Why Marouane's key for Manchester United at Chelsea – but not in the same way
The dominance that Manchester United – and Marouane Fellaini in particular – have had over their opponents in the last two months will not be tolerated by Jose Mourinho. However, the Belgian giant could still play an important role at Stamford Bridge on Saturday evening – as a distraction that allows Spanish schemer Ander Herrera to flourish.
Chelsea will likely field Kurt Zouma as a defensive midfielder to combat Fellaini. Zouma has won 77% of his aerial duels this season (20/26), and thus should be considerably more successful in nullifying Fellaini than Yaya Toure was in the Blues' emphatic defeat at Old Trafford last weekend.
As a naturally cautious and tactically astute manager in games against the bigger clubs, Mourinho will try to find a way to stunt United's free-flowing football on the left. However, with Fellaini dragging Zouma out of the centre, the west Londoners could find themselves light in midfield.
As highlighted in Michael Cox's feature last week, Herrera's gradual rise to prominence has been integral to United's revival, culminating in dominant midfield displays against City and Aston Villa.
He made an incredible 94 successful passes against Aston Villa after impressive defensive work against Tottenham (7 tackles), but, more importantly, drove forward into central areas with direct attacking intent in the Manchester derby. Herrera completed 3 take-ons and was fouled twice in the area that Nemanja Matic will be operating in – often alone – at Stamford Bridge.
The absence of a second defensive midfielder in this zone could be crucial, given that Herrera and Juan Mata have forged a wonderful creative partnership in recent weeks, albeit one that is perhaps more subtle – and therefore less talked about – than the barging and bustling of Fellaini and Ashley Young.
In fact, Chelsea could be accused of having a soft centre on several occasions this season, when the high positional play of Cesc Fabregas and Oscar has left Matic over-stretched.
Tottenham provided the best example of this in their 5-3 win at White Hart Lane back in January, when Mauricio Pochettino's inverted wingers overloaded the centre of the pitch.
Fabregas was caught high up the pitch on numerous occasions, and his overall defensive work did not offer enough support to Matic. Needless to say Mourinho will have a plan, but when the opposition have such strength in depth across the pitch, you cannot always cover every position. Fellaini may be the key to success again, but this time as a decoy rather than destroyer.