It – Manchester United against Chelsea – was not a match filled with attacking prowess. It was a midfield battle which yielded just 3 shots on target in the entire 90 minutes, all of which were taken by United. Chelsea had one shot in the first half. It was a midfield battle where the defences dropped to absorb pressure too. United completed 94 passes into the final third (which is a lot; 62 in the first half and 32 in the second), and Chelsea completed 101 (24 in the first half, 77 in the second, showing how Mourinho treated going 2-0 up).
As a result, there wasn’t an awful lot for the United centre-backs – who I’d originally been planning on focussing on – to do. Mourinho’s man-marking job of Herrera on Hazard worked perfectly, and after a couple of moments of confusion early on, defending in the right-back area, United worked out how to deal with occasionally having twin full-backs on that side.
Bailly and Rojo made for a good, if rather sheltered, partnership. There was a small difference apparent at some times in the second half, where Rojo wanted to keep a higher line than Bailly, but this may hint at part of why they worked well together. Rojo is a bit of a jumper-inner; Bailly sits back and backs off a little before choosing his moment to challenge.
Rojo dealt well with Costa, bumping him out of the way to win a header in the opening minutes and, to borrow David Preece’s phrase, out-shithoused him throughout much of the match. Costa wasn’t at his best, generally failing to hold the ball up well though not receiving a large amount of useful service, although he still won a few free-kicks through diving alone. He wasn’t completely out-shithoused.
Rojo did his trademark dive-in-tackle at one point during the game, which missed both the ball and (fortunately, probably) the player, but it was largely a quiet game. For Bailly, the performance was similar – quiet, good, dealing with Costa when he needed to be dealt with however infrequently and easily that was.
However, there were a couple of moments that were odd, or which looked bad. One was a moment on the ball, which initially looked like he lost track of the ball in a moment he really shouldn’t have.
Although the moment looks worse on first glance than it is, it’s still unusual, as there were other moments in the match when Bailly was very calm on the ball under pressure.
The other moment is another one-off, body positioning on a cross which I understand (he may find it easier to backpedal than side-step and he has Costa in a fuller view instead of looking over his shoulder) but am still not fond of.
Those were basically the only things of note for the United centre-backs in this match though, which is why I also spent some time watching Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma.
As a very young centre-back, he’s someone I’ve always been interested in watching, and particularly in this match against United as the first chance I’ve had to properly watch him since his bad injury last season.
Back then, there had been something about his walking/running style which I wasn’t keen on, a little too much on his heels, and it seems (probably unsurprisingly) like it’s still a part of his game. In the first clip, watch how quickly Rashford is able to change direction compared to Zouma. (Note: the picture quality isn’t great).
It’s the moment against Rashford which probably most clearly exhibits his heel-sitting. It could be that Rashford just read the situation better and was ready to pounce, but I don’t think that the difference in their anticipation levels is that large. In the last example, with Chelsea’s players turning, Zouma’s unable to change directions and jog without a couple of bouncy steps to transition his weight and centre of gravity*.
In hindsight, Mourinho’s United against Chelsea was never going to be a game which led to an interesting centre-back analysis. Maybe it would have been if his scheme hadn’t gone to plan. Maybe it would have been if his scheme hadn’t been to make the game boring. But really, the latter is too much to ask of him.
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