In a repeat of the 2007 FA Cup final, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side took on Chelsea in a bid to win their 3rd trophy in 2 seasons under the Portuguese manager. For both sides, a win in this competition would salvage what was a rather underwhelming season for the two Premier League giants, with Chelsea missing out on Champions League football and Manchester United finishing 19 points behind their neighbours Manchester City in 2nd place.
Both teams unsurprisingly fielded near full strength sides for this fixture, however there were a couple notable omissions from both teams. Chelsea started the game with January signing Olivier Giroud, as out of form summer signing Alvaro Morata consigned to the bench. Star striker and top scorer for United this season, Romelu Lukaku, did not make the starting XI with concerns over his fitness prior to the game.
As expected, the game was a rather cagey one with neither side looking to over commit in attack for fear of being hit on the counter. Chelsea were the more defensively sound of the two sides, keeping United at bay with a rigid 5-3-2 block. Despite United’s best efforts they were unable to breach the Chelsea defence, although they did provide Chelsea with a few scares during the game.
Chelsea’s defensive orientation and efficiency in defensive transition proved to be the deciding factor as an Eden Hazard penalty in the 22nd minute was enough to give Chelsea their 8th FA Cup crown.
CHELSEA 1-0 MAN UTD
Chelsea (5-3-2): 13. Courtois // 15. Moses, 24. Cahill, 28. Azpilicueta, 2. Rudiger, 3. Alonso // 7. Kante, 14. Bakayoko, 4. Fabregas // 10. Hazard (Willian), 18. Giroud (Morata)
Man Utd (4-3-3): 1. De Gea // 25. Valencia, 12. Smalling, 4. Jones (Mata), 18. Young // 31. Matic, 21. Herrera, 6. Pogba // 7. Sanchez, 19. Rashford (Lukaku), 14. Lingard (Martial)
Goals: Hazard ’22 (P)
United man orientation in Chelsea build-up
For this final, Mourinho opted for a 4-3-3 system with a front three of Sanchez, Rashford and Lingard, which had different ramifications on how they set up in the defensive phase in comparison to the 4-2-3-1 and the 3 at the back systems they have used this season. With Chelsea always set up in the back 3, United looked to go man for man in the Chelsea build up phase.
The player closest to the ball, typically the striker would lead the press and close down the opposition ball carrier while the players in behind him would man mark or align themselves to the nearest opposition player while creating an additional line of pressure in behind.
Here, United are pressing Chelsea in the build up. Azpilicueta is in possession with pressure being applied by Sanchez. As can be seen in the above scenario, Rashford and Young maintain adequate distances to the other two Chelsea centre backs while Lingard (central) man marks Kante to cut off a potential vertical pass into midfield. As a result, Azpilicueta is forced to play a long pass into target man Olivier Giroud, which has a much higher risk of not reaching its intended target.
Typically though, United did not apply pressure with any real intensity during the Chelsea build up. Their defensive game in the final third was based more on shutting down potential passing options and forcing Chelsea into longer passes. Only when the United player nearest to the ball had access or there was a pressing trigger did they look to regain possession in the final third.
United would operate in a medium block, allowing the Chelsea centre backs more time on the ball, while still man marking in midfield. As a result, the vertical compactness of the United side was high, meaning Chelsea were unable to construct play between the lines as easily.
With regards to the Chelsea back three, they looked to spread as wide as possible to receive the ball with as much space as possible and potentially draw United players out of the defensive block. Cahill is in possession, in this image and has dropped onto a different line, deeper than the other two centre backs. He now has far more time to pick out a pass, has two vertical options ahead of him and in addition, will force the Utd attackers to cover more distance should they decide to press him.
United occasionally switched to a narrow shape with both wingers coming inside, which seemed reasonable considering Chelsea only had one player in the wide areas. With the United wingers narrow, the full backs Young and Valencia would push up to maintain access to the Chelsea wing backs.
In this image, Azpilicueta is in possession and plays the ball into Moses out on the right. With Sanchez narrow in the left half-space, Young must vacate his position at left-back to apply pressure on Moses. This has a knock on effect however, as now there is space in the LB-CB channel which could be potentially exploited by Hazard should Chelsea be able to move the ball into that area.
Chelsea solid 5-3-2 block and strong transitions
Arguably the deciding factor in Chelsea’s victory was their rigid defensive shape which United struggled to penetrate. In true Antonio Conte fashion, his Chelsea side defended with great numbers behind the ball with minimal space between the lines and distancing between individual players.
They set up in a 5-3-2 medium block, staggering players particularly in midfield to ensure there was no space between the lines to be exploited by the United CMs and wide men drifting inside.
Chelsea 5-3-2 medium block
Here we see Chelsea’s set up in the midfield third when United had possession. The three midfielders all occupied different lines to retain compactness while the two forwards, Hazard and Giroud, stayed high to stop United from recycling possession. With no wide player to press the full back Young, Fabregas has to vacate his position to apply pressure. Moses supports the press by adding an additional line of pressure and maintaining access to Pogba.
As Moses provides additional support, the rest of the back 5 shift across and create a pendulating back 4, which allows Chelsea to still maintain the distances between the back 5 and have the overload against the United front three.
Chelsea’s transition game was key in retaining organisation within their defensive block as they were able to form their rigid defensive unit as soon as they lost possession. Their attacking structure played a major role in this as they did not commit too many numbers forward, ensuring that they always had the overload in defence and that they remained compact at all times. Typically they would attack with just Hazard and a few players supporting the attack, while the rest of the team prepared for the transition.
Their defensive orientation greatly aided their defensive solidity as their primary reference point was their positioning within the block. Unlike United who looked to man mark on occasion, Chelsea’s primary focus was ensuring that they retained the 5-3-2 shape and did not concede any space between the lines. As a result of this, they rarely looked to regain possession with any intensity.
As the ball transitioned into the defensive third, Chelsea moved into a flat 5-3-2 with 3 compact lines and a focus on controlling the centre of the pitch. As a result, United were forced to construct majority of their attacks out wide and could only play around the Chelsea defensive block.
Here, Rashford is in possession and looking to play central but is isolated out wide. The other United players around the ball take up positions centrally and in the half-spaces but are unable to receive the ball in space in these areas as the spatial occupation of the Chelsea block is optimal. Again, The Chelsea players are not being drawn towards the ball or the United opposition players with only Alonso delaying Rashford by applying pressure.
United’s attacking structure
United’s attack was based heavily on the fluid movement of the front three of Lingard, Rashford and Sanchez who often deviated from their positions in an attempt to create overloads in midfield and draw out Chelsea players from their defensive block. They struggled in doing this however, due to the Chelsea defensive orientation and often found it difficult to play through the midfield third due to the opposition organisation off the ball.
Herrera dropping into right half-space
Unable to receive the ball between the lines, Herrera was forced to drop deeper and often positioned himself deep into the right half space to receive possession. Here, he receives the ball from Matic and has time and space due to his movement in this area. However, he does not have sufficient vertical options besides Valencia, who out wide has a higher risk of losing possession due to the touchline limiting the amount of time and space he has should he receive the ball.
Where United struggled in my opinion was with connectivity within the attacking structure due to the spacing and positioning of individual players. In order to create attacking structures which allow for combinations and ball retention, the movement and positioning in relation to individual players must allow the ball carrier to have two vertical options.
Here, Pogba is on the ball and has no passing options besides the lateral pass to Herrera in the half space. If Jones were in possession instead, Pogba could occupy a position further up the field to penetrate the Chelsea midfield lines. However, neither Jones nor Smalling were adept at breaking the lines with a pass or driving into midfield with possession, therefore Pogba and Herrera had no choice but to drop deep in order to assist the ball circulation of United.
As the game progressed United improved their attacking organisation partially by simply pushing the defensive line higher. This proved beneficial in forcing Chelsea to defend deeper and also increasing the spacing and compactness with the attacking unit.
Sanchez is in possession here, with two options ahead of him in Young and Pogba. In this scenario it is clear to see the improvement of the United attack in terms of connectivity with multiple players around the ball.
However, United could have utilised the numerical superiority in the wide areas to greater effect. Had the full backs looked to penetrate the Chelsea back line more often it almost certainly would have forced the Chelsea wing backs to track their runs, which would have created more space for United’s wide players. For example, if Young attempts the run in behind here against Moses, Sanchez could potentially have more room in the half space to run at Azpilicueta and play Pogba in.
An 8th FA Cup final victory for Chelsea, well deserved considering how well they set up defensively. A fitting way to end what has been a disappointing season for the West London outfit, who will have to settle for Europa League football next season. What that will mean for the future of Antonio Conte, time will tell as much bigger things are expected for a club of Chelsea’s stature.
It was a disappointing end for Mourinho’s men, who were unable to take the FA Cup home to Manchester despite enjoying so much of the ball. A 2nd place finish, their highest since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, looks commendable on paper; however with City winning the title at a canter there will most certainly be discontent in the red half of Manchester. Some shrewd signings in the summer and another season adapting to Mourinho’s methods should see United mount a serious title challenge come next season.