In facing Chelsea today, the opportunity to create a gap between the chasers or get permanently dragged back into a top four as Leicester and West Ham both lost, the teams that sat between us today. With both teams having horrible records in the big six, 1 win in 12 between them (Chelsea over Spurs last month), it was likely to be a drab affair and so turned out to be. A penalty decision was the talk of the first half and it was pretty much the only talking point of a first half stuck in the middle of the pitch. A strike from Ziyech and McTominay were the best chances struck at goal but De Gea and Mendy respectively done well to keep it out.
Mile High Club
Over the past month and a half, the defensive issues have come to the fore for United and is quite literally why dreams of the title have disappeared into dust. The partnership of Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire, with De Gea behind them, is not conducive to a high line and it sags the whole team back. It explains a lot of the reason why Man Utd often look better when they have space in behind to run. It is also why Bailly coming in, allows us to get a bit higher, something a lot of fans want to see. Today though, even without the Ivorian centre back, the Man Utd line was stationed as high as it has ever been in a big game under Ole.
With the system that Chelsea play, playing with one pure wing back on the left and a hybrid wing-back/winger on the right, it means that if you are going to put your stall out by leaving the space in behind that we did, the press will have to aggressive and proactive. The full backs went fully 1v1 against the wing backs in Callum Hudson Odoi and Ben Chilwell so the two Man Utd CBs would have to cover a lot of space in behind. This is not to forget that in terms of the midfield pair in front of them, they were not marshalling in front as they usually do but looking for opportunities to nip in ahead of Chelsea’s midfielders when the ball was played when their back was to goal. The competence at which Maguire and Lindelof were able to do this was probably aided a lot more by Chelsea lacking any real pace in their front than them having stellar performances akin to the modern CBs you see today but it was admirably nonetheless
This season has seen the fortunes of Manchester United flip entirely, when it comes to the big games. A source for much needed points, with almost 30% of last season’s total coming against the big six. Coming into today, with this being the 7th of 10 big six games, the Red Devils are yet to register an goal from open play. A solitary goal in the first game in the previous six, came from the spot by Bruno Fernandes. All this is to say that, with United now dropping points against the other 14, these games are becoming paramount, no more for the title chase but to keep themselves in the top four and finish with a higher points total, potentially position, to confirm progression.
A lot has been made of what Solskjaer has decided to do in the big games, personnel wise and tactically. Since the drubbing by Spurs in the 3rd game of the season, the midfield pair of McTominay and Fred have been unmoved when it has come to these games. Even against Leicester, the Scot and Brazilian were stationed in front of the back four. What they lack in their progression, subtlety and composure that is all too key in these tight affairs, they make up in their energy and ability to win the ball back. What it then allows is for the front four to concentrate on their ability to affect the game going forwards rather than having to worry about the spaces in behind. The problem is the fact that United’s forwards are essentially high percentage, low efficiency. Bruno Fernandes is the epitome of this type of player. The reward of the risks he takes, some of which can be completely insane, are inevitable when you constantly get him in threatening positions. That is fine when you are going to dominate the ball. Not so much when games are set up as they are today. Rashford and James also fall in this bracket, of course with varying degrees of quality.
So when you are offered up with this issue, along with the fact that the big teams are limiting the space in which United’s favoured big game tactic works well, you start to see why United have found it so unbelievably hard in this season to notch up anything significant when facing one of Man City, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea.