In a week overshadowed by events off the pitch it was something of a relief to get back to the primary focus of the Premier League (it’s still football but you could forgiven for forgetting). Or rather I thought it would be a relief. I also thought prior to kick off that a draw would be a good result. By the end I was wishing the undersoil heating had packed up or the United team coach had forgotten to pick up Howard Webb, who excelled in the free role once again.
Unbeaten in 10 years against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge one would’ve been forgiven a little misplaced optimism ahead of yesterday’s fixture. One would have been even more readily forgiven for assuming things were going rather well when David Luiz headed past De Gea via Ferdinand’s shoulder. 3-0. It doesn’t get any better, does it?
Well it certainly didn’t. Credit to United. There aren’t many teams that you feel could come back from 3-0 down away from home. Then again there aren’t many teams that have Rooney and Welbeck constantly in the referee’s ear. I presume Wazza was only recommending his preferred hair transplant clinic to Mr. Webb. There aren’t too many teams that are awarded two penalties in the space of 10 minutes away from home either though. It wasn’t too difficult to imagine that Webb would bend to their will one way or another eventually but we didn’t help ourselves.
Chelsea set up as a 4-2-3-1.
Gary Cahill made his debut on the right of centre while David Luiz moved to his preferred side (JT’s position). Both performed reasonably well. David Luiz has started to look like the defender we all hoped he would become. Cahill looked steady enough, apart from almost getting himself sent off, considering the circumstances of his debut. Then they lost Hernandez for the third goal. Ivanovic started at right-back and was his usual, dependable self. The penalty given against him was harsh. Bosingwa got the nod at left-back and confirmed that Bertrand is Cole’s back-up in name only, as most of us probably suspected. He managed to pull off his favourite party-piece by performing considerably better in someone else’s position than he ever looks likely to in his own. Still he managed to nearly concede a penalty in the first-half. He could be a valuable squad member going forward. Presuming he isn’t actually given enough starts to display his usual defensive inadequacy. Ferreira with a uni-brow, if you will. Hard to criticize AVB’s selection here. We looked much as you would expect.
Michael Essien was handed his first start for what feels like about 10 years alongside Meireles in the double-pivot. Essien looked good. Good passing, good positioning, some decent interceptions. Didn’t dominate the midfield like he used to but this is a different formation and he is a different player after three serious knee injuries. Meireles was OK. Not Modric, certainly not Xavi or Iniesta. More like Carrick. Nothing special. Overall the double-pivot looked so-so. Much like many of AVB’s tactical ideals it requires the correct players to make it work. Or rather it has varying degrees of success depending on the quality/suitability of the personnel asked to implement it (see also “the high-line” defensive system). United rather dominated at times, in particular as we dropped deeper and deeper after the two penalties.
Juan Mata, Malouda and Sturridge formed the flexible attack/midfield three. Malouda failed to distinguish himself and bore the brunt of the fans’ frustration as the game slipped from our grasp. Mata supplied a magical finish to light up Stamford Bridge just after half-time. Sturridge’s pace worried Evra, even if his end product was a little lacking. Again passable and not entirely unexpected. Needlessly gave away a soft penalty by defending like a striker. Better to see Mata operating more centrally. If he improves from first to second season as David Silva has then we have a great player. Denied the opportunity to win it for us at the death by a truly world-class save from the much maligned De Gea.
It seems that there is nothing left to say about Torres. So I’ll keep it brief. He did brilliantly to consistently win the ball as it was hoofed up to him regularly. Looked good with the ball at his feet. Held the play up well and brought others into the attack. Great cross for Mata. Understandably frustrated in the first-half as we seemed unable to get him away quickly in behind. He also appeared to have the striker’s equivalent of dartitis when he seemed to have a great chance to shoot but elected to take another two or three touches. Not sure it signifies a lack of confidence. Perhaps trying too hard? Waiting for the perfect chance rather than just playing on instinct? Yet again much as we might have suspected.
It was that sort of afternoon. We may have hoped for better but we didn’t really get it. The performance wasn’t much of a step forward from what we have seen already this season. Personally I prefer the 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 but neither are much use if you’re lacking the players to make it work. The fact we were 3-0 up at one stage probably didn’t reflect the true nature of the game up to that point. Still the manner in which we allowed the lead to slip was excruciating.
AVB maybe ought to have hooked Malouda instead of Studge. I can understand the reasoning that Sturridge is a striker and Malouda is (supposedly) a midfielder even if I don’t necessarily agree. 3-3 was bad enough but 3-4 would have been sickening.
What did we learn? Nothing we didn’t already know I suspect. We’re a few players short, in terms of transfers. We still don’t look like a “team”. AVB is still adapting to the Premier League. We were always going to struggle without Terry, Cole, Lampard, Ramires and Drogba. While Cech had a good game in goal he certainly didn’t exert the same influence as captain as a Terry, Lampard or Drogba when things started to go against us. We could’ve benefitted hugely from some experienced leadership when we conceded the first penalty to settle the team down. Tough to blame him for that though. He is a goalkeeper and he is probably vice-vice-vice captain in reality. And it showed.
The brief summary
The first half an hour was unspectacular. United just edged it in terms of pressure and possession without really testing Cech. Then Sturridge walked around Evra. His attempted cross found De Gea’s foot but he could only poke the ball against Evans’s arm and back into his own net. 1-0. United were all over us until the break without really creating a clear cut chance. Half-time. Twenty seconds into the second half Torres crosses for Mata to score one of the best volleys of the season (see also Van Persie’s effort as the ball dropped over his shoulder). 2-0. Minutes later David Luiz heads home from a free-kick. 3-0. Hernandez came on. Howard Webb then gifted United two penalties. One soft but needless conceded by Sturridge. 3-1. The other “won” by Welbeck. 3-2. Webb made some very poor decisions over the course of the game. The second penalty being the worst. Most frustrating as until the two penalties United didn’t look like creating anything too dangerous. At 3-2 the momentum had shifted decisively. We were on the back foot and it was only a matter of time until they equalised. Hernandez headed home Giggs’s cross unmarked in the middle of the six-yard box. 3-3. Both teams had chances in the last ten minutes. Mata’s free-kick and Cahill’s drive at the death might have won it for us another day but it wasn’t to be.
The best moment
Torres’s cross and Mata’s volley.
The funniest moment
“Who’s the wanker in the wig?”
The worst moment
The feeling of utter deflation when penalty number two was awarded and scored. The atmosphere was sucked out of the ground. It is a strange feeling losing a big lead but maybe the worst part is feeling it coming and knowing there is nothing you can do about it.
We’re still unbeaten in 2012. We are now only a single point ahead of Newcastle. We face Everton at Goodison Park next before Bolton, West Brom and Stoke. So, four winnable games before we take on City and Spurs back to back then?
After a “challenging” afternoon at Stamford Bridge writing this has been quite cathartic. I would like to thank Nick and all of the regulars for making this site what it is and also for asking me to write this match report. Much appreciated lads. Hope I’ve managed to uphold your usual high standards.
The press reports
The Independent, Sam Wallace: “A draw at home to Manchester United given his team’s recent run of results would not have been a bad outcome for Andre Villas-Boas, all things considered. A draw at home to United having led the game by three goals, well, that is a different proposition altogether.”
The Guardian, Daniel Taylor: “It was a wild and eccentric game in which questionable refereeing and erratic defending both played their part, Juan Mata scored one of the outstanding goals of the season and, in the end, both teams could reflect they had enough chances to win. Ferguson seemed perplexed that United lost their momentum at 3-3, with seven minutes of normal time still to play and four minutes of stoppages, whereas Chelsea can reflect on two brilliant saves from David de Gea to prevent Mata then Gary Cahill from one providing one final, dramatic twist.”
The Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter: “When Chelsea were three goals clear, there was a temptation to feel that this was a turning-point, a watershed at the Bridge, the signature performance for Andre Villas-Boas. Chelsea were playing with more youth, largely free of the old guard. No John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard or Didier Drogba? No problem? By full-time, they realised how much they missed the injured Terry in particular.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Despite a three-goal lead Chelsea could not hang on to three points as Manchester United fought back to earn a draw at Stamford Bridge.”