When Jose Mourinho leads out Chelsea out at Old Trafford to tackle new Manchester United manager David Moyes’ Red Devils, one can be forgiven for considering the sub-plots than will unravel outside of the main match itself.
For this match has more than three points at stake. Both managers are new; well with Mourinho’s second homecoming being under as much scrutiny by the media as is Moyes’ ascent to arguably the most scrutinized job in club football.
A number of issues come to the fore such as the broody want-away Wayne Rooney (to Chelsea of all teams!); Mourinho’s highly opinionated and super-charged media comments and United’s damning failures in the transfer market which have created unease with the club’s millions of fans around the globe.
Unofficial stats put United’s fan base at 659 million around the globe but it is the 75,000 packed into Old Trafford who could unwittingly create movements in the transfer market when they see the club’s number 10 walk onto the pitch.
Their reaction may well seal the fate of the Liverpool-born superstar’s fate but consequently force new CEO Ed Woodward and Moyes to break the bank before the transfer window shuts on 2 September.
Then there is Chelsea’s distinct change in style which is certainly not Mourinho’s stock-in-trade formation over the years. The club’s last minute capture of Brazilian midfielder Willian from crack Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala from under the noses of Tottenham Hotspur has raised eyebrows; not so much at the timing but at the fact that the Blues possess plenty of similar players.
There is an underlying feeling that Mourinho has inherited a squad which is not in his image but the wily Portuguese mentor may have to undertake a carefully measured transformation of the squad. One certainly wonders what the future holds for the likes of Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, David Luiz and Demba Ba.
Moyes has seemingly continued with the 4-3-3 formation from Everton which doubles up as a 4-5-1 when the team is not in possession. He likes his full-backs to push up and join the attack while the front 3 press the opposition high up the field.
Normally 2 central midfielders will cover all areas on the pitch while supporting the defense while one roams just behind the front 3. With United’s proven team of winners, Moyes found it easy in United’s last 2 games (v Wigan and Swansea City) to implement this style but the loss of Rafael with a hamstring will mean a more conservative full back in Phil Jones or Chris Smalling, which may not be an entirely bad thing with players like Eden Hazard and Oscar likely to be roaming the flanks.
The defence of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will be crucial as always while the composure and successful pass rate of Michael Carrick will dictate United’s tempo and possession
As for Mourinho, his love for a diamond midfield formation in which a holding midfielder sits at the base with an attack minded linkman at the top close to a normally powerful striker is well documented. The wide areas of the diamond are normally patrolled by 2 wide-men who bomb forward at pace creating plenty of chances for the top striker.
Generally another midfield man tucks into the centre linking defense with attack, keeping a heavy presence in the midfield that dominates possession. Mourinho likes his teams strong defensively and old favourite John Terry and Gary Cahill will have their work cut out against the flying Dutchman Robin van Persie and Rooney, if as expected, he starts the match. Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole will have license to go forward as the full backs.
United’s lack of steel in the centre is well documented and much may depend on the team’s ability to check the opposition runs through the middle. Carrick is no slouch but is susceptible to pacy runners while Tom Cleverly or Anderson’s contributions (if fielded) will certainly be crucial.
Their ability to also cover up for the runs of Patrice Evra who is often caught out of position during counter attacks may well mean the difference between 3 points or none. The other key question for Moyes is whether to field ageless Ryan Giggs against the energetic Blues midfield; how he uses Giggs will be important.
But a crucial factor may be how Rooney reacts to booing by the fans. He is a big game player and Chelsea will certainly be happier seeing him on the bench, especially if considering his impressive record against the Blues is anything to go by. As he showed against Swansea, football is his true love and if he is the mood, then Chelsea will sing the blues.
Chelsea lacks a recognized defensive midfielder and their continued use of Ramires in that position is certainly a weakness than United can exploit. The sending out of Oriol Romeu on loan to Valencia was a surprise given the promise he had shown and the options in that department.
The team does not seem to have a balance of defense and attack in their playing personnel and Ramires’ previous red cards have come from mistimed tackles when called upon to do the dirty work. The other issue is a lack of consistent centre forward with Torres still to reach the Liverpool form that created many a nightmare for Vidic. As the game against Aston Villa showed, Chelsea will need to be more clinical.
United: Robin van Persie has certainly taken off from where he finished last term and his goal ratio is certainly astonishing in the last 2 seasons in the EPL. Once again, he will be key not just in the context of such games but over the whole season.
Chelsea: Eden Hazard seems to have regained the early season buzz of the previous campaign and Mourinho has always loved nippy, tricky wide layers as a major creative aspect of his teams and Hazard definitely is in that mould. How he fares against either Evra or Jones will be crucial.
Prediction: Manchester United to edge it by the odd goal. 2-1 with Van Persie making his mark.
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