Manchester United 2-0 Everton: United better across the pitch
Manchester United outplayed Everton to move 12 points into the lead in the Premier League with as many games remaining.
Sir Alex Ferguson shuffled his pack ahead of his midweek fixture with Real Madrid in the Champions League. Michael Carrick dropped out in favour of Phil Jones’ energy, Ryan Giggs replaced Nani, and captain Nemanja Vidic was back in place of Rio Ferdinand. United’s usual 4-2-3-1ish shape was warped – as it usually is when Giggs is deployed on the left – with Giggs playing narrow and Rooney drifting left of centre (even more than usual).
Everton played their regular 4-4-1-1 shape, and David Moyes made only one change. Phil Jagielka moved back to the centre of defence, where he was partnered by John Heitinga after Sylvain Distin’s injury in the pre-match warmup, and Phil Neville came in to fill the gap at right-back. Marouane Fellaini played the second striker role which has caused United so much trouble in the past two meetings between the sides, with Victor Anichebe continuing as the striker ahead of Nikica Jelavic.
United attack intelligently…
Much of United’s threat throughout the game came from a good understanding of where and how to attack Everton. With Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney often coming deep and narrow to support attacks, United often had a four on two situation in the centre of the pitch. An overload in the centre of the pitch not only allowed United to contain the opposition’s attacks (discussed later) but also to attack directly through the centre of the pitch. Everton’s pressing was also disjointed, helping United’s cause greatly: this was illustrated by Robin Van Persie’s early chance, with Rooney charging up the centre of the pitch unchallenged before playing in Van Persie, who took the ball round Howard and hit the post.
Under three minutes later, however, and the home side were ahead: a ball was lofted to Rafael, who flicked it on to Van Persie. The Dutchman muscled his way past a challenge and laid it off to Giggs, who passed home to continue his record of having scored in every Premier League season. The space and time Giggs got was indicative of how United’s attacking up the centre worked: when the ball hits Rafael’s head, there are a triangle of three United players in central positions, with Rooney coming from deep. Faced with three attackers, the two central defenders couldn’t cope, and the situation was exacerbated when Heitinga and Jagielka found themselves drawn to the danger man Van Persie, leaving both Giggs and Rooney open.
The second goal was more simple, and more direct. Rafael had drifted infield and, under no pressure at all, sliced the Everton defence open with a wonderful ball to Van Persie in a carbon-copy chance of the one he missed beforehand. This time, the ball went in despite Heitinga’s despairing dive, and United could sit back in the second half.
…and defend excellently
The problem with that is that United haven’t been entirely convincing at the back this season, and recent history shows the immense problem they’ve had with Marouane Fellaini. This time round, it was different.
It’s well documented that to stop Everton attacking, you have to (primarily) do two things: contain the Leighton Baines – Steven Pienaar axis on the left, and stop Marouane Fellaini. The problem is that to do one is hard, and to do both requires a separate game plan and specialised players. Luckily for Ferguson, he had such a group of players, and so it was up to him to deploy a proper tactical plan.
Instead of the metronomic passing talent of Michael Carrick, Phil Jones was deployed in a specialist man-marking role to track Fellaini in the right-centre midfield. The muscle and energy Jones brought to the position meant that United could worry far less about Fellaini than they would otherwise. This mostly worked excellently, though on 35 minutes there was a warning of what Everton can do when Fellaini’s free. Jones charged forward to get to a loose ball, then a bad touch gave it right back to the opposition. With Fellaini unshackled by Jones for once, he was able to turn and play in Mirallas down the right flank. The subsequent cross was only prevented from being a goal by a good piece of individual defending by Jonny Evans, who outmuscled Anichebe and gave Rafael a chance to clear.
Rafael himself was having an excellent game as part of the other half of United’s defensive plan. With Antonio Valencia ahead of him on the right wing, United had the rare opportunity to actually try and effectively shut down Everton’s dangerous left flank. With Baines being tracked impeccably by Valencia – though he still managed to influence the game, it was not to his usual levels – Rafael was free to look after Pienaar, tracking him down the wing. Usually, if Pienaar drifted inside, Rafael let him go; with United’s surplus of players in the centre of the pitch, Pienaar was often picked up by Cleverley, Rooney or even Evans, who was pushing forward with Vidic sweeping up behind him. In the end, United’s dominance in their right-hand side of the pitch resulted in 51% of their attacks coming up the right. In contrast, Everton – who have attacked up their left 43% of the time this season on average – managed only 27% of their attacks down their left, a massive difference. With their two main avenues of attack stifled, Everton found it extremely difficult to find a route back into the game, and United were able to hold them at arm’s length with ease. This wasn’t without good individual performances elsewhere though, with Giggs making six tackles, Cleverley three, and Rooney fighting a running battle with Phil Neville down the United left wing.
Ferguson had a gameplan defensively, and once that was carried out it was just a matter of relying on his far superior strikeforce to settle the game in his favour. Few teams are able to contain both Fellaini and Everton’s left flank because of their completely different challenges. There aren’t many midfielders capable of going toe-to-toe with Fellaini, and there aren’t many wingers able to track Leighton Baines up and down the line. When Jones limped off in the 56th minute, Everton grew into the game a little, but thanks to his replacement, Michael Carrick, and his ball retention skills United were able to see out the match without too much trouble. It’s telling that Ferguson only made two changes, one of them a straight centre-back swap late on and the other the aforementioned forced switch. He was happy with his side and how they were performing, and the margin could have been greater had the corner that Evans forced goalwards twice gone in.
David Moyes and Everton weren’t really at fault for much of the game, it was just a simple matter of being outperformed. Perhaps, however, it could be argued that without the threat of Fellaini and their left wing axis, Everton was almost pathetically short of ideas, which can definitely be seen as criticism. However, as mentioned earlier, it is very hard to successful negate both, and when you consider the carnage Fellaini has wreaked in previous meetings between these two sides it’s hard to blame Moyes for taking the same approach here. It was not to be this time, but Everton shouldn’t be too disheartened by it.