No one is sure what to expect at Old Trafford this weekend. Manchester United vs Chelsea is probably the first game of the Big Six this season in which both sides are out of form, with both sides playing a flat, lifeless, wrongly thrown football. It could be end-to-end, or it can be reluctant and bored. It really depends on which versions of these two mystification clubs appear.
In times of crisis (or at least when the morale is low), the collective gives way to individuals. When the attack and defense lines are disabled and manager instructions are impossible to read, competitions are reduced to little moments of quality, to specific battles between players.
Bearing this in mind, there are five tactical issues that focus more on key players than on the wider systems deployed by Ole Gunnar Solskayer or Maurizio Sari:
1) Can Man United use the energy to use the disorganized Chelsea defense?
To open 30 minutes from Manchester's derby on Wednesday, Solskayer played in the target, breaking into attacks and trying to break forward as hurriedly made their new manager during the honeymoon. Whether Solskjaer will continue the formation of 5-3-2 or return to 4-3-3, he will surely try a similar tactical approach against another more serious side.
The goal will be to relieve Jesse Lyngard and Marcus Rashford behind an unorganized and high line on the back of Chelsea, but it will require hard work by Fred, Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay, who were only seen in the fires – Camp Nou two weeks ago weeks, and then against Man City.
Ruben Loftus-Chick and Jorgonjo are trying to recycle their possession with fluency or forward momentum when the opposition medium force pushes effectively, so the biggest question before the match on Sunday is whether Manchester United has to fight them with teeth and nails for 90 minutes. Chelsea, equally prone to drifting, will allow this game to pass if the hosts are ready and cohesive.
2) Who of Kante or Pogba will lead the game?
Occupying the same space in the middle row, the head between the voices between Nano Kante and Paul Pogba promises to be fascinating. Kante's tremendous improvements in the role of a player in the last six weeks have been lost due to Chelsea's collective problems, but the Frenchman is now able to turn sharp and drive his side forward.
It could prove to be a destruction of Junak, if Pogba plays with typical indiscipline. His individuality is as much an obstacle as help. His ability to keep Kante and then launch a counter-attack makes him the United's most important player on the pitch on Sunday, yet his tendency to move too far from the left side of the central half requires many of his teammates. Kante, driving in the area behind Pogba, can help make this end-to-end finish.
Chelsea should be on top. Kante knows about his French teammate and will be free to follow Pogba around the field when needed; smarter, more subtle player should get the upper hand.
3) Can Solskyer find a way to find Chelsea's full back?
The weakest area of the Chelsea team is the position of the injured. Emerson seemed inclined to a mistake in the left back, giving them a number of free-kickers in the 2-2 match with Burnley, while Caesar Azpilicheta did not get enough support from the midfield on the other side. Most of Chelsea's opponents are trying to attack the wings, but United has shown little interest in attacking wings recently – which is unusual since overlapping returnees and tightened crosses in the box were the hallmarks of Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Perhaps cautious of the defensive problems of his team and fitness problems, Solskjaer redirected United's attacks mostly through the middle of the pitch during this bad course of the form. Marcus Rashford's central racing is the biggest threat, while United has a too narrow defensive form to break wide (which helps explain why Everton's full backs were so dominant in the 4-0 attack at Goodison Park).
Solskayer needs a new plan to reach Chelsea's full backs. Perhaps he could instruct Anthony Martial to embrace the left floor, or to choose the Daogo Dalot to rest on the right?
4) Will the danger versus the youth be a definite battle?
The most obvious disagreement in the game is seen Edem Hazard – the source of any attack on Chelsea – against Ashley Young who looks even worse than the right back than he did on the left side earlier this season. It turns out that the 33-year-old left wing is inclined to give the ball and make mistakes in the position when it will be asked to play right in the back of the Premier League.
The danger remains very high and wide under Surrey – walking on the left, even when the game takes place on the other side of the field – so Chelsea always has the opportunity to quickly change the play and get one-on-one with a full back. The Belgian or sailed to become no. 10 or drive to the line, depending on the opposition. He will spend most of the week going directly to the Youth.
5) Is this an ideal game for Higuain?
Gonzalo Higuain only managed to score a goal against Fulham, Huddersfield and Burnley after joining Chelsea in January, primarily because the Argentine hardly misses the pace to be played in the Premier League. His touch, connection and finish were all good, but without a sharp turn or pace over five meters Iguain is effective only for slow, unorganized defenses. So he can be perfect for Old Trafford.
The partnership between Victor Lindelof and Chris Melling did not fill United fans with confidence. Both have been struggling over the last few weeks, which means that Higuain will meet the chances of finding space in the box and, as he wants to do, shoot him early. His style of painting is exactly what David de Gea struggled to save this season.
Alex Kebble is on Twitter