The Defense You Can Count on in Sunday’s Chelsea-Man U Match

The Defense You Can Count on in Sunday’s Chelsea-Man U Match article feature image

David De Gea, Manchester United’s star goalkeeper, is the most important player in any match he takes the field.

That will certainly be true Sunday when United hosts Chelsea at Old Trafford. On the surface, the two historic teams seem largely similar. United is second in the Premier League table with 56 points, and Chelsea sits fourth with 53.

They both seem to be defense-first squads that sacrifice adventurous attacking in order to make themselves impenetrable. They’re first and third in the league in goals conceded with 19 and 23, respectively, while only fourth and sixth in attack with 51 and 49 goals scored.

But a slightly deeper look shows two vastly different teams and a potential edge for those betting Sunday’s match: Chelsea (+250) at Manchester United (+129).

Under the Hood

Chelsea’s defensive prowess is the kind that’s sustainable. They concede 9.8 shots against per 90 minutes, the fourth-best total in the league, but only 2.6 shots against on target, the second-best total.

Plus, the kinds of shots they give up aren’t particularly dangerous. They’ve only given up 19 big chances (a moniker data collector Opta reserves for chances like one-on-ones that are excellent opportunities to score), the fewest in the league. The combination of allowing relatively few shots and even fewer good shots means that Chelsea’s 23.63 expected goals allowed are right in line with their actual goals allowed. Their defensive record is a fair reflection of their underlying performance.

Manchester United is the opposite of that. Their shots conceded per 90 is 11.8, only seventh-best in the league, and their shots on target against per 90 is 4.1, tied for seventh. They’ve conceded a whopping 37 big chances, only the 11th fewest in the league. Man U may have conceded only 19 goals, but their expected goals (xG) against tally is much higher at 31.74, only the fifth-best mark in the EPL.

United has been playing like a mediocre defensive team, but De Gea has bailed them out over and over and over again. The Spanish keeper has 86 saves, tied for the second most in the Premier League. He’s the major reason why United’s defense appears to be so good on the surface.

That’s a problem: Even the best goalkeepers are streaky, and De Gea’s level of performance so far this season is extreme. Man U is 12.75 goals better than they should be on defense.

Last year, over the course of a full season with De Gea in between the sticks, United was only 2.62 better than their xG suggested. The year before that, they were 4.66, and the year before that 2.84. De Gea could have the arms of Mister Fantastic and he wouldn’t be able to sustain his current pace.

Form Guide

Neither United nor Chelsea comes into this match in great form. Although Chelsea had an impressive defensive performance midweek against Barcelona in the Champions League, they previously lost two of their last three matches, with an ugly 4-1 loss away to Watford and even uglier 3-0 home defeat to Bournemouth.

United didn’t impress midweek, grinding out a 0-0 draw on the road against Sevilla in the Champions League. The Red Devils have also lost two of their last three league matches, including a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle and a 2-0 away loss to Tottenham Hotspur, where they were largely outclassed by the North London side.

Chelsea’s recent results may be more disappointing, but their problems are more mundane. They’re a reliably strong defensive side, even if those two bad losses didn’t show it (and Tiemoue Bakayoko received a red card in the first half against Watford, so they were down a man for an hour). Despite their recent form, they’re likely to produce a strong defensive performance and limit the danger against Jose Mourinho’s side.

United’s problems run deeper. Their defense simply isn’t good enough. Chelsea will likely have at least a few chances to take advantage of that. The only question is, will De Gea continue to defy the odds for United, or will gravity finally catch up to the super keeper?