On a glorious Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford, Manchester United earned an important three-points versus Everton FC. A heroic late goal by Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez proved to be the difference; one that is vitally important for United's ambition to be crowned champions of England for a record-setting 19th time.
OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS:
United played in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 hybrid shape. Edwin van der Sar was in goal. Rio Ferdinand wore the captain's armband at center-back and he was partnered by Jonny Evans, who was deputizing for a rested Nemanja Vidic. Fabio started at right-back and John O'Shea was the left-back. Anderson and Darron Gibson were the central midfielders. Nani was the wide left player and Antonio Valencia was the wide right player. Chicharito was the striker and Wayne Rooney had a free role as the central playmaker.
Everton played in a 4-5-1 shape, although the intention may have been to play in their recent 4-2-3-1 shape. Tim Howard was in goal and his center-backs were Phil Jagielka and Sylvan Distin. Leighton Baines was the left-back and Tony Hibbert was the right-back. Phil Neville and Jack Rodwell played as central midfielders, both in deep holding roles. Seamus Coleman was the wide right player and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was the wide left player. Jermaine Beckford was the lone striker and Leon Osman played in support of him in an attacking midfield role.
* From the start, it was quite evident that United were going to control possession and that Everton was going to play deep, compact, and in an organized shape. Everton made little effort to dispossess United in their defense or midfield. This resulted in a slow tempo to the match with United patiently passing the ball around looking for a defensive breakdown or for an attacking channel to open up.
* The main battleground in the 1st half was United's right side versus Everton's left side; the focus being the Valencia versus Baines match-up. Valencia, as he typically does, was doing well to pin-back the attack-minded Baines. When the Everton left-back did get forward, Valencia did well to track back and mark him. These forward runs by Baines also created space behind him for United to attack into: Rooney, Chicharito, and Valencia all exploited this space at times.
* Chicharito was terrific with his movement once again. The threat of his pace forced the Everton center-backs to play quite deep. The result was that Rooney had more space in between Everton's defense and holding midfielders to operate in and create. Chicharito not only stretched the defense vertically, but he also did so horizontally as well and he often moved into open space on United's right side. This movement provided open channels for midfield runners.
* Rooney essentially had a free role as a central playmaker. On my television feed, the announcers compared his freedom to that of Zinedine Zidane during his playing days. This is a pretty accurate comparison. With Chicharito forcing Everton's center-backs to play so deep, and with Nani and Valencia pinning back their full-backs when United were in attack, Rooney had acres of space to work with in deeper areas. Wazza was once again terrific in his movements and he was the heartbeat of United's attack. This chalkboard displays Rooney's passing for the first 62 minutes of the match, when he was in a central playmaking role; notice the deep positions that he was creating from and his attempts to exploit the space that Baines was leaving behind on United's right side:
* In United's last match versus Newcastle United, the attack was almost exclusively down the right side. In this match, the attack was a bit more balanced. However, Nani was poor with his crossing from the left side. This contributed to United often being wasteful in the final attack in this match. Nani is capable of being a standout player from either flank, but he's currently better when on the right side. From that side, he's comfortable taking the ball down the touchline and whipping in a cross with his right-foot, or cutting inside onto his left-foot and striking at goal. On the left side, he's one dimensional in that he likes to cut inside onto his right-foot.
* Both Anderson and Gibson were essentially box-to-box midfielders in this match. Anderson in particular had a strong match and he did well getting forward with delayed and surging runs when United were in attack. He was fairly accurate with his passing (59/70 -- 84%) and this is even more impressive when you consider how direct he was with his distribution. The Brazilian midfielder also did well to spray penetrating diagonal balls for United's attackers to run onto.
* Everton's Beckford had little chance to succeed in the match. Everton were playing so deep and Beckford was continually too far away to link play. His only role was to act as a direct outlet to relieve pressure for his side. This consisted of Everton sending long-balls up to Beckford and hoping that he could win aerial battles and provide hold-up play. This isn't something that suits the strengths of the Everton striker. Ferdinand, and in particular Evans, did well in erasing him from the match.
* Everton manager David Moyes made two changes at half: He brought on Tim Cahill and Victor Anichebe for Beckford and Bilyaletdinov. Osman moved to the left flank, Anichebe up front, and Cahill in a withdrawn role. Everton's shape became more positive; a shift from a deep 4-5-1 shape to that of 4-4-1-1. The moves made good sense and they instantly helped Everton to play much better for the first 20-25 minutes of the 2nd half. Both substitutes provided a better direct outlet than what Beckford was able to. Everton grew into the match with these positive changes and began to play higher up the pitch.
* In a span of about 15 minutes in the middle of the 2nd half, United made three substitutions: Patrice Evra, Michael Owen, and Ryan Giggs on for O'Shea, Nani, and Gibson. These moves by manager Sir Alex Ferguson is what changed the match back in United's favor. The Reds essentially pushed Everton back with an agressive 4-2-4 shape; Rooney even dropped deep into the central midfield to play alongside Anderson. After around the 70th minute or so, it seemed to be only a matter of time before United found the winner; which they did on Chicharito's header from a deflected Valencia cross.
* In the 63rd minute when Owen came on for Nani, United had a brief spell of trouble from Everton. The United substitution change temporarily moved United into a 4-4-2 shape with Owen and Chicharito as the forwards and Rooney to the left flank. Prior to this, Rooney was doing well to get goal-side of either Neville or Rodwell when Everton were in possession. However, Owen did not do this when he came on and United became overrun in the central midfield. Rodwell and Neville were simply passing around United in the center of the pitch. United regained control of the match when Giggs came on in the 74th minute and United pushed Everton back with the aggressive 4-2-4 shape. Everton had a brief good moment but failed to capitalize.
* Of the three substitutions that United made, I would say that Evra made the biggest impact. Sir Alex likely would have preferred to give the Frenchman the afternoon off with the upcoming mid-week Champions League tie looming, but O'Shea provided very little in attack at left-back. Evra's introduction immediately brought more bite to the United attack down the left-side. The play in that area of the pitch began to have more width and directness to it; Evra's over-lapping runs of Nani, Rooney, and later Giggs was a major factor in that.
* Of the two Everton center-backs, Jagielka was the standout and it was Distin who had looked shaky at times. The lone goal in the match maybe was symbolic in that it was poor defending and a poor clearance by Distin that was the genesis to the United goal. Jagielka was heroic with his defending and in my opinion, he was the man of the match, despite being on the losing side. Howard was terrific in goal as well.
* Tactically, I thought both managers did well in this match. It's hard to fault Moyes for coming to Old Trafford and playing conservatively in the early going. He did well to make the substitutions that he did at half-time and his team played well after that. Sir Alex made even more astute substitutions after he saw the changes that Moyes made. It was an interesting chess-match between the two class managers. Fergie essentially having the last move may have made the difference.
* If wasn't a fantastic performance by any means for United. Despite dominating possession and controlling the match for the majority of it, United were wasteful with their chances. However, more heroics from Chicharito earned United a vital three points. If United are able to draw with Chelsea in a fortnight, title number 19 will be United's.
* It was also good to earn three points versus a good Everton side while getting Vidic, Evra, Giggs, and Carrick some rest. Even Nani and O'Shea didn't have to play a full 90 either. All will likely be featured on Tuesday versus Schalke. Evans, Anderson, Fabio, and Gibson all provided solid shifts in their current roles as squad players. As I previously mentioned, I thought Anderson was particularly good on the afternoon.
* van der Sar didn't have to do much during the match but he provided an incredible save on a Rodwell attempt on goal. That save may have earned United an extra two points. The 40-year-old has been the Premier League's best 'keeper this season.
* I paid particular attention to Rodwell since he's strongly linked to be coming to Old Trafford in the summer. You can see the flashes of talent, but he didn't yield his influence on the match. He's young and clearly a talent; if United spend 20-25 million-pounds on him, expectations will be high for the youngster. I'm not entirely convinced on spending that kind of money for him right now.
** All chalkboards provided by the Guardian