Chelsea vs Manchester United this Sunday is a tale of two teams at very different stages in their development.
The hosts are three points clear at the top of the Premier League and also moved to the front of their Champions League group thanks to a 4-0 thrashing of Juventus in midweek. In the 10 months since Thomas Tuchel took charge, Chelsea have won the Champions League and Uefa Super Cup and are now being tipped by some to become English football’s dominant team.
Chelsea v Man Utd odds from William Hill
- Result: Chelsea (6/10) | Draw (3/1) | Man Utd (24/5)
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18+ only. Be Gamble Aware. All odds in this article are correct at 12:20, 25/11/2021.
The same cannot be said for Man Utd, who go into this game led by interim manager Michael Carrick after another unsuccessful attempt at replacing Sir Alex Ferguson.
Man Utd did get off to a winning start in the Champions League under Carrick, beating Villarreal, but now they must turn their attention to the Premier League, where they have lost four of their past five matches.
All signs, therefore, point to a comfortable Chelsea win but the visitors have a good recent record against the Blues. So, how can Man Utd exploit Chelsea’s weaknesses to upset the odds and what strengths do they need to be wary of?
Easily the biggest strength of this Chelsea side at the minute is their wing-backs. When Tuchel arrived at the end of January 2021, Chelsea’s defence was leaking goals and a move to a back-three helped remedy this.
But let’s get one thing straight: it isn’t a defensive formation. The back-three’s biggest benefit is that it allows Chelsea’s full-backs (now wing-backs) more freedom to terrorise opposition defences.
Just look at Reece James.
As part of a back four, there was no denying he was one of the best full-backs in England, often put in the same category as, and compared to, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joao Cancelo. Solid defensively, James has a wicked cross on him, an insane ability to control the ball with his chest and he did well enough as a full-back.
But these have been amplified by his move to a wing-back, and James has added goals, too. The Englishman is now Chelsea’s top-scorer across all competitions this season after netting his fifth goal of the campaign in the 4-0 win over Juventus with a rocket of a shot.
Adding a further five assists, a joint-club high alongside Mateo Kovacic, James has been directly involved in more goals than any other Chelsea player and is just the second Premier League player to hit 5+ goals and 5+ assists across all competitions this season (the other being Mohamed Salah, of course).
In the Premier League alone, James has four goals and four assists in 2021/22 so far, having also created 2.79 chances per 90 minutes and a league-best 2.63 from open play. For context, among regularly starting defenders, Alexander-Arnold has the next-best total, 1.75.
Tuchel’s system allows James to get high up the pitch knowing he is protected by the back three and central midfielder and can also move slightly infield to pack the opposition area, which is what makes Chelsea so dangerous right now.
James has only created one set-play chance this season, but Chelsea are extremely effective from deadball situations. See their opening goal against Juventus in midweek for the latest example. Hakim Ziyech delivered a dangerous ball into the box that was knocked on by Antonio Rudiger for Trevoh Chalobah to rifle home his first Champions League goal. Rudiger was also involved in a set piece goal against Leicester, scoring with a header from a corner.
Chelsea weren’t always good at converting set pieces but the arrival of Anthony Barry, who has worked with the players both in an offensive and defensive capacity, has flicked a switch. Back in October, Tuchel said: “It’s a good sign when Andreas [Christensen] starts to score. I think our set-piece coach, Anthony Barry, can be very, very proud.
“It’s important to score in situations like this and have lots of people to score.”
At the same time, Man Utd have looked weak when defending set pieces. While they may not always concede directly from the first ball, the failure to deal with the delivery is often Man Utd’s downfall. It is likely to be even worse this weekend, with 6’4″ centre-back and captain Harry Maguire suspended after his red card against Watford.
With Maguire absent, Carrick may opt to continue with the back four he used against Villarreal, partnering Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly at the heart of their defence, flanked by Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Alex Telles, with Luke Shaw still a doubt.
In trying to pack the defence, Scott McTominay and Fred are likely to start as Man Utd’s two holding midfielders, with the aim of staying compact and forcing Chelsea to whip crosses into the box without a natural centre-forward. The front four was rotated against Villarreal in midweek but you can expect Bruno Fernandes to be back among the starters alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. Edinson Cavani could return but he may not be risked.
That Chelsea’s top scorer is a defender could be used to criticise the Blues’ attackers. The reality is that it demonstrates just how this team functions. Even as recently as last season, if you cut off supply to Chelsea’s forwards, you’d keep a clean sheet as the system was built around feeding Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount etc.
Now, keeping the forwards quiet isn’t enough. You have to watch out for the midfielders and defenders, from both set pieces and open play. The only player defences can ignore is Edouard Mendy, though we wouldn’t rule out an Alisson-esque contribution of some sort this season.
Across all competitions in 2021/22, Chelsea have scored 43 goals, starting with Christian Pulisic in the Uefa Super Cup and stretching up to Timo Werner against Juventus in midweek. Excluding one own goal, there have been 17 different Chelsea goalscorers this season, including eight players with at least three goals. There have also been 14 different assist-makers in this Chelsea squad with Rudiger the latest to join the list. Again, there are five players with at least three assists, including Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The left flank
Just a few days ago, Chelsea’s left flank would have been a strength. But unfortunately for the Blues, Ben Chilwell suffered an injury in the win over Juventus and it doesn’t look good. According to reports, Chilwell will be out until 2022 and could even miss the rest of the season if it is an ACL injury as feared.
So the question is, who fills in at left-wing-back against Man Utd and for the future? Against Juventus, Cesar Azpilicueta came on to replace Chilwell ahead of Marcos Alonso and the Chelsea captain may start against Man Utd to provide the defensive stability that would be lost under his compatriot. But even Azpilicueta could be described as a weakness as he hasn’t had too much experience in the left-wing-back role. At left-back he was good. Great, even. He ended Filipe Luis’ Chelsea career before it even started and pushed Ashley Cole out of the club. But left-wing-back? We’ll see. There is also speculation among fans that Saul could play at wing-back, as he did for Atletico Madrid. That’s not a risk Tuchel will take in a game as big as this, however.
Chilwell wasn’t the only casualty for Chelsea in midweek either, as N’Golo Kante limped off in the first-half. The Frenchman has had a lot of injury problems this season and even if it isn’t too serious, they will probably avoid playing him to make things worse. Against Juventus he was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and the Englishman could partner Jorginho in the midfield, with Mateo Kovacic also out.
The rest of the defence should stay the same for Chelsea with Rudiger, Trevoh Chalobah and Thiago Silva sitting in front of Edouard Mendy, and James making the right-wing-back role his and his alone. There may be some rotation in attack for Chelsea if Kai Havertz returns to fitness, though the Blues will still be hopeful of getting Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner involved after their own injury layoffs.
Chelsea have conceded four goals in 12 Premier League games this season and only two of those have been from open play (two penalties). That’s outstanding and Man Utd will have a tough task trying to break the defence down. Unless they let Chelsea get comfortable.
Boasting one of the best defences in world football right now, Chelsea’s centre-backs must go into games feeling confident of a clean sheet no matter the opponent. In Tuchel’s 50 games in charge of the club, the Blues have kept 31 clean sheets and conceded 24 goals. Only twice have they let in more than one goal in a game, that 5-2 anomaly against West Brom and a 2-1 defeat to Aston Villa on the final day of the 2020/21 Premier League season.
But Chelsea’s defence isn’t perfect. No matter the opposition, you can guarantee they will allow at least one decent chance on their goal, often when looking comfortable. That was how Burnley got their draw at Stamford Bridge prior to the international break; Daniel Amartey tested Mendy for Leicester and Weston McKennie did the same in midweek.
It almost seems that, in some cases, Chelsea’s defenders become so bored they look to give themselves something to do by switching off. Particularly, at Stamford Bridge of late, where Chelsea have recorded three defensive errors leading to shots, according to Opta; only four teams have made more.
Those are still low numbers taken from a small sample size in games against Norwich and Aston Villa where Chelsea’s attack more than made up for any lapses. But if Man Utd can lull Chelsea into some sense of defensive complacency, Cristiano Ronaldo et al. might get their chance. As long as they beat Edouard Mendy, that is…
Their record against Manchester United
There are not many fixtures in which this ‘weakness’ becomes relevant. Just one, in fact.
Man Utd are unbeaten in their past seven matches in the league. Not since November 2017 have they lost at the Bridge. Their last two meetings ended 0-0 (a result the visitors would probably take, this Sunday) and the two before those resulted in a 6-0 combined scoreline in the Red Devils’ favour. The two games from the 2018/19 season ended in score-draws.