MANCHESTER UNITED vs EVERTON
United returned to domestic business and a tricky home game against an Everton team smarting after a run of difficult results. This was game would see payers pitted against their old team; Fellaini and Lukaku facing Everton and Rooney and Schneiderlin returning to Old Trafford.
In: Bailly, Jones, Valencia, Fellaini and Rshford.
Out: Smalling, Lindelof, Blind, Pogba and Martial.
Jose stuck with the usual 4-2-3-1 shape but made five changes. After a good game against FC Basel Young retained his place but the rest of the now regular defensive unit returned. Fellaini was selected to replace the injured Pogba. Rashford came in for Martial. Everton set up as a 3-5-2 with wingbacks and Rooney as a forward alongside Sigurdsson.
United’s starting shape and Matic, the fulcrum of the performance
Game ebb and flow
United started this game well, scored and then seemed to take their foot off the gas. Everton conceding early were rocked back and it took them a while to realise that United’s intensity had dropped. They grew through the first half but Everton didn’t really assert themselves until the second half; they might have scored in that second half but one way or another United hung on to their lead only to break free and score three late goals as Everton made substitutions and became more expansive.
We focus on tactics; is this tactical? We think it is. United have now scored 9 of their 16 league goals in the last 10 minutes of games. That is too much of a coincidence. A pattern emerges where United prod and probe but don’t overcommit. As a consequence, matches are often tight until the opponent changes to chase the game. This strategy is at its most effective when United have a lead. The point here is that United had that lead from the fourth minute via Valencia’s breath-taking strike and so in one sense this game answers the question of what United would do if they score early. The answer seems to be carry on as planned. It worked again with three late goals.
There is a sense though that after the opening twenty minutes United were a little too cautious and so surrendered the initiative. Against a bolder and more assertive opponent United might pay for this, but Everton lacked pace in attack and despite the best efforts of Rooney, (putting in his best performance at Old Trafford for a few years?), they weren’t able to hurt United.
There was over-caution from both teams for whilst Everton’s lack of forward pace undermined them their approach was essentially cautious as well. They sat deep, presumably in fear of United getting in behind given our own forward pace. We will see a lot of that this year and it is a challenge to United to overcome.
But what of United’s over-caution? From about twenty minutes in it felt as if with a goal lead they were playing within themselves. Players took an extra touch on the ball, they passed sideways all too often when a forward pass was on and this all slowed the pace of the game. Everton could then get back into a bank of five plus three or even four defenders. This left Rooney isolated but it allowed Everton to keep the score at one-nil for long enough for them to get a foothold in the game. They built and United might have suffered. When Everton had the ball United seemed reluctant to engage, covering space rather than tackling. United got away with this because Everton often ran into cul-de-sacs with the deepness of their positioning giving them few forward passing options and then often to players who were isolated. As the half wore on though Everton began to build their moves forward more gradually and so built that platform in the game. They now kept the ball for longer and found themselves able to pass around Mata and Mkhitaryan from the back.
The Opening twenty
That was in contrast to the opening twenty minutes when United played with greater energy and intensity. They also moved the ball far quicker in that opening twenty minutes. There was a clear and obvious tactic employed at that point. This involved United playing the ball into the spaces behind the Everton wing
backs. Everton were set up in a 3-5-2 and United looked to play early balls from the deep into the wide areas for Lukaku, Rashford and occasionally Valencia to run onto effectively stretching the Everton back three out across the pitch.
If Everton sat deep when United had a longer period of possession United looked to switch play quickly from one side of the pitch to the other and this lead directly to United’s opener when Matic played an inch perfect switch pass to Valencia who volleyed first time. This was refreshing to see as whilst Valencia is consistently one of United’s better performers one criticism of him would be that he usually delays his actions, (cross or shot) taking an extra touch to set himself. That’s something that allows defenders to close down. Here he did not allow them that luxury and reaped the rewards. Boom!
Nemanja Matic is having an excellent first season at United so far but here he was excellent again. United’s best player across the whole of the match, everything seemed to go through him. He was great both on and off the ball. Statistics don’t always tell the full story but consider his statistics from this game: 91% passing, only 20% tackle success but 100% aerial duels won, 3 interceptions, 1 clearance and 2 blocks.
He read the game well and his careful positioning prevented Everton really turn the screw on United when they were having their strongest spell in the second half. Last year United might have conceded at this point and recorded another of those frustrating home draws. His presence helps the side retain shape and poise. When he was on the ball he was cool calm and collected and his passes were generally those which created the most problems. His was the assist for Valencia’s opener. He’s a star.
Mkhitaryan has had a good season so far and has provided assists consistently in matches. Here he scored for the first time but this was perhaps his worst performance of the season to date. We have previously spoke about the importance of players forming relationships in the side and this has been a strength of United’s play this season but for Mkhitaryan one of the most important partnerships is with Pogba. Mkhitaryan didn’t play well against FC Basel either and it seems likely that is no coincidence that his worst performances have come in Pogba’s absence, (Pogba of course only lasted 19 minutes against Basel).
That said Mkhitaryan got a goal here so hopefully that will keep his confidence high. He certainly seems better suited to a central number 10 role rather than one out wide but in games when the opponent play 3 centre backs he is an important line of defence and needs to be an irritant. Here Everton’s three centre backs found it too easy to play around him. In respect of the other side of his game when United were attacking, he was one of the more ponderous players on the ball often delaying his pass on occasions when an earlier pass might have created a clear cut chance. He also, and perhaps as a consequence of his ponderousness seemed to give the ball away far too often.
Everton’s sloppy passing and late changes
Ultimately Everton were undone by some of the sloppiness of their passing out from the back. This contributed to several good chances for United throughout the game including one in the first half where Lukaku really should have scored. It felt like this was a throwback to a problem United had in their first season under Van Gaal when they would attempt to play out from the back but without pace in attack the players at the back had only players coming towards them, (for Everton this was usually Rooney, way back when for United it was Van Persie, Falcao or Rooney) and no one to stretch play with runs behind the opponent’s defence.
Late in the second half this lead to at least one goal and a number of other chances. At this point in the game United were helped by the changes Everton had made. They retained the same attacking shape throughout but they removed Rooney and Sigurdsson and pushed Calvert-Lewin forward as the central striker, introducing the pace of Mirallas and Sandro. Their running stretched play in a way it hadn’t been stretched before but perhaps this came too late because the gap between Everton’s deeper defence and midfield and the forward trident was too great as they tired which almost certainly contributed to their giving the ball away too simply.
Herrera and Lingard steady the ship
Herrera hasn’t featured that often this season but with Pogba’s injury and with a weekend and mid-week game over the next few months we would expect to see him more. Here he demonstrated his worth. Introduced in the 77th minute United changed shape slightly at this point. They retained a double pivot but Herrera positioned himself just ahead of them rather than as Mkhitaryan had done closer to Lukaku. He was then occupying the space Everton were trying to play through as they moved out from the back. We have already mentioned the gap between the front and back of Everton’s team at this point; Herrera policed that gap and was another reason that Everton gifted the ball so much.
Herrera essentially gave Lingard a platform to run at Everton. He was introduced in the 61st minute and is another player we can expect to see more of over the next few weeks. His great strength is his movement off the ball and his running with it. This movement disturbs defences. His mobility and the proactivity of his play late in the game demonstrated what Mata and Mkhitaryan hadn’t been doing well earlier in the game. If they dropped deep they tended to get on the ball and then pass square or back; United don’t need them to do that in a situation where they are operating with a double pivot as the pivots can do that. What they need from a forward player with mobility dropping deep is someone who will turn and run at the opponent from that position either with or without the ball. Lingard did that well and whilst his end product isn’t always there, he provided forward thrust in a period of the game when Everton were becoming increasingly desperate. He scored a good chance and missed a good chance but that’s okay, players will always miss chances and if you help to create enough of them you are making the contribution needed. His running created gaps.
United shape late in the game and Herrera who steadied the ship
At that late point in the game the energy of Herrera and movement of Lingard hurt Everton not only because it created chances but also because it made the task of moving out from deep harder just as our opponents were beginning to try to turn up the heat on United. It was exactly what United needed at that point.
Lukaku scored a late goal and celebrated in a way that suggested he was keen to score today against his old team, perhaps especially after missing that earlier gilt edge chance. But his all-round contribution here should not go unrecognised.
Lukaku in one sense had a thankless task up against three centre-backs. Everton of course know all about his strength and played him well. His physical presence upfront occupied those three players and it was very noticeable when United played the ball towards him they got three men around him. That is a compliment to him but United did not use this well for most of the game. They needed to try and use the space this generated better. That said he got his just reward for sticking to his task late in the game.
Another win and another raft of late goals. This is becoming a good habit. The score-line might flatter United if you look solely at the balance of play across the game, but game management is becoming a strength of this United side. They started well, absorbed pressure and struck late as the opponent over-committed and tired. It shouldn’t be overlooked that during the middle of the game when Everton had their best periods United still looked comfortable for long periods with only isolated chances conceded. De Gea played his part to record his 100th United clean sheet. The result was a good way to celebrate this.