Last season, Manchester United got the better of Chelsea in Premier League action. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer defeated Frank Lampard in the tactical battle both home and away, ensuring six points that essentially guaranteed third spot ahead of their vanquished rivals.
However, Lampard got revenge in the FA Cup, switching to a back three system with aggressive pressure that helped Chelsea to a 3-1 win and a place in the final.
This weekend, the two managers face off again as they look to kick-start their teams’ seasons. Both sides have endured stuttering starts to the campaign, with Chelsea sitting in eighth and Manchester United further down in 15th. Whoever gets their approach right on the day could seal a crucial, confidence-building victory.
Chelsea spent significant sums of money in the summer to enhance Lampard’s squad, but he has yet to figure out his best team. Three different central defensive pairings have been used in just five Premier League games, while a variety of different attacking arrangements have been experimented with.
Timo Werner has played on the left and upfront. When he’s been moved wide, Tammy Abraham has come in as the lone striker. Mason Mount and Kai Havertz have played a lot of minutes in the attacking midfield spots, though Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi have also made starts. Usually, it’s a 4-2-3-1, but sometimes it’s a 4-3-3.
Evidently, the attacking setup is a work in progress. Perhaps more concerning is the defensive pairing, where good organisation and communication are necessities. These traits are hard to develop when the players are chopping and changing, and Manchester United have the attacking talent to test an uncertain centre-back partnership.
United’s potential line-up is similarly unclear. Since the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, Solskjaer has generally preferred a 4-2-3-1 with the Portuguese No.10 flitting just behind Anthony Martial. But this system can expose some of the team’s defensive weaknesses, which is why a 3-4-1-2 was brought in for the Champions League clash win over Paris Saint-Germain.
The 3-4-1-2 is something Solskjaer tends to save for big games, particularly away from home. It allows him to get an extra defender on the pitch whilst retaining the offensive threat of Fernandes behind a strike duo or Martial and Marcus Rashford. There was some promising link-up play between the front three against PSG, which may further persuade Solskjaer to stick with them on Saturday.
Both managers have a tendency for approaching important matches conservatively, with more defensive and counter-attacking strategies. They also like to mix and match selections, whether that be their system or their personnel. The consequence of all this may be a stand-offish contest, where both sides focus mostly on nullifying the other’s strengths.
Manchester United are at home this weekend, but as their 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur showcased that isn’t necessarily an advantage. Playing in their own stadium, there is more onus on them to be the protagonist, instigating attacking play. This may mean Solskjaer feels pressure to return to a 4-2-3-1, but this can leave his central defenders exposed.
United’s big weakness is in defensive transition, when they lose the ball. Within the 4-2-3-1, with the front four joined by attacking full-backs and one of the central midfielders, they can leave a lot of space behind for the opponent to exploit on the break. Spurs were ruthless in these situations, countering with the playmaking of Harry Kane and the pace of Son Heung-min to seal a shockingly one-sided win.
The problem for Solskjaer is Victor Lindelof lacks strength and Harry Maguire lacks pace. As a pairing, they both have obvious weaknesses that Chelsea could target in 1v1s on counter-attacks. There is also an issue around Luke Shaw, whose defensive positioning on the left of a back four has been questionable. Alex Telles may take his place, but even if better defensively, he is equally attack-minded.
Lampard has similar issues to Solskjaer, in that his side combine blistering speed and skill up front with weakness in defensive transition. Both teams are better when they can sit back, reduce the space for opponents, and break quickly themselves – United through the speed of Rashford and Martial; Chelsea through Werner who, as seen above, possesses a combination of clever movement and pace. All of this could lead to a match decided by who wins in the transition phases.
There is also a possibility that corner kicks could have a big say in who wins. Chelsea are a threat from set plays, with Kurt Zouma a particular danger in the air. However, they are poor at defending them. And with Maguire excellent in the air, United may have a slight advantage here. Solskjaer had a slight edge over Lampard last season. And despite Chelsea’s spending, that edge may still exist.