Ancelotti reverts to 4-3-2-1 formation against United to no avail
Chelsea's Carlo Ancelotti reverted to his trusted Christmas tree formation
Chelsea's midfield lacks the same creativity as Ancelotti's old Milan squad
In the absence of Darren Fletcher, Ryan Giggs dazzled in the United midfield
In moments of crisis, return to basics. Carlo Ancelotti wrote his dissertation for his coaching diploma on the 4-3-2-1, and it was to the Christmas tree he returned against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It might have been an inspired reversion -- and indeed it did address some of the problems Chelsea had suffered in the first leg -- but in the harsh light of a 2-1 defeat it may seem like a doomed manager scrabbling desperately for the comforts of the familiar.
Michael Essien was the trunk, sitting centrally just in front of the back four, with Ramires shutting to the right, and Florent Malouda given more license to press forward on the left. Fernando Torres, despite his poor recent form, was chosen ahead of Didier Drogba to lead the line ahead of Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka.
The selection of the Spain forward, signed from Liverpool for ú50 million ($80M) in January, raised suggestions that Ancelotti had been coerced by the club owner Roman Abramovich -- determined to see his record purchase given an opportunity. However, it made a certain amount of tactical sense. Without a huge amount of creativity in the Chelsea midfield -- it was notable, in fact, how often Anelka dropped deep in search of the ball -- it was essential that the frontman should be mobile, and Torres is much more prone to pulling out to the flanks than Drogba. It was just such a run, out to the left, that created space for Florent Malouda to charge through after 15 minutes, generating a chance for Lampard that he side-footed tamely at Edwin van der Sar.
That was a rare moment of involvement for Lampard, who never looked comfortable in Ancelotti's experiments with him at the peak of a diamond last season, and was similarly unhappy in an advanced role here. He is at his best breaking on to passes cut back for him or loose balls; receiving the ball with his back to goal he is diminished.
The change of formation allowed Chelsea to control possession, and limited the impact of Michael Carrick. However, it also meant there was a lack of width which, in the absence of a natural playmaker, meant Chelsea tended to be predictable in possession. The Lampard chance aside, the only real opportunity Chelsea created in the first half came from a twice deflected cross from the left. Rio Ferdinand cleared uncertainly, and Anelka thrashed his shot just wide. When Ancelotti had played 4-3-2-1 at Milan, he was playing two of Clarence Seedorf, Kaka, Manuel Rui Costa and Rivaldo, all of them far more imaginative, creative players than Anelka and Lampard.
United, meanwhile, remained threatening on the break through the pace of Nani, Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez, which is presumably why Sir Alex Ferguson opted not to change shape. With Malouda's slightly freer role, it was on left that Chelsea looked vulnerable, and twice early on Rooney got behind Ashley Cole as he drifted forward to support his midfield. It was the same space he exploited after an hour, when drawing a foul from Lampard just outside the box. That said, the fact the opening goal and the effort Hernandez had ruled out for offside both game from the flank was probably coincidental, both coming as set-plays were half cleared and the swept out to the right while Cole was engaged in marking duties in the center.
If the arrival of Drogba for Torres at halftime changed anything, it was less to do with tactics than morale. Drogba, at least when compared to Torres, looked sprightly. While he was perhaps a little overeager to impose himself and make the point that he shouldn't have been left out in the first place, he at least lifted spirits with a neat interchange with Anelka and a low drive that skidded wide from 30 yards. Then again, such a desire for self-assertion can be counterproductive: shooting with a free-kick form an acute angle was simply a waste of a good crossing opportunity.
It was Drogba, though, who got the goal that threatened an improbable fight-back, making the most of a rickety United back line to take down Essien's pass and fire in a low finish -- "a cheap goal" as Ferguson put it. Would Torres have scored it? Would he have moved so intelligently to the right to find space? Perhaps, but Torres is in the sort of run of form in which defenses remain flat against him, rather than helpfully higgledy-piggledy. Certainly there wouldn't have been the same sense of inevitability about the finish, and for that reason alone, perhaps selecting Torres was an error. The fact Ancelotti took him off at halftime was as good as an admission of that.
When Drogba scored, lesser sides would have panicked. United simply worked the ball across the line. Giggs drew Branislav Ivanovic out from right-back -- something effectively forced on him by the absence of Ramires, dismissed eight minutes earlier -- and slipped in Park Ji-Sung to score. It was precisely the area Rooney had been exploiting on the other side earlier, and suggested the narrowness of Chelsea's system.
Going forward, Cole and Ivanovic were presumably supposed to provide Chelsea's width, but they found themselves too concerned by Park and Nani -- and by Rooney's diagonal runs wide -- to really attack. Assuming Schalke 04 does go on to beat Internazionale in the quarterfinal, the battle between its attacking fullbacks, Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei, and United's wide-men will be key.
Rooney, although les influential in central areas than he had been in the first leg, was excellent, his movement supremely intelligent, but it was Giggs who really dazzled. United look a little light in central midfield without the injured Darren Fletcher, devoid of snap and, as Ferguson pointed out afterward, if you don't have a ball winner, you have to make sure you have players who don't give the ball away. Carrick is a great circulator of possession, only occasionally unleashing the sort of cross-field ball that created the goal in the first leg; Giggs is more direct and set up all three United goals over the two legs -- two of them, intriguingly, having found himself in wide positions; the winger's instinct evidently still burns strong in him.
Whether that central midfield partnership, even with Rooney dropping deep will be enough in the later stages is debatable, but it was more than enough to beat Chelsea. Abramovich's side was deservedly beaten over the two legs and, frankly, looks no nearer winning the Champions League as it did when he took over eight years ago.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.