The Premier League returns this weekend with a number of huge clashes adorning the match-week that precedes yet another international break. Every side will be desperate to enter the break with three points, as a defeat will fester over the two-week break.
Two sides that claimed narrow 1-0 wins at the weekend were Chelsea, who beat Bournemouth, and Manchester United, who bested Tottenham. With both sides having aspirations of chasing down Manchester City at the top, neither teams can afford to lose this game, but will it become a match that neither manager plays to lose?
A tale of two defences?
Both managers utilise very defensive formations that allow for solidity at the back which sets the teams up with a foundation to get forward. In recent weeks though, they have both been undone by this.
Antonio Conte’s side were dominated by Manchester City before the last international break as their defensive style played right into Pep Guardiola’s hands. A Kevin De Bruyne masterclass in the middle saw City dominate the ball and create a lot of chances, while Chelsea’s fans were left to lament their team’s overly-defensive style.
Jose Mourinho’s men were held to a 0-0 draw with Liverpool a few weeks ago, and the game was dreadful. Liverpool showed attacking intent in the game, but they were completely stifled by the negativity of their opponents. For United, their display showed their defensive might, but they rarely threatened in the game.
The way the two teams have played against their top six rivals alludes to the fact this could be another dull game. Tactically though, one manager should take a chance and try to win the game, and that will likely be Conte.
When Chelsea played City, they knew they were coming up against a side that that could not afford to give space to. Against United, they know that they will get far more of the ball as their opponents are not as creatively inclined as the leaders.
This means that Conte should look to dominate the ball and carve out chances through quick passing and movement. Where Liverpool went wrong was in the fact they still do not have a striker, whereas Chelsea have a focal point of their attack to aim for.
For United, they must try to be more positive than they have been in recent games. Even though they beat Tottenham on Saturday, they were still very negative despite being at home and Spurs not having Harry Kane up front.
Mourinho should look to take the attack to their opponents in the game as the Blues have looked vulnerable at the back in recent weeks. If the visitors can make inroads early on and get a goal, then it will force Chelsea out of their shape as they look for an equaliser, leaving them vulnerable. Of course, this also works the other way around too.
Formations will be key
Conte made the five-at-the-back or three centre-half formation massively popular last season as it helped Chelsea to the title. The mix of solidity at the back with three committed defenders and two wide-men, along with the ability to play on the flanks with the wing-backs makes the formation incredibly versatile.
However, Chelsea have come unstuck this season on multiple occasions and some have questioned whether the formation works universally. Conte is unlikely to stray from it though, and the likes of Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz will be desperate to slam the door in the faces of their opponents.
The wing-backs, which are likely to be Marcos Alonso and Davide Zappacosta, will play a vital role in the game as they will provide width in attack, and they will also drop back to make up the back five when defending.
For Mourinho’s side, the team is more likely to start with a traditional back four. This gives solidity at the back with four defenders but means that when the wing-backs go forward, the centre-halves are left vulnerable on the counter-attack.
Mourinho will therefore likely look to play with Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera as his deeper-midfielders, which gives a massive amount of stability in the middle. Herrera has an outstanding engine, while Matic is one of the best all-around midfielders in the league, with his ability to stop attacks and start them.
The absence of Paul Pogba means that United are missing their key midfielder, which will help Chelsea to dominate in the midfield. However, the fact that Matic spent a lot of time in the Blues’ camp and became an integral part of it could mean he becomes the most important player on the pitch.
His prior knowledge of Conte’s tactics and his former-teammates weaknesses gives Mourinho’s side an advantage in the game, with Matic all too aware of the runs, passes and ideas his former-Chelsea teammates will look to implement.
Many have questioned who will be more defensive in this one, but as United are away from home, it will surely be Mourinho’s men that sit deeper. The Portuguese manager does not want to lose these games, and he doesnt often, even if this is detrimental to his team’s chances of winning the game.
How should the sides attack?
While it is impossible to know how Manchester United will set up, Conte will be fairly sure that his side will see a lot of the ball and have the majority of the chances. They must, therefore, look to stay patient when they are in United’s half and look to move the ball quickly and incisively.
The most important thing of all though is that Chelsea take their chances. Too many teams have been handed opportunities by United but they have failed to take them either because of a lack of composure, or because the outstanding David de Gea has bailed them out. Morata and co must look to be as clinical as they can then.
Jose Mourinho’s side know what they must do, but whether they do it is another thing. Against Liverpool, they sat far too deep and it left Romelu Lukaku isolated and he was almost completely anonymous in the game.
When they play Chelsea, United must look to get out of their own-half more often and keep the ball more. This will allow their more creative players to get into the game and feed Lukaku in the box, a place he is far more deadly.
If Chelsea can keep United pinned back and force Lukaku to have to keep the ball on the half-way line then they will put themselves in a hugely enviable position in the game.
Alvaro Morata must step up
In recent seasons, Diego Costa would relish the chance to play against the top sides as he was able to pit his wits and power against the best teams England has to offer. While he was sometimes too focussed on personnal battles with defenders, when he was on form, he would tear the opposiiton apart.
Alvaro Morata has proved a very good replacement for Costa this season as he has hit the ground running, scoring seven goals this season. However, his game against Manchester City was cut short by injury and he was unable to show his skill against top opposition.
Against United, he will likely have few chances, be forced to work in very little space and have to deal with a wall of defenders. When people come to rate the forward, it is in games like this that they will look, as he may only get one chance in the game, but it is something that the very best strikers must be adept at taking.