Match Preview: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

Authors: Doron and Nik


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Last season this was the fixture that all but sealed the title for United; a total contrast to the scenes a year prior. After a summer of change, Chelsea have a fresh new outer layer but they remain the same beast deep down – one that in the Premier League era has the upper hand over United in the head-to-head battle. No titles will be decided tomorrow but footballing statements can be well and truly sent out.

The opposition:

Failure to win a trophy last year was enough to end Carlo Ancelotti’s reign as head coach or whatever the fashionable term is for it these days. Carlo went but a lot of his squad didn’t; fair? The swinging axe always seems to slice the manager, rarely the players. In came a fresh new young face off the back of a trophy laden season at Porto, Jose Mour.. André Villas-Boas. At roughly the same age as quite a few members of his squad and younger than his back-up goalkeeper, Villas-Boas is the youngest Premier League manger ever. Tricky job to come into for anyone, let alone when the players are your age and egotistical; and when your boss, big Mr Abramovich likes things done his way, only. Tough gig.

Joining Villas-Boas at the club this summer was about £75m worth of footballing talent too. Lukaku, Mata and Meireles were the biggest outlays but young talent in Courtois, Romeu, Davila and in January, Piazon, are all now Chelsea blues. The most notable players to leave were Yury Zhirkov and Yossi Benayoun on loan – various young players who were neither good enough, nor likely to get a chance also left, some on loan and some permanently. It’s intriguing that the investment comes in the forward areas predominantly as it’s at the back that Chelsea have often not lived up to the high standards expected in the past 12 months. That said, the additions of Juan Mata and Meireles are exciting ones, and may well serve to start the phasing out of Lampard.

Villas-Boas has already hinted that he’ll not give in to egos and reputations. Big name players have been dropped, substitutions have been effective and he’s been encouraging expressionism alongside physicality. Chelsea right now is no place for sulkers; work hard and play or moan and be dropped. New players and new staff are hard to merge into something successful immediately. However, the expectations as ever at Chelsea are to deliver trophies, with particular emphasis on the Champions League. Villas-Boas knows he has to deliver results quickly.


Four league wins out of four, the perfect start for United; and with 18 goals scored, it’s been entertaining too. Last weekend saw a potentially tricky trip to Bolton won with ease as another five goals were scored – three of them by Wayne Rooney who has 8 in 4 league games now. There was a slight blip midweek though as United were made to work hard to earn a point away at Benfica in the Champions League. However fresh players should come back in tomorrow and the chance to rack up a best start to the season fro over 25 years is just 90 minutes away.

United already have the league’s top scorer and assister – Rooney is running away with the scoring lead for now whilst Ashley Young has made more assists than any other player (4) and Giggs, Jones and Nani are all joint second with 2 assists.

Early days but Chelsea are 3rd, two points behind United having won three out of four. Midweek, they rotated their squad too and eased to a home win over Leverkusen. They’ve played two away league games, winning one and drawing one but only managing two goals. They’re yet to keep a clean sheet in the league since the opening game away to Stoke – the only game this season they’ve also failed to score in. Like United, they’ve already had 8 different players score this season with only Mata getting more than one goal.

Team news:

No fresh injury concerns after Wednesday so it’s just Welbeck, Vidic, Rafael, Gibson and Cleverley out. Rio Ferdinand returns after being rested midweek whilst Carrick, Park, Valencia, Giggs, Fabio and Fletcher are all fit after getting vital minutes in Portugal.

Chelsea have few injury concerns – Drogba and Essien definitely miss out on this game whilst Bertrand is a doubt. After being rested midweek, John Terry and Frank Lampard will be recalled to the starting line-up.

United formation and starting XI prediction:

Football Fans Know Better

Expect changes from the midweek game as Fergie rotates the squad. Look back a week though and the team shouldn’t be overly different from the side that won at Bolton. There’s another chance coming up during the week to give those who need minutes, time on the pitch as United go to Leeds in the Carling Cup.

After Lindegaard got a chance and excelled in Portugal, Fergie has been adamant that De Gea will return in goal. This will arguably be the biggest test of his concentration skills so far – saves in these kind of games tend to be more crucial than others. With six defenders available, the two to miss out are likely to be Fabio and one other. Jones is likely to return after being rested at Benfica and he’ll more than likely be at right back with one of Smalling or Evans partnering Rio – Evans, the more likely after impressing in every game so far this season.

Nani, Young and Anderson were removed from the starting eleven at Benfica indicating their likely return tomorrow. Replacing Cleverley should be a fairly simple decision – Carrick is the obvious choice. He came on for Tom at Bolton last weekend and played much in the same way that Cleverley has all season so far. Carrick also seems to enjoy playing Chelsea, excelling in the games last season against the London club. Ahead of the midfield quartet will be a prowling Rooney and almost certainly the livewire Hernandez.

Arguably this is one of the easier teams to predict as form dictates selection. In the past, Ferguson may have been tempted to go 4-5-1 to match Chelsea but with United playing so well and confidently it’s time to let Chelsea worry about how United will play.

Key battle:

Brazilian Brawn: Anderson vs. Ramires

Traditionally this fixture has elicited a central midfield battle that has been pivotal to the outcome of the game. More often than not, it has seen the Premiership’s form players come head to head in this central zone, including the likes of Lampard, Fletcher, Essien, Carrick and even Giggs. This season brings us a surprising head to head duel in form of a rejuvenated Anderson up against his combative compatriot Ramires, and the performance of both players will be critical to the result.

The central midfielders have showed dramatic progress in recent months, Ramires took time to settle, and Anderson’s impact since having a strong pre-season has improved his productivity considerably. Given that their respective partners of Carrick and Lampard (with Mikel deep) are not as agile as they once were, tomorrow’s battle of the Brazilians will be crucial in terms of the energy, dynamism and penetration each provides to it’s side’s ambition. Indeed, both players share similar characteristics; whilst equally able to pass the ball with precision and create in the final third, it is arguably their menace in a deeper lying role where their strengths come to the fore. Both players are fantastic dribblers of the football, adept at finding that extra bit of space and capable of powerful and defence-splitting runs from deep positions – the outcome of which is pulling key players out of position and creating that vital space between the midfield and forward lines for players such as Rooney, Young, Mata and Torres.

Chalkboard 1. Anderson, last season and this

For Anderson, it has simply been about getting back to basics. His fitness has improved and this has helped his overall reading of the game, more able to track his opponent, timely breaking up the play. Further, his short-range passing has improved dramatically and can only be the product of extensive work on the training ground with Ferguson and Phelan. In Chalkboard 1 we can see the difference this has made to his positioning and therefore, his passing. In the game versus Newcastle last season Anderson, whilst not performing dreadfully, gave away nearly a quarter of his passes, and the heatmap shows us that his positioning was skewed considerably – working in areas he shouldn’t and generally not having a defined role in the team. In contrast, Anderson’s performance against West Brom this season was measured and controlled with only 2 misplaced passes in open play. There was also the 66 completed passes versus Bolton last week, but for me this stat is less important given that the game was quickly ‘won’, meaning the Brazilian had more space and time on the ball.

Perhaps Anderson’s upturn in form has been in part due to his deployment in a slightly deeper role – one in which he succeeded during the first year of his United career. Chalkboard 2 displays his defensive acumen in the home game versus Spurs this season, intercepting the ball 6 times, all in his own half of the field. How Anderson combines with Carrick tomorrow will thus be an interesting tenet to the game, with Carrick more naturally suited to the deeper role. Perhaps each will take turns to support the attack, certainly there were times last season where the partnership flourished – the 7-1 defeat of Blackburn a classic example.

What will be key however is their work as a pair in nullifying the threat of Mata who likes to work horizontally across the pitch. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones keeping fairly central – if indeed he starts at right back as expected – in order that he can work with the centre halves and the midfield to track Mata’s movement, thus allowing Anderson and Carrick to monitor late runs from Ramires and Lampard.

Chalkboard 2. Anderson, 6 interceptions in his own half v Spurs

Ramires is enjoying greater freedom with Villas-Boas, particularly in a central-right position which allows him to complete his defensive duties as well as join the attacking play with the ambitious Bosingwa and Anelka (or Sturrige). This has coincided with a greater precision and array of passing; similarly to Modric, Ramires found the Premier League a big climate change, and slowly but surely his class has begun to show, his reading of the game like Anderson, more complete. Chalkboard 3 shows the greater emphasis on attacking play in Ramires’ game, and the accuracy of his passing, whilst at the same time showing us his willing to perform defensive duties; attempting 13 tackles against West Brom recently. Both Ramires and Lampard will seek to alternate positions in the game, and as with his marauding run in last season’s Champions League quarter final at Stamford Bridge where Ramires was unfortunate not to gain a penalty late in the game, United will have to be wary of his ability to arrive late from a central or right position. Patrice Evra will perhaps have to be less aggressive in his wing-play and be alive to the threat, working in tandem with Anderson to ensure any danger is thwarted.

Chalkboard 3. Ramires, defensive and offensive acumen

History and last meeting:

United have a winning league record at home to Chelsea in the league, but only just. In 19 meetings at Old Trafford, Chelsea have 5 wins compared to United’s 7. It’s equally as close when looking at goals for and against too – 28 plays 24. United have kept 5 clean sheets and Chelsea have kept 3 – just one meeting has ended goalless. Chelsea are one of the few teams to have scored 3 goals on three occasions at United. Neither side has ever scored four goals in this fixture but in 2000/01 both sides scored three.

Last season this fixture ended 2-1 to United. The Reds took an early lead through Hernandez after a slip by David Luiz. Before half time one became two as Vidic appeared unmarked to head in. Despite pressure from Chelsea and a somewhat fortunate goal from Lampard United held out to virtually seal title number 19.


United’s rhythm was disrupted midweek but the form players should return and continue the ethos of ‘we’ll score one more than you‘. Chelsea and Villas-Boas know that a defeat won’t end their season and may well play cautiously which I think would play into United’s hands. Unlike recent league games for United, this one probably won’t be goal-laden and I’ll predict a comfortable but nervy 2-1 win for the Reds.


Phil Dowd – took charge of the Community Shield and is the only referee to have been used on every league weekend so far. On average he’s dished out over 5 yellow cards per game this season with two thirds going to away teams.

Quick facts:

– This is the 162nd meeting between the two sides and United have won the last three
– United’s 18 goals after four games is the most scored by a top flight team for 64 years
– Man United have scored in 32 consecutive league games at home
– Chelsea have only kept one clean sheet in their last 8 competitive games

They say:

Fergie on young managers: “The young managers have more of a future. Their time will come. I’m pleased clubs are not ignoring the value of experienced managers.”

Rooney on Chelsea’s slightly new look: “I saw Daniel Sturridge started the last game and Juan Mata played as well. I’m sure they’ll have a few new ideas to go along with the new signings they have, but I’ sure we’ll be able to cope with that.”

Evans on Chelsea’s title chances: “It’s quite crazy that people are writing Chelsea off. Last season, Chelsea were winning 4-0 or 5-0 every game at the start of the season, kind of like we are doing ourselves, but we still went on to win it so we can’t discount them at all.”

Villas-Boas on facing up to Fergie: “Our (managers’) importance in the game is minimal. It is for the players to feel motivated, enjoy the game and exploit their talent. It is for us managers to try to promote that talent, incentivise their motivation and lead them to success. In my opinion, our percentage (of contribution in the game) is always small.”

Mata on Giggs: “He showed what he’s worth with his goal the other day. He’s actually one of the best wingers that there has been and are around right now. I pay more attention to him because he plays in the same position I do. He’s an incredibly impressive player in his tackling, in his dribbling and in his general style.”

Forum links:

The team have each given a predicted starting XI and final score ahead of the game – give us yours here.

For all pre-match banter, tactical discussions, team and score predictions click here.


In summary:

Both teams have placed an emphasis on using the width this season (with extra onus on the centre half to bring the ball into the midfield), as well as using the respective intelligence of the number 10’s, Rooney and Mata, who work across the pitch looking for runners in behind. Ramires and Anderson is a key battle in the middle, but equally important will be the duels of Nani and Cole; Young and Bosingwa, Evra and Anelka. The game should be tight, and highly compact in the middle third, placing great importance on the scorer of the first goal.

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2 Comments on Match Preview: Manchester United vs. Chelsea

  1. I’d be very happy to see Anelka and Lampard in this game (an attacking midfield line of Malouda, Meireles, and Mata is pretty scary). With those two in the lineup, Chelsea are much more narrow, predictable, and weaker in possession. We can probably go with the standard 4-4-2, and still maintain control of possession and territory. This fixture nearly always hinges on chance and finishing, but I think we have an advantage going in.

    Ps. Hopefully Chelsea go trophyless and Bish Bosh gets the sack at the end of the season, because he could build a powerful rival if given time. He’s honestly my favored option to succeed Ferguson when the great man retires.

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