Praneeth gives us the lowdown on Sunday’s opposition in our FA Cup Semi Final. Manchester United have been strong since the restart, and will require a top-quality display from the Blues to break down.
The business end of the season is here. Teams are scurrying to end the season on a high. Chelsea and Manchester United are eying FA Cup glory as it is the only chance for silverware. Both teams have had vastly different stories over the season. Chelsea, believed to slide down the table, have looked lively with Lampard at the helm, infused with raw, young talent, managing to stay within the top 4 since November. Manchester United on the other hand, having stuck with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, have seen their form flail around wildly ever since his appointment. The early part of the season did not go well for them, with Solskjaer looking out of his depth. Despite these woes, they still managed to beat Chelsea three times out of three, looking more assured each game.
What to Expect
However, moving into the second half of the season, Manchester United seem to have gelled into a force to reckon with, their form now standing at 19 games unbeaten. This resurgence could be attributed to the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, who seems to be the missing piece of the puzzle. Manchester United are the in-form team in the league as it stands. Following the restart, United have looked imperious – with the emergence of Greenwood, the return of Pogba, the improving chemistry with Fernandes. Solksjaer finally looks to have settled on a system and a lineup that brings out the best in his team. United are progressing the ball much better in recent games with Pogba taking the onus of deep playmaking and ball progression – as opposed to Fred or McTominay – which has been a key improvement in their midfield. This allows Matic to drop a little deeper and play to his strengths as an enforcer. As a result, he looks more assured on the ball than before. This helps Wan-Bissaka and Shaw to push higher up the pitch to support the game on the wings. Rashford and Greenwood are now playing off Martial as inverted wingers, creating overloads on the opposition fullbacks. This helps Fernandes and Pogba to play alongside each other as chief creators behind the pacy and agile front three. Martial looks to have been given the freedom to roam and is combining well with Rashford and Fernandes in the final third. As far as the predicted lineup goes, there seems to be little doubt, although we might see a minor change or two.
The key players for United are undoubtedly Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba. They are two elite midfielders, with great vision and technical ability. With overlapping fullbacks and nimble forwards, they can thrive in various situations. Fernandes has been in a rich vein of form ever since his arrival, more so since the restart. He is putting up consistent numbers with four goals and seven assists from open play in his 12 league appearances. Those are prolific numbers for a Premier League veteran, let alone a new arrival. Paul Pogba has been accused of being lackadaisical time and again in his United career. However, his tremendous quality cannot be denied. With the right players around him and the focus he has recently shown, things are looking up for him. He has helped the team’s ball progression enormously. He has been the perfect foil to Fernandes. With two creators in the midfield, opposition players will have a hard time marking and containing both.
Areas Where Game can be Won or Lost
The first thing that comes to mind is Chelsea’s vulnerability while defending set pieces. Chelsea need to be wary as that is an area United have improved upon. The psychological effect of the recent head to head record, added to the lackluster form post-restart, would be weighing down on Chelsea’s young stars. Scoring the first goal would do Chelsea a world of good and can allow them to play the game on their own terms. The emergence of Pulisic as a regular starter, making inroads into the defense a la Hazard, is certainly a mitigating factor for Chelsea. As was evident in periods of the game against Southampton, United can suffer if pressed high into their own half. Given Chelsea’s ability to press high, it would be a wise tactical decision to make. Another area that can potentially hurt Chelsea is on the counter. With pacy forwards able to switch positions amongst each other, Rashford, Martial and Greenwood can cause problems for the inconsistent Chelsea backline. It is therefore imperative to feature strong, physical players to press and dominate the midfield – contain Pogba and Fernandes. If Chelsea can find a way to do so, the game is there for the taking.
Chelsea have been on wobbly ground since the restart, in stark contrast to United’s fortunes. While the previous game in February may have reeked of unfair bias towards United, such is football. Chelsea cannot make excuses for losing to the same team four times in one season. It is time to put in the hard yards and end the season on a high. As Solksjaer has been complaining, and rightly so, Chelsea have been handed a 48-hour advantage of rest and recovery over United. Chelsea need to make the most of the favorable cards they are being dealt over the past few weeks. Silverware and top four beckon.