The final straw in Manchester United’s hunt for Champions League football manifests itself in the form of a tricky fixture against Maurizio Sarri’s Chelsea. Given United’s poor form, they must enter the match with a specific plan if they are to finish Sunday three points merrier.
To do this, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer must pick the right starting eleven to combat Chelsea’s strengths, both tactically and in terms of personnel. Despite his poor form, David de Gea starts in goal with Chris Smalling man-marking Gonzalo Higuain in front of him. Ander Herrera must return to the side and lead United’s press if there are any hopes of winning, and Matteo Darmian and Diogo Dalot should double up on United’s right side and provide width, penetration, and two additional players to mark Hazard.
Maurizio Sarri established his reputation as a tactical manager by executing an impressive project with Napoli in Serie A, including a final campaign where they came very close to beating Juventus, Scudetto winners of the last eight seasons, to the title in 2018. His possession-based style, where overloads are created around the box through vertical runs from central midfielders, draws comparisons to Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side, but at Chelsea has been flattened as to better resemble Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United.
Recalling that United side, which was effective at times, they were excellent in possession and very structured defensively, but often failed to influence matches in the final third and lost out to sides that organized themselves well in defence and had available players on the counter, in a very similar fashion to Solskjaer’s United earlier this season.
It is important to credit the tactical nous of Premier League sides as main reason for which Sarri’s Chelsea hardly resembles his goal-hungry Napoli outfit; all season, teams have been able to nullify the threat of Jorginho, who followed Sarri to Stamford Bridge after establishing himself as one of the finest midfielders in Serie A under the Italian manager.
The verticality of Jorginho’s passes towards the front three, particularly the wingers, is the most important aspect of Sarri’s system, as it enables the two midfielders who play ahead of him in Sarri’s 4-3-3 (Kante and likely Ruben Loftus-Cheek this Sunday) to make those advanced runs towards the box.
However, the insistence of Premier League teams not to give Jorginho time or options on the ball is compounded by the ineffectiveness of his outlets in performing their respective roles. With the exception of Hazard, who is on the back of yet another exceptional season, Sarri’s system is best suited to Willian, a player who is an excellent mover but heavily inconsistent on the ball, a variety of misfiring strikers, and a host of midfielders outside Loftus-Cheek who aren’t suited to attacking roles. Ross Barkley has underwhelmed at Chelsea, while Kante and Mateo Kovacic made their names playing in much deeper roles.
The result is that the two central midfielders are forced to drop deep to receive the ball from Jorginho, creating a gap between their midfield and attack and, given the insistence of Premier League teams to nullify the 27-year-old, a lack of advanced who can consistently bridge that gap. The result tends to be Hazard dropping into the half-space and confusing the defence, which is their biggest threat and the only factor that makes them better than van Gaal’s United from an attacking perspective.
Thus, to cope with this, United need to achieve three objectives; Smalling keeping Higuain out of the game and Darmian and Lindelof watching out for Hazard; Herrera breaking forward from midfield and pressing Jorginho to expose his defensive weaknesses; and Pogba getting on the ball in deep areas and finding the vertical runs of Dalot and Shaw, with Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Pogba himself as options in the box.
Another trait that Sarri’s Chelsea share with van Gaal’s United is being much more effective on the turf than in the air. Beat Chelsea’s two centre-backs, the only adept aerial defenders in their side, and United will score goals, as they did twice in the masterful 2-0 win over the Blues in February. For the first, Pogba found Herrera, who beat third man Marcos Alonso to the header, and for the second, Marcus Rashford found Pogba, whose run and aerial finish was too powerful for Cesar Azpilicueta to prevent.
Even more important than tactically managing this match, though, is for the United players to recall that they were capable of the comfortable 2-0 win earlier this season and be confident in their abilities to execute Solskjaer’s plan again. As they all fight for their futures at Old Trafford, this, the most important match of the season, would be the best one to prove that they can tactically, mentally and physically be a part of next season’s Manchester United side.