Tactical thoughts on the first legs of the Champions League quarterfinals:
The ghost of Jose Mourinho continues to loom over Stamford Bridge as United
This remains a squad that would prefer to play in the 4-3-3 that he instituted, with two attacking players wide and two shuttlers, but it is being forced to operate in a 4-4-2 to accommodate Fernando Torres.
So far, this has been the Andriy Shevchenko debacle revisited. Where Shevchenko was ostracized by Mourinho, though, Carlo Ancelotti seems determined (or has been forced) to give Torres every chance to succeed. Although he scuffed a shot against a post, this was another poor night for him, but more worrying is the effect he has on the rest of the team.
It was noticeable that as soon as Didier Drogba came off, after 70 minutes, and Nicolas Anelka came on to play on the right-hand side as Chelsea switched to 4-3-3, Ancelotti's side enjoyed its best spell of the game. It was not just that Chelsea looked more comfortable, but that United was forced to adapt. Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernandez form an old-fashioned partnership -- the pace of the Mexican forcing defenses deep which in turn creates room for Rooney -- but operating with a front two risks the midfield being overrun.
With Chelsea switching to a midfield that featured Mikel John Obi, Frank Lampard and Ramires in the center, Sir Alex Ferguson had to react to prevent Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs being swamped. Rooney moved left, Nani stayed right, and Park Ji-sung was moved off the left flank into the middle to match Chelsea shape-for-shape. United's flow was restricted. It was during that spell that Torres forced Edwin van der Sar into an outstanding save, his header from Jose Bosingwa's cross forcing the Dutch goalkeeper to spring full-length to his left to tip the ball wide; that Patrice Evra just got to Florent Malouda's cross ahead of Anelka, and that Chelsea should have had a penalty for Evra's trip on Ramires.
Perhaps there will be major spending in the summer that will facilitate a switch to a dual-striker system, but for now the message seems clear: Drogba or Torres, but not both.
The best way to combat attacking fullbacks can often be to attack them. Play wide forwards or wide midfielders high up the pitch and the opposing fullback has either to check his forward surges or risk leaving a player in space behind him. If that player is quick, the effect can be devastating, as for instance the Croatia left back Danijel Pranjic found when faced with Theo Walcott in England's 4-1 win in Zagreb in 2008. Harry Redknapp wanted to meet fire with fire as his Tottenham Hotspur side met Real Madrid on Tuesday: play Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon high and either Sergio Ramos and Marcelo would be restricted, or Tottenham would have out-balls for rapid counterattacks on both flanks.
The problems began
But then Peter Crouch was sent off. Forget talk of him losing sight of referees officiating in European competition, his two lunges were worthy of yellow cards in any league in the world. To commit one would have been dim; to commit two in the first 15 minutes was unforgivably idiotic. From then on it was a matter of damage limitation as the man who presumably struggles to find bed-linen big enough left the rest of his team facing short blanket syndrome.
Whichever way Spurs arrayed their resources, there was always going to be a gap. After the red card, Bale returned to the left, with Jenas narrow on the right. As a result, Marcelo was allowed to rampage forward unchecked. Had the Brazilian's crossing been better, the game might have been over by halftime; as it was, it was ended as a contest by a quickly taken corner won following a move down the left as the Spurs right-back, Vedran Corluka, was left exposed by just that Marcelo-Ronaldo combination.
For Internazionale, despite the early lead it took thanks to Dejan Stankovic's remarkable goal, this was a perfect storm of ill circumstance. There was Cristian Chivu, a once great player seemingly lost now his pace has left him, stumbling around in the center of defense and being sent off for the second time in three days. There was the familiar Italian lack of width -- Inter's narrow midfield allowing the Schalke fullbacks, Atsuto Uchida and Hans Sarpei, to pour forwards. And there was the front three, Wesley Sneijder playing behind Samuel Eto'o and Diego Milito, none of whom did anything to stop Sarpei and Uchida pushing on.
Sneijder did play deeper than he had against AC Milan on Saturday, but that seemed to be more to escape the attentions of Kyriakos Papadopoulos than to start trying to win the ball back. The contrast with Raul, playing just off Edu, but dropping back to pressure Tiago Motta was striking. Perhaps Leonard should be praised for his attacking intent, but at times his insistence on attack seems hopelessly naive. Presumably he hoped Inter's midfield three of Stankovic, Motta and Esteban Cambiasso could dominate possession and so restrict Schalke's service to its wide men, but the extent to which Uchida and Sarpei got forward negated any numerical advantage Inter had in that area.
The failing has been seen repeatedly in Italian sides in Europe over the past couple of seasons, and yet the lesson seems never to be learned: the forwards must do their share of defensive work -- as, and this is the great irony, Eto'o and Goran Pandev did so superbly in Inter's run to winning last year's competition. They know the formula; but since Jose Mourinho left they've stopped applying it.