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Tactical Preview: Chelsea v Manchester United – Barclays Premier League 2015/16

At last, goals! Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Stoke City was as much of a surprise as it was a relief, as United ran out comfortable winners over one of the most impressive sides in the division this season.

To score three times, keep a clean sheet and control the match against such a dynamic and talented side was very impressive. Now United must capitalise and win the next one. Which means beating the champions at Stamford Bridge.

Given the level of performance that the players reached against Stoke there should be no reason to change a winning team, barring any injuries of course. That would of course mean the continued inclusion of Marouane Fellaini at the expense of Ander Herrera, but the way in which Manchester United were able to dominate the central areas on Tuesday night warrants an unchanged lineup as van Gaal’s side looks to pick up some momentum towards the crucial end of the Premier League season.

Given Manchester United’s horrendous form in December (and parts of January) every positive performance allows the side to progress and improve and we saw that against Stoke. It wasn’t just the control of the midfield that was impressive, it was the way in which that control was transferred into attacking football in the final third and chances created.

So going forward into Sunday’s fixture, United must continue their progression and continue to get the ball into the final third regularly and with as much quality as possible. Without labouring a fairly obvious point, United need to get their flair players on the ball. Juan Mata was on of the biggest beneficiaries against Stoke. At no.10 he is arguably one of the finest players in the Premier League, if not in Europe. Unfortunately he has been largely ineffective this season when played in that position, partly because he hasn’t got enough of the ball to really make an impact in the final third.

Juan Mata passing vs Stoke City - 02.02.16. Credit: Squawka.

Juan Mata passing vs Stoke City – 02.02.16. Credit: Squawka.

Against Stoke though, United showed how they must play if they are to get the most out of Mata. They must get the ball forward early, into his feet and allow him the time and space between the lines of the opposition. It is in these possessions that Mata can be the ace up United’s sleeve.

His display in midweek was superb. He controlled the pace of the game in the final third and was constantly looking to bring United’s forwards into the game. He played a key role in United’s opening two goals and was instrumental throughout. His passing map shows the level of influence he had on the game and he was constantly on the front foot and trying to make something happen. Admittedly a rarity, the majority of Mata’s passes in that final third were progressive, forward passes. If United can replicate this on Sunday afternoon, they will give themselves a real chance of picking up all three points.

The reason Juan Mata is so important to Manchester United’s success is because he allows those around him to play. It is no surprise that in a game in which Mata was so influential, all three of United’s forwards scored, with Martial and Rooney both getting an assist too. More prevalently though, the reason Juan Mata can be so important when United play Chelsea is because United must give Anthony Martial a platform to play freely against Branislav Ivanovic.

This will be one of the key battles this weekend. When Chelsea came to Old Trafford in December, Martial was United’s biggest threat and he tore Ivanovic apart time and time again, hitting the post with a good chance in the first half.

Anthony Martial performance vs Chelsea - 28.12.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

Anthony Martial performance vs Chelsea – 28.12.15. Credit: FourFourTwo StatsZone

If Manchester United are to win in London tomorrow, then I would suggest Martial will play a significant role in doing so. His willingness to take players on, as he did against Ivanovic in December, gives United a different dynamic in attack. His pace and direct running in one vs one situations can be a game changer and break a game open amidst a monotony of passing. Given his ability to get involved off the left flank and become both a goal threat as well as turning provider with his tremendous link-up play, Manchester United will need to allow both Martial and Mata the freedom to play. Within this very functional, very planned system, United have two sparks that can ignite any game of football. For most of the season they’ve been shackled, but in the rare moments that they have broken free they’ve really shone. If van Gaal wants to make the top 4 this season then he needs to loosen the reigns on his star men.

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