An exciting game featuring a classic Manchester United comeback.
Andre Villas-Boas was without Ashley Cole and John Terry, so had to field Jose Bosingwa at left-back and give a debut to Gary Cahill in the centre of defence. Frank Lampard and Ramirez were also both out, so Florent Malouda came into the side with Chelsea changing formation.
Sir Alex Ferguson picked the expected side in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Chris Smalling had picked up an injury the day before; otherwise his promising with Jonny Evans might have been retained at the back.
The reverse meeting between the sides was an odd game because United went 3-0 ahead in September 2011 despite the fact they’d only narrowly been the better side. The opposite happened here – Chelsea hadn’t created much when they’d gone into a three goal lead, and Villas-Boas’ change in shape hadn’t worked particularly well despite the lead.
In that reverse meeting, Chelsea improved after the break when they moved to a 4-2-1-3 formation featuring Juan Mata behind Florent Malouda, Daniel Sturridge and Fernando Torres. Perhaps inspired by that, Villas-Boas moved away from his favored 4-3-3 and switched to the alternative shape from the start here.
Chelsea’s shape was 4-2-3-1. A subtle difference, but an important one, with poor pressing so while at the start Malouda and Sturridge would have been closing down the United full-backs and roughly level with Torres, here they dropped much deeper to form a second band of four. One impact of the formation change was that it altered the role of Wayne Rooney without the ball.
The incident involving Danny Welbeck and Cahill was interesting for two reasons – first because it highlighted what Welbeck is good at – finding spaces between players to make runs from. Against an unfamiliar back four, he was always set to be a threat, though he faded later on. It also summed up Cahill stylistically – the defender who often finds himself making covering tackles, although the inadequacy of his tackle underlines the question about his actual ability.
Chelsea went 2-0 up after Mata finished Torres’ cross excellently. Torres spent much of the time drifting into wide zones, which does make sense with the way Chelsea play – both Sturridge and Mata (when he’s on the left) or Malouda (who was there today) both like coming inside into central positions. Luiz’s third pressed Ferguson into action from the bench.
The period from 3-0 to the final whistle was when the real tactical excitement happened. First, Ferguson went for Javier Hernandez, on for Young with Welbeck to the left. Hernandez offered raw pace and pushed Chelsea back very, very deep.
TURNING POINT: Scholes in, Mata out wide.
The second change was more important. Paul Scholes replaced Rafael, which meant Valencia to right-back, Welbeck across to the right and Giggs out to the left. The new players on the flanks would both have an impact for the equalizer, but Scholes was vital because he controlled the tempo of the match and dictated the way United attacked late on. United had even more possession, Scholes had even more freedom, and United’s third seemed inevitable.