Manchester United’s drab 0-0 draw in midweek makes the visit of Chelsea a symbolic moment for Jose Mourinho. The dissenting voices inside Old Trafford are growing this month as United plod along without a clear attacking identity – which plays right into Chelsea’s hands. Another low-scoring draw seems likely, heaping pressure on the United manager as their grip on the top four loosens.
Here are five key tactical questions ahead of Manchester United v Chelsea:
1) Can Man Utd raise the tempo to break down Conte’s stubborn defence?
Man Utd’s attacking line-up for the 3-1 win against Arsenal in December, coupled with the surprisingly aggressive system deployed for the opening 45 minutes against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in November, suggest Jose Mourinho is finally responding to criticism. His defensive tactics against big clubs might work when there’s only one direct title rival, but the creation of a ‘big six’ necessitates a more proactive approach. A lacklustre performance in Seville only adds to the pressure on Mourinho to attack Chelsea this Sunday.
Antonio Conte will most likely play with the same conservative tactics used against Barcelona in midweek, frustrating the United midfield in the hope of forcing the hosts to hold meaningless possession and judder their way to a low-scoring game. It will probably work, even though both Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger are shaky enough to be unsettled by a high press.
Romelu Lukaku continues to look jaded up front while Alexis Sanchez is yet to settle in Manchester. For now, Mourinho’s side are a collection of individuals, meandering across the Old Trafford turf with no clear sign of a tactical identity – possibly reflecting the Portuguese’s laissez-faire attitude towards attacking coaching. Against such a narrow and disciplined Chelsea defence, it is difficult to imagine United will play with the directness, urgency, or togetherness needed to pull the visitors out of position.
2) Will Conte play a fluid front three or recall Giroud to the starting line-up?
The most difficult decision for the Chelsea manager on Sunday is who to pick up front. Olivier Giroud, with a goal and three assists in his last two games, could be an important physical presence against such powerful opposition, but the ultra-fluid partnership of Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro would offer Chelsea a counter-attacking edge.
Assuming Chelsea will hope to create a trap for United by luring them into aimless ball retention, Conte should play Hazard as a false nine. His front three were consistently dangerous on the break against Barcelona, whereas Giroud (or Alvaro Morata) are best suited for matches in which Chelsea dominate possession, and thus look to break down deep-lying opponents by peppering the box with crosses. Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling are both vulnerable to quick, fearless forwards.
3) Can Fabregas repeat his Barcelona performance to keep Sanchez quiet?
United’s disjointedness and Chelsea’s reactive tactics ensures this game will be settled by individual moments of brilliance, rather than a consistently successful tactical pattern. Alexis Sanchez is the obvious choice as a potential match-winner, and he could hurt the visitors when cutting inside from the left; Victor Moses’s superb ability to push high onto the opposition winger means the Chile international will quickly abandon that flank to pursue space around Cesc Fabregas.
Fabregas was superb at Barcelona, showing a defensive discipline we have rarely seen from the Spaniard in a Chelsea, Barca, or Arsenal shirt. He diligently sat alongside N’Golo Kante throughout, minimising space for Leo Messi while ensuring Andres Iniesta couldn’t thread the ball into the path of Luis Suarez.
Fabregas made six tackles and interceptions, more than any other Chelsea player. His individual battle with Sanchez, then, could be the defining feature at Old Trafford.
4) With Mourinho mirroring Conte’s formation, is there room for Pogba?
The strange feud between Paul Pogba and Jose Mourinho took another turn on Wednesday night when the Frenchman was left on the bench – only to enter the fray after 17 minutes when Ander Herrera pulled up. Mourinho tends to mirror Chelsea’s three-man defence when facing the Premier League champions, which puts yet another question mark over Pogba’s inclusion.
The general consensus is that Pogba cannot function as part of a two. Consequently Mourinho is likely to play Nemanja Matic alongside the hard-working Scott McTominay on Sunday (Ander Herrera won’t be available), leaving Pogba either on the bench or in a more advance attacking midfield role. Should United play in the same 3-4-1-2 formation as they did at Stamford Bridge, Pogba is a candidate to take the number ten spot occupied by Henrikh Mkhitaryan back in November.
In lackadaisical form and up against N’Golo Kante, Pogba is unlikely to dominate from such an advanced position. Either the Frenchman will play, and play badly, or he will remain on the bench. Either way, the curious stand-off between Mourinho and United’s record signing looks set to rumble on.
5) Can Moses get the better of Young down United’s left?
If Mourinho’s side have a weak spot then it is down the left, where Ashley Young has deputised admirably but still lacks some of the positional instincts of a natural left-back. This vulnerability has been exacerbated since Alexis Sanchez, who rarely tracks back, joined the club in January. It certainly doesn’t help matters that McTominay or Pogba will be tasked with supporting Young on that side.
Chelsea will probably target this flank on the counter in the hope that Moses can exploit space just as Sevilla did in the Champions League. 11 of Sevilla’s 22 key passes on Wednesday came down United’s left, compared with just two down the other flank, while the Spanish outfit got in behind Young five times in the final 20 minutes as the visitors’ pressure began to tell. Moses, with Pedro and Hazard probably supporting on that flank, will take confidence from Sevilla’s performance.