Manchester United travel to Chelsea this afternoon for a crucial clash in the race for Champions League qualification.
Ole Gunnar Solskjær turned 48 on Friday and has turned his team into staples of the Premier League’s top four this season, something Thomas Tuchel is hoping to replicate after recently taking the reigns of his side.
Without a defeat from their four trips since 2017, the Red Devils are back at the Bridge with a record to set.
Kick-off: 16:30 [GMT]
Venue: Stamford Bridge
Referee: Stuart AttwellEmbed from Getty Images
Having unceremoniously sacked Frank Lampard just over a month ago, the mood around the five-time English title-winning club has drastically changed due to the typical new manager bounce.
In a matter of 34 days, Chelsea have gone from severe under-performers to well in contention for a top-four finish, as the they’ve have conceded two goals and scored nine across six wins and two draws under their new man in the ever-revolving hot seat.
The Blues also sit second in the PL table for expected points, rank fourth-best for the highest amount of xG scored and second-lowest for fewest generated against them in the same metric.
Coming off the back of a superb UCL round-of-16 first leg result against Atlético Madrid on Tuesday, confidence is growing and at a rapid rate.
Still boasting a quality squad packed with internationals and trophy winners galore, it’s no surprise that the West Londoners have quickly clicked into gear and aren’t singing the blues anymore.
Now able to climb into the real fourth spot following Manchester City’s win over West Ham yesterday, Chelsea have the chance to make a statement.
Previous result: Atlético Madrid 0-1 Chelsea (Olivier Giroud)
Top goalscorer: Tammy Abraham (12)
Most assists: Timo Werner (9)
One to watch: Mason Mount
Reverse fixture: United 0-0 Chelsea 24/10/2020Embed from Getty Images
TEAM AND TACTICS
Since arriving at the Bridge, boss Tuchel has largely employed a 3-4-2-1 formation, which has been an overwhelming success during his honeymoon period.
Boasting the third-highest average possession in the Premier League this campaign with 62.2%, the Blues’ collective style of play with and without the ball allows them to comprehensively control matches like against the La Liga leaders five days ago.
Since Tuchel took over, Chelsea have faced just 10 shots from their opponents – a division-lowest 1.7 per-outing in that period – with the Blues’ recent success being built on a solid base, something which was certainly lacking under Lampard.
Edouard Mendy is the current no. 1 ahead of the error-prone Kepa Arrizabalaga, behind a back three including captain César Azpilicueta and German Antonio Rüdiger.
The ongoing absence of Tuchel’s former Paris Saint-Germain skipper, Thiago Silva, has seen Andreas Christensen deputise in the centre of the rear guard trio, while the real selection conundrum comes at wing-back.
Marcos Alonso has often been preferred to summer signing Ben Chilwell on the left, while English youngsters Reece James and Callum Hudson-Odoi have battled it out for the role on the right.
Last Saturday, during their 1-1 draw at Southampton, the former Borussia Dortmund and Mainz manager controversially hooked Hudson-Odoi after just 30 second-half minutes due to his ‘attitude’ towards the high-intensity matchup, sighting his lack of counter-pressing as a reason.
Speaking of effective pressers, N’Golo Kanté, who made his 200th appearance in a blue shirt on Tuesday, hasn’t been a mainstay of the starting XI during Tuchel’s short tenure, with the more technical Jorginho and productive Mateo Kovačić his preferred pairing.Embed from Getty Images
Moving into a stacked attack, Mount and Werner have regularly have starting either side of the sole striker.
The pair sit first and second, respectively, for most minutes played in all competition in Chelsea’s squad this season.
The Englishman’s defensive abilities allow him to drop deeper and help in the midfield press, while the German is used to operating as a wide forward, meaning the duo’s strengths complement each other and both work well with their respective full-back.
Former Lampard favourite Mount may not be many neutral fans’ favourite but his expected assist tally of 5.65 in league play (three in reality) illustrates how underrated he is in an attacking sense, having often been deployed with the job of doing those aforementioned defensive duties under the Stamford Bridge legend, rather than being utilised as a pure creator.
Additionally, the 22-year-old leads his outfit in the for average key passes in the Premier League this term, racking up 2.85 per-game.
Werner hasn’t had the best of times since making his summer move to London, and his struggles are shown by his startling 4.75 deficit in expected top-flight goals compared to his true tally of five.
The former RB Leipzig man isn’t the most natural finisher around, but his speed and awareness make him potentially one of the most deadly attackers on the planet despite what his doubters say; plus, he’s chipped in with five PL assists.
It’s weighing on Werner, too, as he told Sky Sports this week: “If I’d scored four or five more goals maybe the old manager would still be here.”
His struggles have been mirrored by compatriot and joint-club-record signing Kai Havertz.
The versatile attacker has found it difficult to adapt to life in the Premier League after being one of the Bundesliga’s breakout stars in recent years with Bayer Leverkusen – something especially challening during a pandemic, given the state of the country – and that’s made many believe the 21-year-old talent has flopped in just six months.
We best not judge him yet.
Another man whose credentials have been questioned is no. 9 Tammy Abraham.
He’s the Blues’ leading marksman in spite of never nailing down a starting spot this term, with the likes of Giroud and big-money forwards such as Christian Pulisic (Tuchel’s teenage prodigy at Dortmund) and Hakim Ziyech (who boasts a team-best 0.43 expected assists per-90 in the top-flight) to compete against.
Midweek scorer Giroud, who also netted last week against Newcastle, is a useful tool in his manager’s arsenal of weapons.
The Frenchman, who has an eye for the spectacular, has managed 3.06 shots per-90 minutes in the PL this term – although that must be taken with a pinch of salt, as he often enters the fray when Chelsea are banging on the door for a goal.
Hoping to regain their home form in this fixture from years gone by, the Blues will be busting a gut to get a result and break back into the top four.
They’ll also be looking to keep a fourth consecutive home clean sheet in the top flight for the first time in three years.
Finally, Chelsea hold the record for longest Premier League run without defeat on the road, 20 games, and United ironically would equal that by avoiding a loss later.
The Blues won’t want to let that title slip, as three points would also half the six-point gap between themselves and the Red Devils, who could be third come kick-off.
Absentees (estimated return)
- Thiago Silva – muscle (unknown)
(3-4-2-1) Mendy; Azpiliecueta, Christensen, Rüdiger; James, Jorginho, Kovačić, Alonso; Mount, Werner; Abraham
Quote from the boss
“If we get a win out of this game it will be huge for us. If they get a win it will be huge for them to put a difference between us.” – Thomas Tuchel
Next match: Liverpool [A] Thursday, February 4Embed from Getty Images
THE RED DEVILS
United played out a dead rubber goalless draw in midweek to advance past Real Sociedad on aggregate in the Europa League on Thursday, with plenty of players earning a much-needed break from another 90 minutes.
The reward – a last 16 tie against Zlatan Ibrahimović’s AC Milan.
Onto Chelsea now, and the Red Devils’ record under Solskjær against the Blues in recent years is good – with four wins, two draws, and one loss (July’s dejecting FA Cup semi-final).
The Norweigan has met Tuchel four times on the touchline – all as United boss versus PSG – boasting two victories and two losses, with the away side coming out on top in all four clashes.
Having won at Chelsea three times in three different competitions since a dramatic 2018 draw, the nine winless years at the soon-to-renovated stadium from 2002 to 2011 under Sir Alex Ferguson still somewhat linger in supporters’ minds whenever this clash comes around.
Four successive wins at the West London venue is something MUFC have never achieved.
Roman Abramovich’s Blues and the Glazers’ Red Devils have been the top tier’s two best sides since the Russian invested in Chelsea, each winning five Premier League crowns in the proceeding 18 years.
Things are different these days but the rivalry holds up.
Another thing the teams share is a difficult up upcoming run of fixtures, with United returning to the capital on Wednesday and a Manchester Derby at the Etihad next Sunday before the first leg at home to Milan.
The Red Devils are looking to at least make it 20 top flight games away from home unbeaten.
United’s previous-best run of 17 journeys ended with this corresponding fixture in October 1999 following a 5-0 thrashing.
That’s not the best omen, but this current run did begin at the Bridge last season.
Much has been made of the Red Devils’ poor record against the traditional ‘Big Six’ this campaign, having played six games without a win.
Solskjær’s side have lost four and drawn the other two with just one goal to their name – a penalty in the 1-6 humiliation at the hands of José Mourinho’s Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford.
Let’s take a look at who’ll be hoping to change that.Embed from Getty Images
David de Gea is set to retake his place between the posts ahead of Dean Henderson, as the goalkeeping debate rumbles on.
Harry Maguire, who scored in last year’s corresponding league fixture, is expected to return to the starting XI, while midweek pairing Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelöf will likely contend for the other spot.
Bailly was superb in that most recent trip to Stamford Bridge (in a three-man back line) but Solskjær seems to stick with Lindelöf for the bigger games when going with a flat back four.
Former Blue Nemanja Matić may have to start his third successive match in nine days after 90 minutes on Thursday.
Defender Axel Tuanzebe played the second half alongside the Serbian in midfield, scoring his first senior MUFC goal before it was chalked off by VAR, showcasing the fact he’s another option in the middle of the park if required.Embed from Getty Images
It’s unknown whether Dan James will be able to feature due to the ‘tweak’ he picked up on Thursday but half-time substitutes Fred and Aaron Wan-Bissaka are fine.
None of Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood, and Marcus Rashford played the full 90 in midweek, meaning they should all start given Anthony Martial’s form.
The French forward began a ferocious end to the season in the 0-2 victory in London last February by scoring a header from a Wan-Bissaka cross before Maguire nodded in Fernandes’ corner in front the raucous away end.
The Red Army sadly won’t be there today but let’s hope the same performance is.
Incidentally, Tuchel claimed in his pre-match press conference that he tried to sign Fernandes whilst in charge of PSG and labelled him one of the best midfielders in the world, which you can read about here.
The German is also a big fan of Rashford, who’s looking to score on his third successive start in all competitions.
Although Solskjær is keener to play on his team’s own terms these days, watch out for a potential change in shape given the lack of midfield options and temptation to match the opposition again.
Absentees (estimated return)
- Edinson Cavani – muscle (late assessment)
- Daniel James – knock (late assessment)
- Phil Jones – knee (unknown)
- Juan Mata – unknown (a few weeks)
- Scott McTominay – knock (unknown)
- Paul Pogba – thigh (a few weeks)
- Donny van de Beek – muscle (back in training)
(3-4-1-2) de Gea; Bailly, Maguire, Lindelöf; Wan-Bissaka, Matić, Fred, Shaw; Fernandes; Greenwood, Rashford
Quote from the boss
“We’ve got Chelsea just behind us, we’ve got City away in front of us and of course we can’t let them run further away if we have ambitions of catching them and we can’t give Chelsea too much hope of catching us either. Every game is important and from now until the international break will be a big period.” – Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Next match: Crystal Palace [A] Wednesday, March 3Embed from Getty Images
Head-to-head (188 meetings)
- Chelsea – 55 (29%)
- Draw – 52 (28%)
- United – 81 (43%)
- Timo Werner vs Eric Bailly
- Mason Mount vs Fred
- César Azpilicueta vs Marcus Rashford
Let us know your thoughts ahead of the game and enjoy the match!