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Chelsea vs Man Utd preview: Why Aubameyang is the wrong man to trouble Red Devils and Ten Hag has pressing dilemma

OLD enemies are reunited once more as two of English football’s most decorated sides go head-to-head at Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Chelsea versus Manchester United was a title-deciding fixture in the Premier League for a period of seven years from 2004 to 2011.

Both games between Chelsea and Man Utd last season ended a draw
Chelsea hold the edge over United in the head-to-head

Now, it is merely another top four fixture.

Nevertheless, the animosity between both sets of fans has remained prevalent from the mid-to-late noughties, meaning this game is always a wonderful spectacle for neutrals and supporters alike.

Erik ten Hag’s side cannot afford to lose this game.

With the Blues sitting above United in the league table, failure to get a result at the Bridge will deal an early blow to the Red Devils’ hopes of covertly climbing into one of the Champions League spots.

However, a victory for Ten Hag’s team would see the visitors overleap Chelsea, following the results in mid-week which saw Man Utd thwart Tottenham Hotspur, while the Londoners fell to a goalless draw against Brentford.

Graham Potter’s Chelsea are arguably still the favourites in this late Saturday clash of the titans.

In eight games in charge of the West Londoners, Potter is yet to be put to the sword and has his team sitting inside the top four.

While not completely overhauling the system from Chelsea scoring goals while keeping it tight at the back.

Potter did not really need to renovate the entire building, but to re-stabilise the foundations.

Meanwhile, the man in the opposite dugout is tasked with reconstructing the entire framework with no blueprint, and the results have been mixed so far.

To Ten Hag’s credit, while United’s performances have been rather inconsistent since the beginning of the campaign, the team are developing a tactical identity on the pitch, something that has perhaps been lacking for a couple of seasons now.

With victories over Liverpool, league-leaders Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur already this season, Manchester United have proven that they can get results against better opposition and so could pose a serious threat to Potter’s unbeaten start.

Regarding the hosts, this will be the first real test for Potter since his appointment to the dugout and it will be important to pass with flying colours to avoid unwanted questions emerging early into his tenure.

Ten Hag’s striker woes

Before each and every Manchester United game, one of the major talking points is about who will lead the line.

The obvious answer – before he was axed – would have been for Ten Hag to select the man that has scored over 800 goals for club and country over the past two decades.

However, even before his tantrum against Tottenham, Cristiano Ronaldo’s performances have left a lot to be desired this season.

The Portuguese superstar has bagged just one non-penalty goal this season from a total of 35 shots and is greatly underperforming on his xG of 4.46

Having once been the most menacing frontman in world football, age has finally caught up to the veteran, mortalising the immortal.

Even if Ten Hag had been thinking of using him, he’s been dropped from the squad for the game against Chelsea after refusing to come on as a sub in the 2-0 win over Tottenham.

Ten Hag has yet to settle on a number ‘9’ since taking control of the men’s first-team in the summer. 

After showing glimpses of excellence in pre-season, Anthony Martial was touted to be the main man for United.

Martial has four goal involvements in three Prem appearances

Unfortunately, injury after injury has hampered the Frenchman’s game-time under the Dutch coach despite looking sharp in the limited minutes that he has played thus far.

The only other option for the 52-year-old is to deploy Marcus Rashford down the centre.

The England international isn’t a natural striker but has performed admirably when called upon by his coach.

While the bar was unimaginably low last season, Rashford has already matched his tally of five goals in the 2022/23 campaign in all competitions.

Rashford is far more clinical this time around too. Having taken 5 less shots than in the previous season already, the 24-year-old has scored just as many goals – an increase in his goal conversion by 1.6 percent.

Ten Hag even trialled Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes in a joint-false nine role against Brighton and Hove Albion on the opening day, but this experiment was a catastrophe, with United falling 2-1 at home to the Seagulls.

Ahead of this weekend, Ten Hag must decide who his centre-forward will be to tackle one of the best defences in the Premier League.

Rashford is potentially the best option for this game. In victories over Liverpool and Arsenal, Manchester United were so deadly from transitional situations against their opponents’ high line.

Both the Reds and the Gunners struggled to deal with the speed of Rashford in behind as the Englishman managed to score thrice across the two matches.

Bruno Fernandes was able to make a banana pass to find the run of Rashford behind Arsenal’s high backline. The natural wide forward made no mistake and tucked it past Aaron Ramsdale for the eventual winner.

Chelsea are likely to have more of the ball just like Liverpool and Arsenal did and although the Red Devils have been trying to transition into a more possession-oriented team, sitting deep, absorbing pressure and using the pace of Rashford through the middle may be their best bet at the Bridge this weekend.

Will Chelsea press Manchester United?

Graham Potter has always been a progressive coach.

Though it’s still early days, the new Blues boss has begun to mould Chelsea to play his preferential tactical style.

Potter wants his players to dominate possession and press high up the pitch when they don’t have it, which has become the new blueprint for modern coaching.

Nevertheless, maintaining high pressure has been difficult for Chelsea this season due to the addition of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The Gabonese striker is willing to press in spells but must be careful to not overwork himself given he doesn’t have the legs he once had at the peak of his powers.

Against Aston Villa on Sunday, Chelsea came away with all three points in a 2-0 victory at Villa Park. 

However, this scoreline flattered to deceive as Steven Gerrard’s strugglers peppered 16 shots at Kepa Arrizabalaga who had a fine performance in goal. Seven of these strikes were on target too. 

Had Villa played like that in their 3-0 loss to Fulham, perhaps he wouldn’t have been sacked.

Overall, the Villans boasted an xG of 1.88 to Chelsea’s 1.32 on the day and could have, and possibly should have scored at least one goal but for Kepa’s heroics on the day.

One of the reasons Chelsea struggled defensively, despite not conceding, was because of their lack of pressure in the final third, particularly in the first half.

Chelsea dropped off and settled into a medium-level block when Villa were playing out from the back, allowing the defenders and goalkeeper to pass the ball around unscathed under little to no pressure

The hosts were able to play through the thirds of the pitch with ease and pin Chelsea into a deeper defensive block. Even the goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, began to push higher outside his area, creating an auxiliary back three with the two central defenders due to the room that the visitors afforded them.

In the first 45 minutes of play, Chelsea registered a Passes allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) rate of 10.3.

This metric measures how many passes a defending team allows their opponents to have before stepping in to challenge for the ball.

Essentially, Villa made 10.3 passes before the Blues attempted to win it back.

In the final thirty minutes of the game, when Aubameyang left the field of play, Chelsea’s PPDA decreased to 6.7, meaning that Potter’s side began pressing more, allowing Villa less time on the ball.

Coincidentally, in the time remaining after Aubameyang was substituted, Villa had merely two shots.

Always remember, the centre-forward is the very first defender. 

With the former Arsenal man on the pitch, teams are finding it quite easy to bypass the initial pressure and progress into deeper areas.

Since his return to the Premier League, Aubameyang’s impact out of possession for Chelsea in all competitions has been minimal and almost non-existent as the experienced striker has mustered just 1 high regain, 2 counterpressing recoveries and no dangerous recoveries

Manchester United have had the same conundrum on their hands ever since Cristiano Ronaldo returned to the club near the beginning of the 2021/22 campaign.

What will be interesting to see is whether Potter chooses to press Man United.

As the 20-time champions have shown this season, they are susceptible to errors when playing out from the back.

Even last Sunday, the Red Devils came close to making a howler when David de Gea played a hospital pass to the weaker right foot of Fred, who struggles under pressure anyway.

Fred called for the ball despite being under pressure and de Gea obliged to play him the ball which almost ended in disaster for Man United

Newcastle United came close to capitalising on the mistake but the Mancunian side scrambled the ball away in the end.

However, a more potent Chelsea forward line may be less forgiving.

It would not be a major shock if Potter opted to keep Aubameyang on the bench from the get-go either to take advantage of United’s vulnerabilities in their own third of the pitch, utilising a player more willing to be active in the high press instead.

Will Man United go toe-to-toe with Chelsea?

A lot of parallels can be drawn between Potter and ten Hag.

Both are strong admirers of Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola and have similar ideas about how football should be played.

However, it has been more straightforward for Potter to apply his philosophy to Chelsea than his counterpart in the opposite dugout this weekend given that the Englishman had more solid bedrock to work upon with the Blues.

Ten Hag has essentially overseen two tactical overhauls already at Old Trafford and he has only been in charge since the summer.

At the beginning of the season, the Dutchman was stubborn with his systematic approach, placing emphasis on build-up play from the back and constant ball retention.

Following humiliating back-to-back defeats to Brighton and Brentford, ten Hag realised that if you don’t learn to bend, you will inevitably break.

De Gea played to Christian Eriksen with his back turned. The Dane was pressed by his Danish compatriot Mathias Jensen who nicked the ball inside the box and placed it home to punish United for sloppy build-up play

In the next five league outings, which included impressive victories over Liverpool and Arsenal, the coach reverted to a more pragmatic set-up with the players instructed to sit deep in a low defensive block for large parts of the game in order to soak up pressure, before rapidly hitting their opponents on the break, while also going long from goal-kicks.

After a few weeks of success, the Derby day decimation ended this approach.

Ten Hag made a conscious decision to change back to the style of play he was brought to Manchester to integrate.

Wins against Everton, Omonia Nicosia and a draw with Newcastle United proceeded.

Nonetheless, it was Wednesday’s crucial top four bout at home to third-placed Tottenham Hotspur where ten Hag’s vision was brought to life.

In potentially the most dominant display at the Theatre of Dreams for years, Manchester United comfortably cast Spurs aside 2-0, having dominated the ball with 52 percent possession and 28 shots peppered towards Hugo Lloris’ goal.

Possibly the largest question looming over Saturday’s evening Battle at the Bridge is whether Ten Hag looks to take a similar approach to the midweek bout.

The major difference is that Antonio Conte’s Spurs have a tendency to cede possession to their opponents, particularly in big games away from home which facilitated United’s attacking supremacy throughout the match.

Right up until Fred opened the scoring, Tottenham’s game-plan was to sit in a 5-3-2 narrow low block and soak up pressure from Man United, with the aim of preventing the side from creating clear-cut opportunities and to punish them on the break. This was a catastrophic failure

In this game, Potter will not allow the visitors to display such ball-dominance and will likely want his team to be the ones that are in control of the match, forcing United into a deeper shape.

It is likely that ten Hag will adopt a flexible approach in London, a hybrid gameplan which could see United being dogged and compact in their 4-2-3-1 shape, defending for large parts of the match, but also far more expansive and braver on the ball than in the fixtures against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City.

What does all this mean?

Manchester United’s victory on Wednesday put the team within a point of their top four rivals.

A win at Stamford Bridge would not only push the Reds into one of the prized Champions League slots but would also prove to the world that this side can get a result away from home in a game against better opponents.

For Chelsea, it is the first time that Potter has been tested so far during his reign by a Premier League outfit.

The match versus Man Utd will either be a reality check for the Blues or else a test passed with flying colours.

There’s rarely a dull affair between these two giants of English football. Let’s hope this one is no different.

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