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A world of Kurt: Could Zouma be used to stop Marouane Fellaini?

Can Mourinho out-fox his old mentor this weekend?

MANCHESTER UNITED HAVE now won six successive Premier League games but face their toughest test of the season this Saturday when they visit Stamford Bridge.

Louis Van Gaal’s men have beaten Spurs, Liverpool and Manchester City in recent weeks and in the process put themselves in contention for automatic qualification for the Champions League, something nobody would have expected a few short months ago.

Let’s take a look at some of the key tactical decisions that could go a long way in deciding who comes out victorious.

Zouma in midfield? 

In the aftermath of Manchester United’s impressive win over Manchester City, Sky pundits Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville both said they expected Mourinho to start young defender Kurt Zouma against United this weekend. They believe Zouma could be deployed in an effort to neutralise Marouane Fellaini, who has become an important part of Louis Van Gaal’s resurgent side in recent weeks.

While some may view this as a gamble, it has proved effective in the past. Back in March, Mourinho surprised everyone when he played Zouma, a central defender by trade, in a midfield role for their Capital One Final clash with Spurs. With Christian Eriksen in very good form at the time, Mourinho decided to use Zouma as an added layer of protection that would attempt to keep the playmaker from influencing the game.

It was a masterstroke, as usual, from the Chelsea manager. Zouma stayed very tight to Eriksen and made life very uncomfortable for the Danish midfielder. He shielded John Terry and Gary Cahill well, breaking up play and winning most of his aerial duels.

Source: Imgur

Most impressive of all was his distribution. For a centre-back, he looked remarkably assured on the ball and frequently picked out a man in a blue jersey. Eriksen was eventually moved out wide, which is a testament to Zouma’s performance.

Source: Imgur

With that being said, Fellaini is a completely different kettle of fish. Fellaini’s strengths are his aerial prowess, chest control and physical play. Against Manchester City, he won 75 per cent of his 12 aerial duels. It’s fair to say that he wasn’t played to his strengths last year under David Moyes. Due to injuries, he was often played as part of a midfield two with Michael Carrick. Here, his defensive weaknesses were exploited and teams were able to overrun United’s midfield. Van Gaal’s current formation gives Fellaini the freedom to use his size and ball control in the final third without worrying about tracking back.

Source: Imgur

The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the Chelsea boss sees the big Belgian as a threat. It wouldn’t be unlike Mourinho to leave Zouma on the bench and surprise us with a completely different tactic to stifle United’s offense.

Exploiting the wide areas 

Ashley Young and Daley Blind have proved a formidable force on United’s left flank in recent games. Pablo Zabaleta is often heralded as the best right back in the Premier League but he suffered an awful time at the hands of the United pair last Sunday. Along with Fellaini, Young seems to be another player who is flourishing in Van Gaal’s current system. He’s been a constant threat down the left, with Blind constantly providing support.

The partnership was equally devastating in their recent victory over Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers’ side set up with their usual 3-4-3, and were exploited in the wide areas by Blind and Valencia’s overlapping runs. Young and Juan Mata both played very high up the pitch, although Mata dropped deeper sometimes to involve himself in the build up.

Chelsea obviously won’t be as susceptible to this given they will almost certainly begin with four at the back but, as we’ve seen on countless occasions, they do like to play very narrow in midfield against the big teams and this could leave space for United to try and find some success out wide.

Counter-attacks 

On the flip side of United’s threat in wide areas, is Chelsea’s ability to counter-attack. Chelsea have been accused of “parking the bus” numerous times against the bigger sides in the Premier League. They play very narrow, leaving their opponents no room to penetrate in the centre of the pitch. This forces their opponents to develop their attacks in wider areas and looks to entice their full-backs to advance higher up the pitch every time they attack. Mourinho has faith in Terry and Cahill’s ability to clear any balls crossed into the box and will want his team to launch counter attacks while Blind and Valencia are still caught up the field.

Chelsea are a side that are quite comfortable in possession and have no problem dominating games. But they also know how to defend their goal in a disciplined fashion. They remain dangerous by leaving at least two people up front at all times, ready to spring the counter attack. That is why if Remy is at all fit, I would expect him to start ahead of Drogba. If not, Willian and Hazard are more than capable of providing the pace required.

Set Pieces 

Set pieces could be another deciding factor in this game. Chelsea have a lot of height and physicality in their team and will be looking to use that to their advantage. They could possibly have Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Zouma, Matic and Drogba in the box at one time. That is a scary proposition for a United defense that has never looked completely solid this season. With players like Hazard and Fabregas in their team, Chelsea will have no shortage of quality balls into the box.

But Manchester United could equally look at set pieces and think, we could have an advantage here. With Fellaini, Smalling, Jones and others, they have players that can attack a well delivered cross. Chelsea have shown some weaknesses recently too. They gave away 11 corners and 24 fouls in their match against PSG, and conceded two goals from poor marking.

Source: Imgur

One thing is for certain, two of football’s most tactically astute managers will lock horns this weekend and it will be very interesting to see who comes out on top.

Where do you think this game will be won and lost?

Read: Eric Cantona backs ‘Kings of Manchester’ to win Premier League title next season

Read: Two of the most prolific strikers in English football right now are Irish

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About the author:

Donal Lucey

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