OPENING LINEUPS & FORMATIONS
Manchester United played in a 4-1-2-3 sort of shape when they were in possession of the ball and a 4-1-4-1 shape when they were out of possession. No 1 David De Gea was in goal at Goodison Park and the center-back tandem was captain Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans. They were flanked in defense by Phil Jones on the right and Patrice Evra on the left. Darren Fletcher shielded the back four in a strict holding role and further advanced from him were Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney in the central midfield. Ji-Sung Park played a narrow right-midfield role while on the opposite side of the pitch, Danny Welbeck played as a wide left forward. Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was the striker
Everton manager David Moyes deployed his side in a 4-2-3-1ish shape. Former United goalkeeper Tim Howard was in goal while the center-back pairing was Phil Jagielka and Johnny Heitinga. Leighton Baines was the left-back and Tony Hibbert was the right-back. Jack Rodwell and Marouane Fellaini were in the center of the park and both resembled 'double pivot' roles. Seamus Coleman occupied the right flank in attack and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov was on the left flank. Louis Saha was the center-forward and Leon Osman played withdrawn from him.
A further look at the formations
For this particular match, a look at each side's shape does quite a bit to reveal the patterns in this match. It also does decently well to explain why the match was relatively dull. At nearly every part of the pitch, each player had a natural foil. When United were in possession with their 4-1-2-3ish shape, Everton were well positioned in defense with their 4-2-3-1: Osman could drop back and get goalside of Fletcher, Fellaini/Rodwell were naturally positioned to mark Cleverley/Rooney, and Everton had a spare man in the back with two center-backs responsible for Chicharito.
When Everton had possession, their 4-2-3-1 was dealt well with by United's 4-1-4-1 shape: Again, Rooney/Cleverley were positioned to mark Rodwell/Fellaini, Fletcher tracked Osman between the lines, and United also had a spare man in the back with two center-backs marking Saha. Even the full-backs and wide players for each side had obvious one-on-one matchups. This is why the match felt like a functional stalemate for much of Saturday afternoon.
Generally when this particular formation battle occurs, the key part of the match is often the central midfield. What can occur is a congested battle there and the midfield that operates better in tight space and/or exhibits more bite can decide the match. However, this did not really occur on Saturday at Goodison Park.
Each duo -- Rooney/Cleverley and Rodwell/Fellaini -- generally defended deep and did not advance forward to aggressively close down their counterparts.This allowed time on the ball for each midfielder and all four accurately distributed the ball (pass accuracy: Rooney 84%, Cleverley 84%, Rodwell 91%, Fellaini 87%). The exception to this was the occurrence in each half when Everton pushed their line higher and attempted to press United in brief spells.
Because Rodwell/Fellaini had roles that resembled 'double pivots,' they played slightly deeper than Rooney/Cleverley and this allowed the latter duo to naturally play higher and closer to attack. While Rodwell got forward for a few late arriving runs and shot attempts, it was more common to see Rooney/Cleverley combine with their attack. During the lone goal of the match, Cleverely did well to quickly combine with Evra and Welbeck in the attacking third of the pitch. From the pattern of the match, it would be hard to imagine either Fellaini or Rodwell combining that high up the pitch with their attackers in a quick interchange.
With the use of Park -- a wide player who likes to come inside similarly to City's 'interiores' -- and Welbeck -- a versatile attacker that prefers to play center-forward -- it was unlikely that United were going to attack with their typical width. Here is a chalkboard from the first 57 minutes of this match when Park was deployed as the wide right player in attack:
As evident, Park was roaming towards to the middle to link play with the central players. In addition, he often drifted to the other side of the pitch and helped United overload Everton there. It was quite clear that the left side was the main creative force in United's attack and it is not surprising that the genesis of their goal resulted from build-up play on that side. 46% of United's attack occurred on their left side while only 27% occurred on the right side and only 27% through the middle.
Perhaps this was done both organically and with tactical intent. Welbeck, Rooney, and Cleverley all tend to naturally drift towards the left-central channels in attack -- no matter which position they are deployed in. United manager Sir Alex Ferguson could possibly have had this in mind when he selected his lineup. Park is very good at linking play and quickly moving after distributing the ball-- maybe Fergie saw Park drifting to the left as an opportunity to overrun Everton. The other effect of this is that this keeps the ball opposite to the side of Everton's strength in attacking -- their left side as well. Park's industry and tactical awareness allows him to track back so that he can tend to his defensive responsibilities on the right when United lose possession.
Welbeck typically received the ball near the touchline and then looked to cut in diagonally when he neared the box. United's only width came from overlapping runs by their full-backs. If this didn't occur, United simply had to use quick passing and intelligent movement in tight space to generate goalscoring opportunities. This often made the Reds' attack predictable and the Everton's sound positioning caused frustration. It was always likely that a fluid interchange -- like the one that led to the goal-- was going to be needed to breakdown Everton's defense. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Welbeck this season has been his intelligent off-the-ball movement and link-up play. Both were on display versus the Toffees.
Everton's outlet was their full-backs
Fergie seemed quite determined to put in a strong defensive performance and his post-match comments indicated that he was pleased with United's cleansheet. When United lost possession of the ball, they did well to track back and get numbers behind the ball. In addition, they did extremely well to keep their shape compact.
The one outlet that Everton continually had was their full-backs. When Everton's 'double-pivots' would pick the ball up from their center-backs, they generally had time to turn after receiving so they could look up the pitch. What Fellaini and Rodwell would often see was Fletcher sitting just in front of his center-backs, Rooney and Cleverley compact and and slightly advanced from him, and full-backs that were defensively disciplined and not caught out as they were versus Manchester City. If Rooney/Cleverley came forward to close down Rodwell/Fellaini when they turned and faced up the pitch, the Everton duo generally had an out ball to their own full-backs. The time on the ball they were allowed -- as mentioned earlier -- along with an easy outball to these full-backs allowed Rodwell/Fellaini to have those impressive passing accuracy statistics. Here is a chalkboard of their distribution -- notice all the lateral passes into zones where full-backs typically receive the ball:
When Everton quickly transitioned after winning the ball back from United, they often looked play Baines down the left side. This was especially so if Everton were able to catch Park on the opposite side of the pitch from his previously mentioned inward runs. Baines' marauding runs are arguably Everton's most potent attacking threat and his 2.6 key passes per match this season is an impressive statistic for any player -- especially for a left-back. His 82 touches on the ball this match was the most for any Everton player.
Everton similarly swung the ball wide to the right-side for Hibbert as well. United's narrow shape offered opportunity for Everton to attack with width. Besides Baines' free-kick striking the post in the 1st-half, the home side was always most threatening when they were able to send in crosses from the flanks. The genesis of this was the outlet balls from Rodwell/Fellaini to their full-backs.
Fletcher's holding role
A quick mention should be made of the solid job that Fletcher did in his strict-holding role on Saturday. The Scotsman is regarded as a player that provides energy and bite to the midfield -- but this usually occurs in a box-to-box sort of role. At Goodison, just as he had at Anfield two weekends ago, he sat just in front of the United center-backs and occupied the space between the lines. This is an area of the pitch that has been a cause for United's high number of shots on target conceded this season. This also was mentioned by Fergie in his post-match comments.
Fletcher essentially erased Osman from the match and Everton rarely looked to generate any goalscoring chances from the space between the lines. Credit goes to Fletch. He was also very tidy with this distribution -- 40/43 passing for 93% passing accuracy. It is very important for a holding-midfielder to not lose possession near their own goal. It will be interesting to see if this role by Fletcher becomes common in 'big matches' as the season progresses.
2nd half adjustments
Moyes made the first adjustment at half but it was a substitution rather than anything tactical. 17-year-old Ross Barkley simply replaced the ineffective Bilyaletdinov. Twelve minutes into the 2nd half, Fergie was forced to make a change after Cleverley hobbled off the pitch with an injury -- Nani came on and this moved Park to central-midfield. In the 67th minute, Dimitar Berbatov came on for Chicharito and United were still playing in the same shape. By this point, Fergie was clearly content with closing up shop and returning back to Manchester with a 1-0 away victory. United defended deeper and Berbatov provided a better hold-up outlet up top than did Chicharito. Perhaps this was the first tactical change -- albeit a subtle one.
Moyes brought on Apostolos Vellios in the 76th minute for Osman. This represented a 2nd striker for Everton and an intent to chase the equaliser. The home side also began to play with a higher line and press high up the pitch. What resulted was United continually committing ten players behind the ball and looking to hit Everton on the break. The Toffees lacked the creativity to break down a bunkered United side.
Near the end of the match, right-winger Coleman often cut diagonally into the box. When Evra passed him off, Fellaini would maruade high up the pitch and look to match up with the United left-back. Whether that was instruction from Moyes or awareness from Fellaini is not certain but it did provide a dangerous mismatch. Everton were able to hoof the ball up towards Fellaini and hope that their attackers could get on the end of knock-downs in the box. The goal failed to materialize though.
Much had been made about this being a 'bounce-back' game for United and it turned out to be that way. It was not pretty but it was three points at a venue that United had not won at since 2007. United's 4-1-4-1 shape when out of possession made it difficult for an Everton side that lacked a final product to break them down. The Reds' own attack was mostly uninspiring as well but a nice interchange in the first half produced a quality goal. United have proven they can go all out and score a plethora of goals -- but also while being vulnerable to conceding a high number of shots on their own goal. They have also shown the ability to bunker down but at the expense of creativity in attack. Can they find a way to combine the two ideals as the season progresses?