Louis van Gaal will encourage his team to keep channeling their attacks down the left wing against a shaky Branislav Ivanovic, says Alex Keble...
There's a good chance that this match will closely follow the tactical pattern of the 0-0 draw between these two sides in late December. As Manchester United push forward with more directness and verticality than in the first half of the season, Chelsea will look to hold firm and deny space in the final third.
However, there is one key difference: Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson – combining on the left where the suspect Branislav Ianovic operates – are all in form.
Forty per cent of Man Utd’s attacks come down the left (most in the Premier League), where Rooney frequently drifts and Martial hugs the touchline
40% of United’s attacks come down the left (most in the Premier League), where Rooney frequently drifts and Martial – who completed six take-ons against Stoke – hugs the touchline. It has clearly been a deliberate strategy of Louis van Gaal’s to target this side of the pitch ever since his arrival in England, but it is unclear why.
Perhaps he simply has more right-footed players in his squad (most creative players are better suited to cutting inside onto their favoured foot), or maybe it's an accidental side-effect of playing Juan Mata: the Spaniard will spray the ball wide left at every opportunity.
In the reverse fixture Martial only completed two take-ons and Ivanovic made five tackles, but the Serbian right-back can expect a far tougher task this time around. Aside from Martial’s upturn in form, the emergence of Borthwick-Jackson adds to Ivanovic’s problems. The 19-year-old overlapped superbly in midweek against Stoke, creating the opening goal with an excellent whipped cross.
On Sunday, Willian is likely to be preoccupied with Mata and Rooney combining in the centre-left zone, which could leave Ivanovic exposed. The Serb has appeared more consistent under Guus Hiddink, but in truth this is simply because he has faced difficult opposition less frequently in 2016.
The last menacing left wing Chelsea faced (Leighton Baines and Kevin Mirallas) contributed to them conceding three times in this zone – twice via crosses from Ivanovic’s side, and once because he failed to track his runner.
In a tight game likely to produce few clear-cut chances, it may be the old-fashioned directness and man-to-man battles on the left touchline that cause the breakthrough.