Nobody is exactly sure what to expect at Old Trafford this weekend. Man United versus Chelsea is arguably the first Big Six match this season in which both sides are out of form, with both sides playing flat, lifeless, error-strewn football. It could be end-to-end, or it could be hesitant and tedious. It really depends on which versions of these two mystifying clubs show up.
In times of crisis (or at least when morale is low) the collective gives way to individuals. When the lines of attack and defence are disconnected and the managers’ instructions are impossible to read, matches are reduced to small moments of quality, to specific battles between players.
With that in mind, here are five tactical questions that focus more on the key players than the wider systems deployed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Maurizio Sarri:
1) Can Man United muster the energy to exploit Chelsea’s disorganised defence?
For the opening 30 minutes of the Manchester derby on Wednesday Solskjaer’s side played with purpose, snapping into tackles and attempting to break forward quickly as they had done during their new manager’s honeymoon period. Whether or not Solskjaer will continue with a 5-3-2 formation or revert to 4-3-3, he will surely attempt a similar tactical approach against another possession-centric side.
The aim will be to release Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford in behind Chelsea’s disorganised and high back line, but to do so will require the sort of hard-working performances from Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay that have only been seen in bursts – at the Nou Camp a fortnight ago and then against Man City.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jorginho both struggle to recycle possession with fluency or forward momentum when the opposition midfield presses effectively, and so the biggest question ahead of Sunday’s game is whether Man United have it in them to fight tooth and nail for an entire 90 minutes. Chelsea, equally prone to drifting, will let this game pass them by if the hosts are alert and cohesive.
2) Which of Kante or Pogba will run the game?
Occupying the same spaces in midfield, the head-to-head between N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba promises to be a fascinating one. Kante’s vast improvements in a box-to-box role over the last six weeks have been lost amid Chelsea’s collective problems, but the Frenchman is now capable of turning sharply in possession and driving his side forward.
That could prove to be United’s undoing should Pogba play with typical indiscipline. His individuality is as much a hindrance as it is a help. His ability to hold Kante off then launch a counter-attack makes him the most important United player on the pitch on Sunday, and yet his tendency to roam too far from the left of central midfield asks too much of his team-mates. Kante, driving into the spaces behind Pogba, can help make this an end-to-end match.
The Chelsea man should come out on top. Kante knows all about his France team-mate and will be free to follow Pogba around the pitch when necessary; the smarter, more subtle player should get the upper hand.
3) Can Solskjaer find a way to get at Chelsea’s full-backs?
The weakest area of the Chelsea team is the full-back positions. Emerson has looked error-prone at left-back, giving away numerous free-kicks in the 2-2 draw with Burnley, while Cesar Azpilicueta doesn’t receive enough support from midfield on the other side. Most of Chelsea’s opponents attempt to target the flanks, but United have shown little interest in attacking down the wings recently – which is odd given that overlapping full-backs and swinging crosses into the box were hallmarks of Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides.
Perhaps wary of his team’s defensive frailties and fitness issues, Solskjaer has funnelled United attacks predominantly through the middle of the pitch during this bad run of form. Marcus Rashford’s central runs have represented the biggest threat, with United holding an overly narrow defensive shape to break out wide (which helps to explain why Everton’s full-backs were so dominant in attack during the 4-0 at Goodison Park).
Solskjaer needs a new plan to get at the Chelsea full-backs. Perhaps he could instruct Anthony Martial to hug the left touchline, or pick Diogo Dalot to maraud forward from the right?
4) Will Hazard versus Young be the defining battle?
The game’s most obvious mismatch sees Eden Hazard – the source of every single Chelsea attack – up against Ashley Young, who looks even worse at right-back than he did at left-back earlier this season. It turns out a 33-year-old left winger is prone to giving the ball away and making positional errors when asked to play right-back in the Premier League.
Hazard stays very high and wide under Sarri – walking on the left even when the game is taking place on the other side of the pitch – so that Chelsea always have the option to quickly switch the play and get him one-on-one with the full-back. The Belgian either floats infield to become a No. 10 or drives to the byline, depending on the opposition. He will spend most of Sunday running straight at Young.
5) Is this the ideal game for Higuain?
Gonzalo Higuain has only managed to score against Fulham, Huddersfield and Burnley since joining Chelsea in January, primarily because the Argentine severely lacks the pace needed to play in the Premier League. His touch, link-up play and finishing have all been good, but without a sharp turn or pace over five yards Higuain is only effective against slow, disorganised defences. So he could be perfect for Old Trafford.
The partnership of Victor Lindelof and Chris Smalling does not fill United fans with confidence. Both have struggled over the last few weeks, meaning Higuain will fancy his chances of finding space in the box and, as he is wont to do, getting a shot away early. His style of snapshot is exactly what David de Gea has struggled to save this season.
Alex Keble is on Twitter