With the 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford, Chelsea have been apparently out of the safe zone – the Champion league slot, in other words. The defensive mis-coordination among the Blues and the poor combination of technical strikers at the frontline have put them at the risk of conceding in all defensive, offensive, and even transitional phases.
United’s vertically deepened formation
United controlled the game by matching the numbers in the midfield. While their defensive mids – Matic and McTominay – were meant to cover Hazard and Willian who were dropping deep to collect the ball, the attacking mids – Sanchez and Pogba – were marking Kante and Drinkwater.
Sanchez was initially lined up at the front making it 4-3-3. But he was also allowed to be the free man to the extent to drop back and mark Chelsea’s central midfield along with Pogba. Such a marking pattern became possible owing to United’s 4-2-2-2 formation, more like a 4-4-2 diamond. This made their formation vertically more enriched than Chelsea’s 3-4-3.
Even though the midfield numbers got matched for both teams, United with more layers in their central midfield could penetrate from the central plane easily. This also often worked against Conte’s men when they tracked United’s backline as the Red Devil’s vertically spread formation allowed them to hold possession in the deeper plane. However, due to more bodies in the midfield, United couldn’t get enough bodies forward which didn’t threaten Chelsea’s backline much for most of the first half except the Lukaku’s equaliser.
Chelsea’s limited passing options in the final third
The compressed midfield towards the deep gave space to Chelsea on the wider planes. Yet, with the Blues front line dropping deep they also couldn’t get enough bodies to make coherent passing structure in the final third before the opponent would crowd their defence there. Also, United were always able to outnumber Chelsea at the defensive wings.
With such an organised defensive structure of the opponent, Chelsea could only make their way via counters. Willian’s goal was the result of an instant counter out of many such counters he made along with Hazard.
This midfield battle occupied Chelsea in the region too much to ensure their enough availability at the front even though Chelsea were playing long balls in their build up with the hope of winning second balls. But due to insufficient number of men at the front, they couldn’t make appropriate structure to win the second balls in the final third.
Conte’s poor selection of frontline
Chelsea’s frontline has been facing criticisms due to absence of a real number nine. Morata hasn’t been able to prove himself much at the front especially after his injury concerns. But still, Conte placed the Spaniard instead of Giroud.
The French forward has so far demonstrated a good potential to become the type of striker Chelsea have been in need this season. He can also form better attacking partnership with Fabregas and Hazard unlike Morata, and can even hold the play better than the later. Against United, he should at least have been substituted much earlier in the second half.
On top of that, Hazard being replaced by Pedro in the last quarter didn’t add anything tactically instead deteriorated Chelsea’s already limited technicality at the front. Only Hazard could have dragged the opponents towards him to have him multi-pressed and ultimately to open space for his teammates. Like he did to create Willian’s goal.
Defensive mis-coordination between Chelsea’s backline and midfield
Chelsea’s back keeps getting exposed with the defensive mis-coordination between their backline and midline players especially in deeper regions and in front of the goal.
United mostly penetrated Chelsea’s half via the latter’s right wing. As the game progressed, Chelsea became more composed in their pressing over the right-back and often won the ball back. Yet, as United had already set up the center-mid region for themselves, they started targeting that region in the final third to drop in and execute attacks.
The same reason was behind Chelsea’s conceding the equaliser in the first half. Once United’s players were able to somehow escape Chelsea’s press at the width, they would comfortably make attacking moves in the deeper region right in front of the goal.
The second goal conceded by Chelsea in the second half was also the result of mis-coordination between Chelsea’s backline and midfield due to which there couldn’t be formed any compact pressing structure at the right time.
Indeed, Chelsea frequently formed a low block defence reducing the gap between its lines which did cause United to struggle in Chelsea’s box for the majority of the first half. But once United were able to drag Chelsea’s structure out wide by realising their passing options, Chelsea hardly found way to re-structure themselves especially when it came to coordinating at individual level.
Chelsea’s defence had already began to be dynamically vulnerable since past few weeks. Now with the inconsistent central midfield partnership, the coordination between their backline and midfield players kept on weakening. This is making Chelsea more and more vulnerable in the deep defensive zones – the very region where Conte has put all his efforts to make the defence solid.
Overall, both sides executed fore-pressing and disturbed each other’s build-up forcing the other to pass sideways, backwards, or play long balls. However, Chelsea’s defensive mis-coordination between their backline and midfield opened up spaces for their opponents. Besides, United outperformed Chelsea at the central plane where the Blues tend to dominate mainly due to Hazard and Kante. Chelsea mostly relied on counters and could only deliver a forward game for few instances in their build up with the help of Azpilicueta and Fabregas. In fact, Fabregas could be the pivot of Chelsea’s attack from the midfield had he been subbed earlier.