Tactical Analysis: Manchester United 4-4 Everton FC | David Moyes' surpisingly positive approach leads to an open game

"send the ball that way to the Big Belgian!"
Opening Lineups and Formations

Manchester United's starting XI and 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish shape was mostly as expected. David de Gea was the goalkeeper and the back four consisted of Rafael, Jonny Evans, Rio Ferdinand, and Patrice Evra. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were in the center of the park while Antonio Valencia flanked them on the right by staying near the right touchline. Perhaps the only surprise selection by manager Sir Alex Ferguson was Nani on the left flank instead of Ashley Young. Danny Welbeck was once again preferred to Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) as Wayne Rooney's partner up front.

When in possession, Everton were in a 4-2-2-2ish shape and when they were out of possession, they defended with two banks of four in a 4-4-1-1 shape. Former United goalkeeper Tim Howard was between the posts at Old Trafford while Sylvain Distin was chosen to deputise at left-back for the injured Leighton Baines. The rest of the back four consisted of Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga as the central-defenders while Tony Hibbert was the right-back. Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar were narrowly positioned wide players while Marouane Fellaini played in behind Nikica Jelavic up front.

Everton's surprisingly positive approach

Ahead of this match, it was anticipated -- by me at least -- that Everton would take a conservative approach. Pragmatism and being astutely reactive has suited manager David Moyes well during his decade long spell at the club and with the loss of his most important attacking player, marauding left-back Baines, it wasn't unreasonable to expect the Toffees to play for a defensively disciplined and gritty 0-0, 1-1, or 0-1 type of result. However, just as Aston Villa did last weekend, the visitors came out in a surprisingly positive approach and positioned their lines about 5-10 yards higher than expected. Unlike Villa though, Everton seemed to actually have a plan when they gained possession of the ball.

While Villa used pace and energy from their young attackers high up the pitch to pressure United, they had no real attacking plan and they couldn't keep the ball when they won it. In contrast, Moyes cleverly used the versatile Fellaini high up the pitch as an aerial pivot in attack. The big Belgian impressively won 7 aerial duels in this match as his combativeness troubled Evans and Ferdinand all afternoon -- the United center-backs combined to only win a single aerial duel. The long balls out of the back, mostly from Howard or Jagielka, tended to be sent towards the left-center in attack and this resulted in Evans and Rafael struggling to cope with Fellaini. From here, the big-haired outlet would attempt to flick the ball on for Jelavic, whose runs were typically horizontal rather than in behind. The nominally wide players, Pienaar and Osman, looked to get on the end of knock downs or they would make inward runs into the vacated space created by Jelavic's lateral movement.

If the ball was able to be settled by Everton after Fellaini contested for possession, then Everton's front four were typically near enough to each other to quickly combine. Gibson would then look to get forward and if the ball was played back to the former United midfielder after he had arrived in the attacking half of the pitch, he would bring the full-backs -- mostly Hibbert -- into attack by the sliding the ball out wide for them. Gibson was also effective in switching the point of attack as his 7 successful long balls out of an attempted 10 can attest to.

Pienaar's inside movement caused United problems

Fellaini's contribution was clearly evident as was his aerial ability being the main reason for it. Pienaar put in a fantastic performance as well but the reason for it is perhaps a little less obvious. The South African continually came inside and drifted into the space between the lines. In addition, he often moved to the opposite flank as well and this helped to create overloads on that side. In fact, his role wasn't very dissimilar to the 'interiores' roles by by both David Silva and James Milner during the 1-6 Manchester derby disaster in October. Whether it was because of tactical unawareness or instruction from the United coaching staff -- or perhaps a bit of both -- Rafael continually failed to track Pienaar's roaming inside. Perhaps the most pivotal example of Rafa failing to track his counterpart was during the build-up to Everton's 4th goal and final equaliser. The United right-back looked unsure when trying to decide to track Pienaar's darting move inside or not and this moment of hesitation was enough to free the Everton attacker for his easy finish in front of United's goal.

Rafa has taken criticism for his performance on Sunday and rightfully so perhaps. However, unless one happens to be privy to the specific tactical instruction that the Brazilian was given, it's also possible that United's defensive shortcomings in this part of the pitch wasn't entirely his fault. The benefit of letting Pienaar go inside is that Rafa had acres of free space to get forward into when United won the ball back. This may have been part of Fergie's tactical instruction or it may have been merely a benefit of Rafa's tactical naivety -- it's impossible to say which it was. Either way, Rafael's 85 touches on the ball was joint most on the United squad.

Distin -- who is typically a center-back -- was shy to get forward as a deputising left-back but he didn't necessarily position himself deep either. What he did do though was get extremely tight on Valencia. Thus, the space for the Ecuadorian to receive in was limited as it was for him also to get a running start on his marker so that he could beat him in 1 v 1 situations. Despite United spending more time attacking down the right side than the left (49% vs. 25%), Valencia only had 60 touches on the ball in comparison to Nani's 83. In addition, Neville stayed deep in his central-midfield role and he seemed to be given instruction to double up and provide inside cover on Valencia whenever possible. Therefore, Rafa was key for United's attack down the right-side and because Neville was positioned deep as inside cover, Carrick was free to stay deep as well and provide cover for Rafa on Pienaar. Ultimately though, Everton's left-side got the better of United's right-side as Pienaar was more effective than Rafa in their respective attacking halves

United increase the tempo after Everton's opening goal

After Jelavic's opening goal in the 33rd minute, United dramatically improved. Scholes noticeably got forward more, the full-backs surged forward with more aggressive intent, and Evans began to step out of the back more. This coincided, or resulted, in an increased tempo as well. Rooney's equaliser from a wonderful Nani cross 8 minutes after Jelavic's opener came after a spell of impressive attacking football for United. The two teams would go to half-time level at 1-1.

One noticeable change after half-time for Everton was that Gibson was noticeably playing higher up the pitch in an apparent effort to close down Scholes. In the first-half, it was Fellaini dropping back onto the deep-lying Scholes but when the United midfielder began to play higher, it was easier for Gibson to pick him up. This resulted in more space behind Gibson for Rooney to drop into and also more space for Nani to cut inside into so that he could combine with United's two forwards. Neither side was playing with a particularly high line and as a result, the lines weren't compact and the game increasingly opened up. Due to this, and with the natural fatigue that set in as the match wore on, it's hardly a surprise that so many chances were created -- although the six combined goals that were scored in final 34'+5 minutes of the match' (39 minutes total) was obviously unexpected. When one also factors in the width of United's right side creating space inside and the narrowness of Everton's attack creating space out wide near the right touchline for Hibbert to get into, it's hardly a surprise that there was so much attacking space to exploit.

Nani creates and concedes chances

Nani was stellar in an attacking sense as this was probably the best form he's shown in months since he's struggled with fitness and form recently due to injury. With Valencia's terrific form as of late on the right flank, it was great to see Nani contribute like this from the opposite and his non-preferred flank. However, I do have a complaint about his performance: his defending was poor.

I've tried to make a case for Nani during the past two seasons that his defending and tactical awareness has improved quite a lot during his time at Old Trafford. I would get quite annoyed by the ascertains that he was a poor defender because many were basing this judgment on the Portuguese's first few seasons at United so the preconceived notions of many blinded them to the improvements that Nani had made in this part of his game. However, his defending was undoubtedly poor on Sunday. For the first goal, he should've been tighter on Hibbert prior to the cross being sent in for Everton's first goal. At the far-post, Jelavic even had enough time to wave his hand high in order to alert Hibbert that he had an aerial mismatch against Rafael. Had Nani closed him down, or even forced Hibbert onto his weaker left-foot, that route for a goal never happens. Nani was out of position and slow to close down Hibbert again prior to the cross sent in for Fellaini's wonderful volley in the 2nd half.

The Rooney/Welbeck partnership

Twitter was buzzing after Rooney and Welbeck beautifully combined for the former's second goal in the match. The goal made many reminisce about the wonderful Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole combined goal versus FC Barcelona at Camp Nou in November of 1998. Both David Pleat and Michael Cox wrote about the Rooney/Welbeck partnership so I'll keep this part of my analysis short and link their pieces after this paragraph. However, I just want to point out how amazing this partnership can be when Welbeck is able to score goals. Even when his finishing is lacking, he can still provide goals by helping to build attacking moves like he did on Sunday. I'm quite fond of Chicharito but even his biggest fans would likely admit that the goal Rooney and Welbeck combined for wouldn't have happened had the Mexican international been on the pitch.

* 'Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck find each other in game of hidden duos' by Michael Cox

* 'Manchester United sparkled going forward but at the expense of defence' by David Pleat

Conclusion

Tactically, I'm not sure how fair it is to say that Fergie got it wrong as this likely would have been a comfortable victory had the manager had Nemanja Vidic available to mark Fellaini. The steely Serbian simply could have cut out the avenues opened up by the Big Belgian in this match. United's current two best center-back options -- Evans and Ferdinand -- were on the pitch. Moyes bravely attacked and smartly exploited some individual United players but it would have been interesting to see what his tactics would have been if Everton had something meaningful to play for in this match since they can't qualify for Europe nor are they in danger for relegation. Perhaps this liberated them to express themselves and play as well as they did. Bottom line, two massive points dropped by United ahead of their possible title-decider next week versus Manchester City. Fergie has much to ponder as his tactics will be key for the biggest Manchester derby during his 25 years at the club. It's squeaky bum time.

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