Chelsea's tactical approach correct, but Man United's finishing decisive
Chelsea lost despite controlling midfield and creating more chances
Chelsea's Fernando Torres and Ramires were both guilty of glaring misses
Ashley Young' set-piece delivery has enhanced United's play
In many ways, soccer is the simplest sport: it requires minimal equipment, and the laws are readily understandable. Even offside, the most difficult of the laws, is uncomplicated beside rugby's laws on the breakdown or the lbw law in cricket. And yet, at the same time, soccer evades statistical analysis like no other game. There is no statistic that, taken in isolation, will tell you who has dominated. Even the score line can be deceptive; over a series of games, the best team will usually prevail. In a one-off, though, anybody can beat anybody. That is the beauty of soccer, but it is also what must make it a desperately frustrating game for coaches. In most respects Chelsea was the better side; but it was Manchester United who won, 3-1.
At halftime at Old Trafford, one side had created 12 chances (5 on target) to the other's 4 (3 on target) and that side trailed 3-0. It's usual, in tactical reviews, to talk about dominating the center or the pitch and/or the ball; usually the side that does that will control the game. Yet in the first half, Chelsea had clear control of the center, its three-man central midfield dominating United's two, despite Wayne Rooney's forays back to help out.
It wasn't even, as often happens when a midfield three meets a midfield four, that the three dominates the ball because of its extra man in the center, but the four looks dangerous when its able to work the ball wide. Counterintuitively, United even had more of the ball in the first half, although notably not in the attacking third; by the second half, Chelsea had the edge even in that statistic. This was a game won in the other details, by a combination of brilliance and fortune. It won't come as much consolation, but if the game at Stamford Bridge follows a similar pattern in terms of the broad strokes, Chelsea should be confident of a win.
United's first goal stemmed partly from the excellence of Ashley Young's delivery and partly from a mistake from the linesman. It had hardly been a major deficiency, but his arrival has given United a top-class deliverer of a set-play, and thus an additional weapon, something that was apparent even on his debut, in the Community Shield. Young's free kick was excellent, as was Chris Smalling's header, but the United right back was offside. Given there was nobody close, it's debatable whether he would have been adequately marked even had he been onside, but Chelsea can point out that its rear guard did its job properly, and that it's impossible to mark a player who is offside; then again, relying on a linesman to get a call correct when the margin is no more than a foot is always going to be a gamble.
At first glance, the second goal appeared to be a simple moment of genius from Nani, and to an extent it was, as he drifted by Juan Mata and thrashed a shot into the top corner. Replays, though, showed that he came back from an offside position to receive Jonny Evans' long diagonal pass; another combination of brilliance and an official's error on a tight call. Although Nani deserves credit for his persistence, United's third goal was even more fortunate; John Terry's clearance cannoning off his shins to leave Wayne Rooney with a tap-in.
Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas has spoken frequently since his arrival of the need to play "vertical" soccer and, while United's second and third goals both came from just the sort of direct (NOT here a synonym for long-ball) approach he favors, there were also signs of his thinking starting to manifest. Most notably, there was the pass Mata slipped through for Fernando Torres after 26 minutes; exactly the sort of quick ball he was demanding in the infamous interview in which he suggested Chelsea's slow buildup was partly responsible for his poor form. The forward opted to square the ball rather than attempt a shot with his left foot -- his astonishing miss late on, having rounded David De Gea, perhaps explains why -- but a stretching Ramires stubbed his shot into De Gea's body with United's goal gaping.
Torres' confidence is now so low it seems almost cruel to highlight his deficiencies, but his hesitancy in front of goal represents the flip side of Young's set-play ability. A coach with his tactical setup can, to an extent, control the shape of a game, in which parts of the pitch its played, and how much possession each side has. What the players do with that possession and in those positions, though, is beyond his control. Put in its simplest terms, Torres at the moment needs more chances to score the same number of goals as Rooney.
Yet to highlight the two glaring misses from Chelsea; chances that if taken would at least have placed United under pressure, feels misleading given Nani hit the bar, Rooney hit the post and missed a penalty, and Dimitar Berbatov wasted a late sitter. It was a crazy, chaotic game, exhilarating to watch but lacking much in the way of pattern.
To a large extent Villas-Boas won the tactical battle: his side did, after all, have 21 chances to United's 12. Perhaps the use of Raul Meireles rather than a more defensive holder left Chelsea more open than they might have been, but it also gave his side a zest and fluency in possession that has been largely absent so far this season.
Even his halftime change, bringing on Nicolas Anelka for Frank Lampard, and switching Mata from the flank to operate as a playmaker in from of Meireles and Ramires, worked to the extent of exploiting space between United's defensive and midfield lines. In the end, the result came down to nothing more complex than United making more of its chances than Chelsea did of its. As Rabbie Burns noted, the best laid schemes of mice an' men gang aft agley; Villas-Boas may reflect that the schemes of coaches go even more often awry. Players can be annoyingly fallible.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.