Refereeing controversies overshadowed an exciting game and an interesting tactical battle – but both coaches made intriguing decisions in response to the Branislav Ivanovic and Fernando Torres dismissals.
With Roberto Di Matteo constrained by the absence of Frank Lampard, Chelsea's starting lineup was predictable and the pre-game tactical questions concerned Sir Alex Ferguson's approach. After United went into an early lead his overall strategy was difficult to deduce – David Luiz's unfortunate own goal forced Chelsea to take the initiative while the away side concentrated upon counterattacking, a scenario that played into the hands of United's players. In selecting a formation with width, rather than the diamond he has experimented with recently, Ferguson was seeking to attack purposely down the flanks, particularly the right.
Chelsea have been vulnerable down the left this season primarily because Eden Hazard's advanced, central positioning leaves Ashley Cole exposed. This was a particularly bad match to leave the left-back alone against two opponents – Antonio Valencia has frequently outperformed him in recent years, with the Ecuadorian possessing both the defensive qualities to track Cole's runs, and the natural drive to attack him.
In direct battles between the two, Cole coped reasonably well with Valencia, who completed only one of his six attempted dribbles – but enthusiastic support for Valencia came from the right-back Rafael da Silva. United's second goal was a perfect illustration of Chelsea's problem down the left this season. Rafael motored past Hazard to create an overload and Valencia had time to cross for Robin van Persie's finish. It was classic wide play from United's right-sided duo, now wearing the traditional shirt numbers for that side of the pitch, 2 and 7.
Chelsea's dominance of possession put United under pressure at the back and forced their attacking players into deep positions. Wayne Rooney is always instructed to pick up Mikel John Obi in these fixtures but Chelsea's use of a 4-2-3-1 meant Rooney had to retreat deeper than when the Nigerian is the sole holding player in a 4-3-3. Rooney was alongside Tom Cleverley in a 4-1-4-1 without the ball and both looked uncomfortable with their defensive duties – the former gave away possession cheaply, and Rooney's reckless tackle conceded the free-kick Juan Mata exquisitely curled past David de Gea. Chelsea continued their momentum into the second half and merited their equaliser, yet the sudden drop in tempo after their second goal was unnecessary and disappointing.
Ivanovic's dismissal put United in charge and, although refereeing decisions were unquestionably the game's crucial moments, Ferguson deserves credit for making an attack-minded substitution immediately after finding himself with an extra man. Managers playing against 10 men frequently keep the same shape, before discovering they do not have enough attackers to create overloads against a side defending with everyone behind ball. Instead, Ferguson was proactive in introducing Javier Hernández for Cleverley. The Mexican joined Van Persie up front and looked for service from Ashley Young and Valencia on the flanks while Wayne Rooney became a central playmaker. Even before Chelsea went down to nine men, United were using five dedicated attackers. Dominance of possession was inevitable and Hernández was the perfect player to poach.
Di Matteo's substitutions were logical, and his attempt to play for a draw completely understandable. The right-back César Azpilicueta filled the hole left by Ivanovic's departure, while Ryan Bertrand provided protection for Cole, and Daniel Sturridge was introduced after Hernández's goal.
In stark contrast to Chelsea's lack of defensive shape for much of this campaign, Di Matteo would have been pleased with the positioning of his two banks of four for the final 20 minutes – the problem, of course, was that those eight outfielders were all he was working with.
Rodgers proves his flexibility
Liverpool's strategy in yesterday's Merseyside derby demonstrated that Brendan Rodgers can be adaptable and flexible with his attacking approach. In the first half, Liverpool barely pressed the ball high up the pitch and instead retreating into a 4-1-4-1 defensive shape. Their approach in possession was significantly more direct than usual, seeking to use the pace of Luis Suarez, Suso and Raheem Sterling on the break.
Rodgers' switch to 3-5-2 at half-time only furthered this reactive tactic – with the Everton full-backs left unmarked throughout the second half, Everton dominated possession. Liverpool played exclusively on the break, had more clear-cut chances and were highly unfortunate not to have won the game – and it showed Rodgers isn't all about relentless ball retention.
Perch's versatility is underrated
In the absence of Cheick Tiote from Newcastle's midfield zone, James Perch was favoured ahead of Vurnon Anita in the holding role. Perch had a solid if unspectacular game, winning the ball only twice, but completing over 90% of his passes.
Perch's development over the past couple of seasons has been highly impressive. When signed from Nottingham Forest he looked significantly out of his depth, becoming the first Premier League player to receive five yellow cards in his first five games, and scoring an own goal on his return from
Yet Perch has become a useful, reliable squad member. Able to play at centre-back, full-back, in the centre of midfield and probably as a wide player too, he's a handy utility man for Alan Pardew, who often likes to switch formations midway through matches. Perch isn't one of Newcastle's most
talented squad members, but his versatility is an underrated asset.