Before Manchester United’s 2-0 victory over Chelsea in April, Jose Mourinho praised Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side for their defensive diligence and counter attacking prowess. The strange point here is those exact terms are used to define the traditional Manchester United style of play. A world class goalkeeper, two solid centre backs, two protective midfielders who could start attacking passages of play, and ruthless forwards who destroyed teams on the counter – this description aptly fits both Conte’s Chelsea and the successful United team of 10 years ago. Mourinho is clearly aware of this – and if he wants to win over many unconvinced United fans – he may have to take a leaf from Conte’s book.
At one point in this season’s campaign it looked like Chelsea were going to enjoy a procession on their way to lifting the Premier League trophy. Much of their success has been attributed to Conte’s early season switch to a 3-4-3 formation. His system worked through a series of incarnations: the 4-2-4 in pre-season, 4-1-4-1 in the early stages of the Premier League, and to the now celebrated 3-4-3. When he arrived at Chelsea he was expected to adopt the 3-5-2 that brought him success with Juventus. And there is still a feeling this is the system Conte ultimately wants to use with Chelsea. He has adapted it slightly to fit the personnel he has – a numerical notation as simple as 3-4-3 masks the complexities in how a side operates within play during a game. Whether Chelsea do or do not have the ball, any formation they use seems to be more of a variation of the classic Conte 3-5-2. This shifting paradigm goes against everything we thought this season would be – a blast from the past and the return of 4-4-2. Other managers have seen Chelsea’s success and replicated the system with 3 man back lines now appearing more frequently.
This Chelsea team has shown competence in ball retention by averaging 54% of the ball – and they have not shown preference for attacking from any part of the pitch. 35% of attacks are from the left flank, 31% from the right, and 34% from the middle. Showing that opponents are vulnerable to attacks from any part of the pitch. Conte has shown tactical innovation by selecting positional roles based on the personnel he has available. Unlike United, no players in the Chelsea side look as though they are playing out of position.
Mourinho has differed by trying to make players fit the system rather than the system fit the players. He has moved primarily between 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1. The latter of these transformed into more of a 5-4-1 against more challenging opponents – and in some cases 6-4-0. In 2016-17, Manchester United have favoured attacks from the left 39% of the time and the right 33%. They have averaged 15.7 shots per game this season – nearly one more than Chelsea’s 14.9. They also average more shots on target per game than Chelsea – 5.6 compared to 5.3. The telling difference this season is United have scored 52 goals and Chelsea have scored 80. Chelsea are utterly ruthless in front of goal – whereas Manchester United have been wasteful. Even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 17 league goals, United’s other players have failed to contribute with their share of goals. Rashford, Rooney and Mata, United’s next top scorers, have 11 league goals between them. Diego Costa has scored an impressive 20 league goals this season. Chelsea’s next top scorers, Hazard, Pedro and Willian, have 30 goals between them.
The statistics, ruthlessness and overwhelming counter-attacking prowess of Chelsea is a nostalgic reminder of what Manchester United were like a decade ago when fans chanted “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and saw their side duly respond. Conte’s shrewd utilisation of personnel is similar to Ferguson’s. He is famously remembered for favouring 4-4-2 – but he deployed his teams in other formations such as 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1, 4-5-1 and 4-3-3. And it would often be structurally loose in the attacking third. He did not have a “favourite” formation. He liked his teams to attack, be unpredictable and set up to utilise the skills at his disposal.
In the period of success circa 2008, Ferguson operated with a back four protected by two deep-lying midfielders and a further advanced midfield pivot. The final three positions were occupied by Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez. Their constant danger came from their versatility and fluidity in the final third. Ronaldo posed a threat from the wing and began developing his poacher instincts that he subsequently mastered at Real Madrid. Rooney and Tevez simply ran for the team for 90 minutes. They could both drop deep and support the midfield with their playmaking skills – much in the same way the once fashionable false 9 did.
Other comparisons are the goalkeepers – Courtois and van der Sar, the centre backs – Cahill and Luiz with Vidic and Ferdinand, and the midfield. Kante and Matic have been crucial for Chelsea this season in protecting the defence and starting attacks with their solid distribution and box-to-box running. Carrick and Scholes performed a similar role for United in the past. The United pair did not have the same mobility as Kante – but the quality of their distribution and tempo control of the game was vastly superior.
Moving into the new season Manchester United should look at Chelsea’s success and recognise their style is reminiscent of the United of old. There are players amongst the ranks at Old Trafford who could perform the duties of roles that were once so effective for Manchester United. Mourinho did once speak of keeping with the Old Trafford tradition of playing attacking football. At the moment United look like a Mourinho team rather than a Manchester United team. But the capacity is certainly there.