Man United v Chelsea: One big game, five big questions

Matt Stead

1) Will Man United counter-attacks punish Chelsea’s poor transitions?

The most important tactical element of this match is how Chelsea cope with Manchester United’s counter-attacks. As highlighted by United’s two league wins against Chelsea last year, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s preference for sitting back and hitting teams on the break is the perfect system to exploit Chelsea’s inability to adequately cope in the attack-to-defence transition.

If we are beginning to sound like a broken record, that’s because Lampard just isn’t learning from his mistakes. From his first game in charge – a 4-0 defeat to Man United – to 3-3 draws against West Brom and Southampton this season, Chelsea are far too easy to counter-attack through the middle of the park.

Lampard gives his players freedom to roam wherever they like in search of a goal, and so when the ball is lost they are too fanned out to recompress into a compact shape. That won’t change until their pressing becomes more synchronised and their attacking movements are prepared on the training ground.

Man Utd will feel confident about their ability to sit deep and absorb pressure for long spells before breaking through the spaces in the Chelsea midfield and getting in behind Lampard’s high back line.


2) Will two back threes create an open midfield for Fernandes to dominate?

Chelsea used a 4-3-3 formation in the 4-0 and 2-0 league defeats in 2019/20 before switching to a 3-4-2-1 for the 3-1 victory in the FA Cup semi-final, which suggests Lampard will again deploy a back three for Saturday’s game. Solskjaer, meanwhile, generally goes for a 3-5-2 for big games, including Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over Paris Saint-Germain.

This clash of back threes will create one of two tactical patterns. Either the added protection in defence will ensure this is a low-scoring game, with Lampard in particular showing similar caution to that in the 0-0 draw with Sevilla in midweek; or, more likely, it will empty out central midfield to give us more of an open game as Man United counter-attack one way and Chelsea break back the other, capitalising on their new-found speed through Timo Werner.

If it’s the latter, then Man United hold an advantage. Bruno Fernandes might not have got off to a great start this season but Chelsea’s two-man midfield gives him the chance of a return to form. He will sit neatly between the lines as United’s number ten in a 3-5-2, popping up in spaces between N’Golo Kane and Jorginho.




3) Can Greenwood dove-tail with Rashford?

Chelsea’s defenders are error-prone, and with that haphazard high line – accompanied by a disorganised press – the visitors could be caught out by simple passes in behind. However, Anthony Martial is suspended for this match, meaning Solskjaer may choose to play Mason Greenwood up front alongside Marcus Rashford.

Should Greenwood successfully fill Martial’s boots, he and Rashford can split either side of the Chelsea back three, making runs into the channels for Fernandes to pick out. But the 19-year-old missed the PSG match through injury and may not be 100%, plus he is yet to record a goal or assist this season in 195 minutes of league football.

Much will depend on who Lampard picks as his left-sided centre-back. Andreas Christensen struggled with Sadio Mane’s pace in the 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, getting himself sent off for a challenge on the Senegal international. Kurt Zouma makes mistakes, and Lampard doesn’t seem to trust Fikayo Tomori. Greenwood might fancy his chances.


4) Will Axel Tuanzebe help Man United contain Timo Werner?

Perhaps the 2-1 win in Paris is the breakout moment for Axel Tuanzebe, finally given his chance by Solskjaer and grabbing it with both hands in a commanding display against Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Tuanzebe, who was hugely impressive on loan at Aston Villa in 2018/19 but hasn’t been given the opportunity to push on since then, has the recovery speed needed to compliment Harry Maguire.

He also has the physical attributes to handle Werner. The Chelsea striker makes very intelligent runs off the shoulder of the last defender and will no doubt get the better of Maguire, Victor Lindelof and/or Luke Shaw in the back three; Werner has been linking very effectively with Kai Havertz over the last few matches.

The game’s most important individual battle, should the contest become stretched as Man United counter and Chelsea counter-counter, is between Werner and Tuanzebe.


5) How will Werner, Havertz and Mount combine for Chelsea?

Mason Mount and Havertz seem likely to start the game as inside forwards in Lampard’s 3-4-2-1, dipping into the half-spaces to receive line-splitting passes on the blind side of the Man United midfield. From here, their connection with Werner – and ability to get Ben Chilwell on the ball – will be the key to breaking Man United down.

But there remains the possibility Lampard will stick with his 4-3-3, having not deployed a back three since that FA Cup semi-final last season. This is a potentially clumsier setup for facing United’s three centre-backs, mainly because it shunts Havertz into a wide position he does not favour and disconnects Werner from his teammates. Against a deep-lying defence, Chelsea’s attackers would probably struggle for fluency in the 4-3-3.

Alex Keble hosts a Premier League pre-match tactics show at


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