Chelsea talking tactics: Breaking down defensive sides in big games

When it comes to a so-called “big game” which Chelsea versus Manchester United undoubtedly is in the race for the top four, the Red Devils are a side that likes to sit back and make openings difficult for opponents while threatening to break with a lightning quick counter-attack.

It’s something that’s worked for the Red Devils in picking up vital points – think back to the 0-0 draws at home to Chelsea and Manchester City, and away at Liverpool and Arsenal (the latter of which did attract criticism for them not going for the jugular). Defensively, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer drills them to stand solid in these type of clashes above all else. And it’s likely to be the case again here, especially as a point would suit Manchester United better than an in-form Chelsea with the Red Devils six points better off.

It will be a difficult test for Chelsea to break down that defense. But buoyed by a fantastic 1-0 win against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, who have deployed a defensive-minded approach so well under Diego Simeone for 10 years now, there’s no reason Chelsea cannot do it again. With Thomas Tuchel’s approach seemingly set up not to lose games too, this could very well be a 90 minute chess match with a single goal either way deciding the outcome.

After listening to Thomas Tuchel’s open and honest interview with Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport, when quizzed about using a back three, Tuchel said if it’s working it doesn’t need changing. So against Manchester United, expect more of the same from the Blues – a back three moving as a unit, wing-backs flying up and down the wings, two midfielders aiming to dominate and create in the midfield, and two 10s behind a striker up top looking to create openings and stretch that United defense.

Manchester United has a tried and tested system under Solskjaer too. They usually operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with the fullbacks only getting forward in “big games” when they’re comfortable in possession. Defensively, this back four will be flat, but Chelsea’s wing-backs could stretch that. United will be compact in midfield to stop play coming through the middle too, with that two sitting in front of the back four operating as cover. When Manchester United win the ball, they’ll look to break quickly with their pace in attack through the likes of Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, with Bruno Fernandes acting as the architect.

With Chelsea’s back three though, and as long as the wing-backs can get back quickly enough, the Blues should be solid enough to cope with that. That three that stays back should be able to buy enough time for others to get back, even with United’s pace on the counter. The prospect of quick counter-attacks was something both teams were scared of in the 0-0 reverse of this fixture earlier this season. Chelsea will be patient in their build-up play, but it’s those moments of creativity and star quality, like Giroud’s goal on Tuesday night, that will determine this result.

It’s important for Chelsea not to get too frustrated, as the quality up front is there to win. Three points would put real pressure on those immediately above the Blues and tighten the top four race.