Chelsea advanced to the semi-finals of the FA Cup with a narrow 1-0 win over domestic league leaders Manchester United.
In what can be described as an intriguing tactical battle, Rafael Benitez piped his counterpart Sir Alex Ferguson and even though the Spaniard might be criticized by his owns fans for virtually every decision that he makes, Squawka presents you as to why the former Liverpool boss deserves some credit for Chelsea’s pivotal win.
On Monday, Benitez started with Ramires and John Obi Mikel in the midfield pivot and the trio of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar operated ahead of the duo.
With Hazard and Oscar drifting in, Michael Carrick and Phil Jones were overrun in the centre of the park and Chelsea could easily play the ball around United’s midfielders.
Danny Welbeck tracked back to mitigate this mismatch (leaving Javier Hernandez isolated upfront), while United’s left-sided wingmen were also forced to drift in.
The reason for both Patrice Evra and Tom Cleverley needing to move inward was because Antonio Valencia and Luis Nani had to maintain astute positions on the right-wing to start counter-attacks and exploit Hazard’s defensive weaknesses.
Thus, to make is a 5 vs. 5 even situation in the midfield, Evra and Cleverley had to ensure that they often played relatively centrally.
This however gave Cesar Azpilicueta acres of space down United’s left-wing, which served as Chelsea’s ‘Plan-B’ in case when the Red Devils tried overload the midfield.
During the 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, the catalyst for Chelsea’s comeback was their high and admirable pressing in the second-half.
This time hence, Benitez ensured his players pressurized the visitors from the word go and his team selection suggested likewise with Mikel being preferred ahead of Frank Lampard due to the the former having a higher work ethic and better tackling skills than the latter.
Benitez’s pressing however, had two phases.
1) Mikel and Ramires pressed aggressively and tirelessly whenever the United players had the ball in the Blues’ half. The success of this Ramires-Mikel partnership is evident from the fact that together they made seven tackles and six interceptions.
2) When the ball was in United’s half, Mata, Demba Ba, Oscar and Hazard had the onus of pressing the opposing players.
Evidently, the visitors’ playmaker and usually reliable Carrick could only complete 81% of his total passes- a testament of how successful Chelsea were with their pressing all over the pitch.
Ferguson’s game plan was quite simple- inviting pressure and catching Chelsea on the break. Hazard and Oscar are not known for tracking back and hence, the Red Devils could have found massive joy on the flanks.
However, Benitez was prepared to handle United’s counter-attacking approach.
Azpilicueta and Ryan Bertrand (initially Ashley Cole) were not only instructed to time their attacking runs, but also close down United’s wingers as soon as the latter got on to the ball.
The task was made easier with Cleverley playing on the left-wing.
The Englishman can’t stretch the game as a true No 7 and moreover, since he was needed to regularly move in and nullify Chelsea’s extra-men advantage in the midfield, United’s counter-attacking prowess from the left flank was limited. Moreover, Azpilicueta pressing made it overwhelmingly difficult for Cleverley to quickly pick out teammates and form link up plays.
To stop Nani and Valencia on United’s right wing, Ryan Bertrand stayed deep and got adequate and timely support from Ramires and Mikel.
Nani shockingly just couldn’t cope with Chelsea’s pressing and with the Portugal international completing just 64% of his passes, United were bound to struggle to get the required balls to Hernandez upfront.