Manchester United versus Chelsea often features drama, but it was the tactical battle between Erik ten Hag and Graham Potter made up the majority of the match.
Within 15 minutes, the game essentially had essentially become a fairly frantic battle between two lively midfields, with United doing a far better job at finding spaces.
Ruben Loftus Cheek and Jorginho certainly tried to press with vigour, but often found that Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and Casemiro worked well together to always have a spare man.
One might have expected Mason Mount to drop into Chelsea’s midfield to help out, given that he has the skillset to do so. However with an ageing Cesar Azpilicueta playing the wingback role, the Englishman had seemingly been instructed to aid in creating width on The Blues’ right-hand side.
Casemiro was the most often to be freed up by United’s numerical superiority and often had time to pick a pass. The Brazilian has a proclivity for playing it forward at almost every opportunity as well, which was a real problem for Chelsea early on.
United really should have made more of their success in winning the midfield battle early in the match, but Jadon Sancho and Antony both struggled to create chances, often turning down one-v-one opportunities of – in Antony’s case in particular – opportunities to cross.
After around half an hour, Potter switched from 3-4-3 to 3-5-2, with Mount now following Casemiro around the pitch. It was surprising that the switch happened so late in the match, with Chelsea’s new manager rarely shy of an early change of shape.
He did show it though, just five minutes later. That was all the time required for it to become clear that Chelsea’s flanks were now exposed, with Rashford very nearly opening the scoring. Matteo Kovacic came on for Marc Cucurella, and the short-lived 3-5-2 became a 4-3-1-2.
In all of this, United still stayed largely on top – essentially as Chelsea plugged a gap somewhere, another appeared elsewhere. The next whack-a-mole to escape the Potter hammer this time was Antony, who ought to have put United ahead just before the half-time whistle. The Brazilian found a gap between Ben Chillwell and Thiago Silva to make rare use of his right foot. The shot was wide, with Antony demonstrating why he so rarely uses his weaker side.
Ten Hag would certainly be forgiven for wondering how his side hadn’t gone into half time a couple of goals ahead. In the second half, the task was to avoid regret.
Chelsea came out the quicker after the break, with some wasteful passes contributing to an early spell of dominance for the Blues. Now it was Ten Hag’s chance to act fast and tinker, turning to Fred in place of Sancho to beef up United’s midfield.
Fred joined Casemiro in a double pivot with Eriksen ahead, while Fernandes took up a nominal left sided position, often drifting infield to offer an option to play through the middle. Both managers had now packed their midfields as much as humanly possible.
The open, fast-paced nature of the game dissipated as result, with the match now more or less a matter of attrition. It was United who seemed to struggle with this brief, losing control of the game and becoming susceptible to fast breaks. Chelsea’s 73rd minute substitution of Aubameyang for the pacey Christian Pulisic suggested that Potter intended to make more of these.
Bruno Fernandes seemingly became frustrated with the stop-start nature of the game and resorted to hopeful long shots, while Antony cut an isolated figure out on the right, and Rashford had none of the earlier joy he had found in attacking Chelsea’s centre backs. United seemed blunted.
Erik ten Hag’s final roll of the dice was to bring Rashford and Eriksen off, with Anthony Elanga and Scott McTominay coming on. United were now matching Chelsea’s 4-3-1-2, with the ‘3’ comprising of three players hardly known for their creativity.
What Casemiro, Fred, and McTominay are known for is winning the ball back. Immediately they set out to do so high up the pitch, looking to force a mistake from the Blues’ backline. Unfortunately, the plan went against them, leading to an attack from which Chelsea won a corner.
The corner took place four minutes after McTominay had come onto the pitch and he marked it with a clumsy grab on Broja, giving away the near-fatal penalty. With no changes left to make and barely any creativity on the pitch, United seemingly had little hope of an equalizer.
But Manchester United have a history of gung-ho football, and Casemiro embraced that history by, along with his teammates, piling into the opposition box and getting on the end of crosses. A dramatic late equalizer saw an unfamiliar managerial battle end in a familiar score-line between these two Premier League rivals.