indicator for all things sane) was pointing at our wide players. When United fail to win there is always an inevitable over-analysis of our failings and weaknesses as if these are issues that effect us every single game rather than once every few months. Striving for perfection isn’t a bad thing but it’s unrealistic in the game of football.
The final straw today was seemingly Nani’s poor performance. Granted, he wasn’t good, but having just come back from an injury that halted the very positive momentum he’d built up the last couple of months it was unsurprising to see him looking rusty and off the pace. Oddly, it wasn’t that he was doing the wrong thing – he was generally seeing the right balls to play but just executing them badly (passes behind players; flicks round the corner when a team-mate had checked his run; or simply trying to carry the ball forwards when other options were limited).
It hasn’t been a good season for United’s wide men. We’re a club that’s traditionally celebrated successes off the back of strong wing play and we like to shift the ball wide quickly to counter attack with pace, trickery and goals. Last season alone, the trio of Valencia, Nani and Young scored 24 goals and created a further 42 – between them they averaged a goal or assist every 131 minutes. This time around they’ve only assisted 17 and scored 3 – making a contribution every 256 minutes. They’ve been nearly twice as unproductive but why?
This could be a blog post in itself as there is no short answer – good and productive players don’t suddenly ‘lose it’ over night. It’s important not to let emotions get in the way either; Young isn’t a widely liked player but he has been effective in the past and gives a nice balance to the side. There are two obvious strands to go down here…
…the first is individual loss of form and injury disruptions. Combined, the three have missed 36 of our 46 games through injury – when you’re not playing regularly it’s difficult to get any kind of momentum going, particularly as a winger – a role that does allow for freedom to try creative things. Valencia’s confidence seems shot despite continuously good performances for Ecuador – pre-season Fergie noted that he had complained of a mystery injury that they’ve struggled to cure and that he plays with even though it debilitates him. That said, playing as a right back against Chelsea he did as well as he has done in a long time.
Nani and Young have both had stop-start seasons, ruined by injuries that have seen them miss both long spells and a few games here and there. There are very few examples of consistent wingers in the game, let alone those who have to come in and out of teams all the time but the proof is there that both of these players when maintaining their fitness can contribute even if neither would make any ‘World XI teams’ (another really odd barometer fans use to criticise our players).
The second reason that our wingers may have struggled is down to the manager and his constant changing of systems. Recent history has shown that when we play with three in the middle, our wide men have only played well when they’ve been able to play on the counter as the pitch can get too crowded otherwise. Chelsea were prepared for this and always had at least one central midfielder deep to counter any United raids.
The constant tinkering has been to try to accommodate various types of players leading to lopsided teams. For example, Welbeck, Cleverley, Kagawa and Giggs have all been tried in a wide left berth but the first three are not natural wingers and therefore cut in a lot or drop into odd positions whilst Giggs, by his own admission, finds himself trying to “tuck in” as he attempts to conserve energy. With such an imbalanced side of the pitch, United become predictable and that was evident against Chelsea as the players looked to try and get the ball wide right to Nani on most of the attacks.
Having signed an extra striker (van Persie) and a creative player (Kagawa), Fergie seems a bit unsure of which systems to use when, and seems to be trying to make both players and others work in any given system. The reality is that Kagawa probably works best centrally, behind one striker and with wingers; whereas with four strikers, Fergie is reluctant to just play one striker as it means leaving one of Rooney, who has some great odds with Bwin to score first goal next Monday, or van Persie out.
To come full circle, United need to make a decision on which way they want to go with the systems and having done that they need to try to keep those they have fit as well as bed in new signing, Zaha. Having four wingers seems the right number if width is to remain important so the addition of Zaha shouldn’t necessarily mean one is going. As for selling one of them off the back of an injury hit season – it would be harsh and suggestions to do so seem a bit knee-jerk without looking at how much football they’ve all missed and when they’ve missed it. What’s true though is that their lack of a contribution this season has been missed, particularly in games like this one where United needed creative inspiration.
Smalling and Ferdinand
Welbeck and to a point Jones, rightly received some muted praise from fans after the game for their performances but it was the centre backs who caught my eye. Smalling’s missed nearly 30% of our games this season due to injury and not played in a further ten or so due to the form of other players. Having played both games on international duty for England and for United at Sunderland at the weekend, you could have forgiven him for looking tired and leggy but there were no signs of it. If anything the opposite was true – he looked sharp, alert and seemed to relish the physical challenge that Ba posed.
Likewise, Rio, despite the barrage of boos, was as assured as ever and although he was the defender beaten to the ball as Ba scored his fabulous improvised goal it’s nigh on impossible to criticise him for it. Against quicker and more agile players he continues to show his experience in his positioning and timing of tackles. It’s not surprising that Rio’s played more minutes than any of our other centre backs this season and with some luck, he’ll get the new contract he deserves because he’s playing too well to be let go by the club.
Rooney missing so why no Kagawa?
When all was said and done after a poor performance, it was maybe Rooney’s absence (because of a groin injury picked up whilst with England) that was most telling. United had been relatively in control over the first half but after Chelsea got their goal, they struggled to find a way through the mass of blue players. Rooney, for all his flaws in what’s been a bit of a disappointing season for him, is excellent at being a link-man between our strikers and midfielders. What he could have offered today would have been of huge benefit in trying to carve out opportunities to score and move Chelsea’s deep midfielders around (they ended up finding it easy as they had no free-roaming players to pick up).
With United crying out for that player in between the lines, it begs the question of why Kagawa was an unused substitute. He had played at Sunderland and although he’d tired and come off before full time, he surely would have been a great option off the bench in this kind of a game. Maybe Fergie was reluctant to take a striker off to accommodate him or didn’t want to bring him on to only end up having to play wide but what he could have offered certainly seemed like a good fit for our needs.
Fergie and Benitez both rotated after the weekend games. Rafa returned to his strongest side whilst Fergie matched a strong central midfield with his second choice striker pairing – one that in truth didn’t quite seem to click. The first half offered little for either side as both cancelled each other out relatively comfortably. The sole goal and winner was a moment of magic just after the break – Ba somehow volleyed in on the stretch after a clever spot by Mata; de Gea had no chance.
Hernandez thought he’d equalised but his grin was the mark of shock and congratulations were offered to Petr Cech for a truly outstanding save. Both sides went on to have chances – Hazard could have sealed it for Chelsea whilst van Persie had two very good opportunities for United. Still, the full time result felt about right as Chelsea put in the better of two poor performances. Why United were so off-colour is hard to pinpoint but players seemed to take too many touches and misplace such simple passes in what wasn’t a cohesive showing.
It really really gripes that by the next time United can win the FA Cup it’ll be ten years since we last got our hands on the trophy. Not only is it a competition that I’ve always liked but doing the double would have been such a fabulous response to what happened last season. You could suggest that Fergie should have further rotated against Sunderland and not risked the likes of Carrick, van Persie, Rafael, Vidic and others given the points cushion and that this was the harder of the two games but that’s just a matter of personal opinion with no correct answer. Still, a win next week against City should ensure our season is still crowned off with some glory.