It is a measure of the stature of Manchester United that in the week leading up to this match the media narrative surrounded them, it is also a measure of their relative lack of success in recent seasons that this narrative was largely negative.
With top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic stating that if the club fails to reach the Champions League next season then he will leave and record signing Paul Pogba issuing a passionate defence of his performances thus far this season, there is a general sense of dissatisfaction surrounding United this week.
Contrast this to their opponents on Sunday and you see a huge difference with the Chelsea camp presenting a united front as they move closer and closer to winning the league title. Admittedly this difference in outlook may be attributed solely to the disparity in the league position of the two sides, but it feels deeper than that.
Coach Antonio Conte has created an environment at Chelsea in which everything feels positive and that is reflective in performances on the pitch. Contrast this to Jose Mourinho at United, who has been openly critical of a number of players this season to the media, and you see a side that is playing in a manner that suggests they are almost afraid of having a poor performance.
Of course whilst the psychological profile of the two sides is important going in to this weekend’s game, the tactical side of the game needs to be taking in to consideration as well…
The centre of the field in football tends to be the most important area of the pitch and it will be key in this match if United are able to get a foothold and dictate the pace of play.
Chelsea should start the match with a midfield unit of N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic playing as a central double pivot. There have been suggestions since the start of last season that N’Golo Kante is effectively worth two players in that area with his capacity to cover space and close down opponents but, in truth, Chelsea are most vulnerable in the spaces down the edges of the central midfield pair.
If United are able to overload Chelsea in these central areas then they stand a chance of forcing Chelsea in to a defensive game, which will suit United’s style. Ironically, given the aforementioned media narrative going in to this match, the key player for United may well be Paul Pogba, with the French midfielder having the attributes to dominate the central spaces.
For Juventus Pogba was at his best when allowed to play on the left of the central midfield and in this match, United would do well to give him that role again. His ability to burst past players centrally in to the final third could be key to unbalancing the Chelsea defensive structure and winning the game for United.
At the same time, using an advanced playmaker in between the midfield and the attack for United would force Chelsea to make a tactical decision early in the game. The presence of a Juan Mata or even Paul Pogba himself in this area would force Chelsea to either drop a midfielder back to cover the space, or allow a defender to push forward in to the space to mark the attacking player.
Either option forces Chelsea to be reactive to the United shape and presents Jose Mourinho’s side with a chance of going on to win the match.
One of the key aspects of Chelsea’s play in the attacking phase so far this season has been the ease with which they have found Eden Hazard in space in the final third. The Belgian attacker has perfected the ability to drift from the wide areas in to the half space between the centre and the left.
In this position Hazard is able to have the maximum effect on the game as Diego Costa pins the opposition central defenders back, while the fullback is occupied by Marcos Alonso advancing from the wing-back strata.
This means that Hazard typically comes across a central midfielder in the first instance and in this match that could be the Spaniard Ander Herrera.
The ability of Hazard to beat a man in a one on one situation is one of his biggest strengths and should he be able to beat a defender in the central area then the entire defensive unit for United becomes exposed.
This mechanism is mirrored on the right hand side of the field with Willian in particular moving inside to attack the central areas whenever he gets the opportunity. This is, in part, why Chelsea have been so successful this season with Hazard, Willian or Pedro drifting inside and being supported in wide areas by the wing-backs and centrally by the deeper central midfielders.
The passing angles and cover provided by these movements offer Chelsea a number of different ways to build their attack.
It is somewhat fitting that the keys to this match rest with the game’s two best players. Pogba has been passionate in the media this week and this could be the match in which he goes on to finally make his mark on this United side.
On the other side of the field, Eden Hazard is putting forward a convincing case as the best player in the league, with a big money move to Real Madrid potentially on the cards this summer
The pressure going in to this match rests firmly on the shoulders of Man United. The race for the Champions League is hotting up and you feel that missing out again could have tangible consequences on the Old Trafford club.