Why both Chelsea and Manchester United would accept a 1-0 win at the Bridge
23:48 GMT, 27 October 2012
I know what both Sir Alex Ferguson and
Roberto Di Matteo would like most from this top-of-the table
fixture: a 1-0 win. In my years as a Manchester United player, people
would talk to me about the epic 5-3 or 8-2 victories. But the truth is,
exhilarating as those games were, it is those 1-0 wins that mean the
most. That’s when the whole team come off the pitch feeling as though
they’ve done their job.
The defenders are happy they kept a
clean sheet; the strikers are happy because someone has scored; and the
team are happy because the points are secured. One-nil wins are the sign
of a title-winning side, like when Arsenal came to Old Trafford in 1998
and won the title or when Manchester United went to Newcastle in 1996.
Get as many of those little 1-0 boys in the bag as you can and you’ll
have a decent chance come April and May.
But the truth is, I’m not expecting
that. In fact, I would be amazed if there weren’t goals, given the way
both teams are playing.
Six of the best: Javier Hernandez makes it 3-3 at Chelsea last season and another high-scoring game is on the cards
Chelsea have been much more open in
the past 18 months — other than the last few months of last season, when
they reverted to type — than previously. All the United-Chelsea games I
played in felt like cagey, dogged affairs. But when Andre Villas-Boas
brought Chelsea to Old Trafford last season and lost 3-1 — though
Chelsea could have scored more — and then drew the return 3-3, it was as
though the game had turned into an attacking exhibition, each side
trading punches, with one attack followed by a counter-attack.
On top of that, United are making far
too many defensive mistakes and I would say only at Newcastle have they
shown the levels of concentration and intensity that would be required
if they were to win back the League title. Patrice Evra, Rio Ferdinand,
Jonny Evans and Rafael are all good defenders and I know the mistakes
will be doing their heads in.
The United midfield have also been
criticised for not protecting them but, in fact, when you break down the
passing statistics, it reveals something different. There have been 792
passes completed in United’s defensive third by opposition teams —
that’s the fewest of any other team in the top flight. Chelsea have the
next best record, with only 893 passes being competed in their defensive
On a roll: United completed a comeback victory against Braga in midweek and will be chasing a rare result in west London
That suggests that United’s midfield
are doing something right in stopping the opposition from playing,
meaning the spotlight is on the back four to defend properly,
which means getting tight, holding their line and defending one-on-one.
Because Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata will create space for
themselves and, with Fernando Torres making runs and Ramires coming from
deeper, United’s back four will have to be at their best to stay
For me, that will be the key to the game and will provide a
clue for the season. If the big question-mark for United has been their
defending, the positives they can take are that in coming from behind in
so many games — they have gone on to win having conceded six times this
season — they have shown they have great attacking power, spirit and
mentality. If they start defending properly, they will finish above Chelsea. But if they don’t, I doubt they’ll win the league.
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It won’t be easy. Stamford
Bridge has always been the hardest place for United to go. It is the
only ground at which they have played more than once since the Premier
League began and lost there more times than they have won. But despite
Chelsea’s good start, I think there are more question-marks hanging over
them than United.
Can David Luiz be a defender in a
Premier League title-winning team, especially if John Terry is missing
at times Is Fernando Torres, who has never won a league championship in
his life, a striker who can lead a team to the title Is having Torres
and Daniel Sturridge — a talent but unproven as a centre-forward —
enough depth in the squad, given that United have Wayne Rooney, Robin
van Persie, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck, while Manchester City
can call upon Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Mario
And though this might come from my
English prejudices, will Mata, Hazard and Oscar get through the slog of
this less pleasant part of the season
Superb start: But how will Eden Hazard fare in the winter
Think David Silva last year, who
started brilliantly but struggled later on. The talent of the Chelsea
trio isn’t in doubt. The question, especially for newcomers to England,
Hazard and Oscar, is whether they can keep producing after they’ve been
through five games in two weeks on heavy pitches at Christmas and the
matches keep coming
None of that will be fully revealed today. But we might get a better idea as to who is most likely to be able to answer those questions as we move into the next phase of the season.
Falling seven points behind would leave Manchester United an awful lot of work to do. But only being one point ahead will probably feel a little unnerving for Chelsea.
Ajax still lovely on the eye
There is a lot of talk about systems in football and, while Roberto Mancini is right that a good player should be able to fit into any formation, there is one team for whom you know the tactics will essentially never change. And that was the team Manchester City came up against on Wednesday night, Ajax.
For 40 years now, from Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff through to Louis van Gaal and now Frank De Boer, Ajax have been keeping faith with the way they play. Their philosophy has been so successful that Cruyff and Van Gaal laid the foundations for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team who have dominated football these past four years.
Glorious to watch: The latest batch from the prodigious Ajax production line were a joy on Wednesday
What you saw on Wednesday was a team, seven of whom were raised by their academy, with a clear view of how to play the game. It takes decades to establish the reputation Ajax have, so in some ways it was a victory for the football purist.
Ajax might not win the Champions League these days but their legacy is all around us.
I'm not a fan of zonal marking
Zonal marking at set-pieces is something I don’t like to see and I drew attention to it again after Manchester City’s defeat. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s just that I think it’s much harder to implement successfully than it once was because of the way the game has developed.
There was a time when back fours played 50 games a season together. Think about Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn. Or the back four I played with at the start of my career, with Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin. They all knew each other, trained together for years, played together every week and all spoke English.
At sixes and sevens: Manchester City's zonal marking fell flat as Niklas Moisander nodded Ajax's second
None of the above is necessarily true any more. In a season of 65-plus games, the back four will change week in, week out because of rotation or injury. Not all the players will speak good English. And you don’t have time for lots of defensive drills together between matches. That’s just the nature of modern football.
In those circumstances, the old intricate ways of defending are losing their value. Man-to-man marking is much simpler and responsibilities are clearer. And in a changing football world, that’s a much easier system to implement than the relative complexity of zonal marking.