Leaders And Holders Are Full Of Uncertainties

Chelsea vs Manchester United
English Premier League
Stamford Bridge, London
Tuesday 1st March, 2011
19:45 GMT

When Manchester United's December 19 visit to Chelsea was cancelled, it was thought a break for the Blues. The defending champions were without a win in five. Manchester United were coming off a 1-0 win over Arsenal, having beaten Blackburn 7-1 on the preceding match day. With four wins in a row, United seemed to have shaken-off a draw-riddled start to show some title-worthy form. So when the iced streets around Stamford Bridge forced the postponement, conventional wisdom held Chelsea would be closer to their true selves by the time United were called to Fulham.

Three-and-a-half months later, it's unclear whether that's come to pass. Chelsea won in Copenhagen last week, their first victory since their a January spending spree, but in the three preceding matches they'd lost at home, were drawn at Craven Cottage, and lost on penalty kicks to Everton. It's difficult to tell if that's an improvement on their November-December form since a Danish side coming off a three month break wasn't on their late fall fixture list. While it seems Chelsea has overcome the midfield problems that plagued them at the end of 2010, it's unclear they're producing better results.

Doing their part to make this match competitive, Manchester United seems to have descended to the Blues' level, even if their results don't necessarily reflect their struggles. United had lost only once going into the original match date, and they've only lost once since, giving them as many losses on the season as Chelsea accrued last month. A February 5 loss at Wolverhampton was United's first Premier League defeat of the season, a result that came amidst unconvincing (if successful) performances against Blackpool, Southampton, Crawley Town and Olympique de Marseille. At least when Chelsea appears unimpressive, they're always doing so against top-flight competition.

Which is not to say that United hasn't given impressive performances. Their 3-1, February 1 victory over Aston Villa looks all the more convincing for being the Villans' only loss since January 5. Their 2-1, February 12 win over Manchester City only looks close because of a fluke-ish goal off the back of David Silva. Unlike Chelsea, Manchester United has at least been able to turn it on when they've wanted. Given Alex Ferguson's tendencies, it's difficult to draw too much information about United's potential based on their lackluster form against the Crawley Towns.

The Manchester City performance may be our best example of what United can do when they put their best foot forward. If it is, the Red Devils may be ready for their first victory at Stamford Bridge since April 2002. Then, United got a 3-0 in thanks to goals from Paul Scholes, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. In the intervening years, the Red Devils have gone 0-4-5, but never in that time has Manchester United been so far ahead of the Blues in the standings. If that speaks to a quality difference between the sides, the potential United showed against City may be more informative than this fixture's recent history.

And although City and Chelsea go about their football in very different ways, there are still a number of similarities that help our comparison. In terms of goals conceded per match, Chelsea and City are similarly effective (0.85 compared to 0.89). They each have strong presences in central midfield, though they're deployed differently. Each tend to feature one prominent striker leading the attack, with both squads now trying to incorporate new forwards. Both sides are managed by ex-players who made their coaching names in Milan.

How much those factors play into an upcoming match would normally be dictated by how the teams set-up, but with United and Chelsea, it's difficult to predict how each side will be deployed. Alex Ferguson has a number of different approaches he can employ, his squad having no set formation. Chelsea has been a predominantly 4-3-3 team under Carlo Ancelotti, but since the signing of Fernando Torres, the Blues have been searching for a new, base formation.

That search has seen Chelsea use three different approaches. Initially, Ancelotti adopted a 4-3-1-2, an attempt to find room for both Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba. After scoreless performances against Liverpool and Fulham, Ancelotti used Torres being cup-tied as a reason to go 4-3-3 against Everton, scoring only once in 120 minutes. In Copenhagen last week, the team played a conventional 4-4-2, but given the level of (rusty) competition, it's difficult to say whether that formation can be deemed a success. And beyond formation, it's unclear what the Blues are trying to do tactically and stylistically, particularly with the focal point in attack changing from match-to-match.

And that seems to be the big question: Who will start at striker for Chelsea? If Ancelotti stays true to the idea that Didier Drogba and Torres are rotating, Drogba could come back into the team, having gone 10 days without playing. However, given Torres has also been out of action for a week, could this be a chance to again try starting the potentially terrorizing tandem? If Carlo Ancelotti chooses that option, we may see the 4-3-1-2 - Chelsea's least effective formation since Torres became available - given another shot.

For United, picking a formation will be less about matching-up (given the uncertainties surrounding Ancelotti's selection) than playing to their strengths and goals. If Alex Ferguson decides to look at this as a road match against a troublesome foe and adopt a correspondingly conservative approach, we'll likely see a 4-5-1 similar to the ones he used in last year's matches. In that case, Dimitar Berbatov will likely be sacrificed, with Ryan Giggs' inclusion pushing Wayne Rooney back up to forward from the left wing position he occupied in Marseille. If Giggs can't go, Berbatov may start again.

If, however, Ferguson decides Chelsea can be had and decides to play more ambitiously, you could see the United manager revert to the set-up that last worked against Chelsea. In their last meeting of the 2008-09 season, Manchester United got a 3-0 victory at Old Trafford while playing 4-3-3, with Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo deployed along side Berbatov. If Ferguson thinks Chelsea is beatable, we could see Nani take up Cristiano Ronaldo's role, with Giggs, Darren Fletcher (both of whom started that day) and Michael Carrick in central roles. Paul Scholes could also be chosen, whether it be ahead of Giggs or Carrick.

While the set-ups and approaches are always extremely important, perhaps more important for the Blues is they improve on the football they showed throughout February. All of these systems are nice to hypothesize, but unless Chelsea players perform in a way that can execute the tactics, they will be beaten, provided Manchester United play anywhere near the level they showed against Manchester City. For as unimpressive as United has been this year -possibly earning the strange distinction of being the worst team to carry two losses into March - they have clearly been better than Chelsea. As John Terry has said recently, Chelsea need to "man up."

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