When I started this, I had multiple paragraphs and perhaps 400-500 words dedicated to Leighton Baines because the Everton left-back is very much the key man to their attack -- he's kind of a poor man's Dani Alves for them. However, it was revealed on Thursday that the Englishman would be out for Sunday's match due to a hamstring injury sustained last weekend during the Toffees FA Cup semi-final defeat by rival Liverpool at Wembley. So, I became slightly annoyed and I had to rip up what I wrote and start again. I'll get over my selfish annoyance soon enough and rejoice in the fact that Everton will be without their most important player. Actually, I lied -- I'm going to talk about Baines a lot anyway.
While watching the FA Cup semi-final, I paid special attention to Everton because they were going to be Manchester United's upcoming opponent. I'll present my observations from that match and after that, I'll offer up some thoughts on what can be anticipated for Sunday with consideration to Baines being out.
Liverpool 2-1 Everton (FA Cup semi-final)
Diagram 1: Everton's starting XI versus Liverpool during the past weekend's FA Cup semi-final tie at Wembley
There wasn't any real surprises with manager David Moyes' selection choices as the back four and central-midfielders were as expected. Steven Pienaar was cup-tied while Royston Drenthe wasn't really an option due to apparent disciplinary reasons. Therefore, it was Magaye Gueye that was selected to start on the left side in attack and he was the player to partner Baines on that flank. Leon Osman played narrowly on the right and he continually roamed inside while Tim Cahill played behind recent signing Nikica Jelavic.
As it normally is with Everton, the biggest tactical key in the match centered around Baines. Jordan Henderson was the right-sided midfielder for Liverpool and he tended to stay relatively deep and narrow. This meant that there was space for Baines to get forward into and the marauding full-back predictably surged forward into it. His influence was somewhat disappointing though and perhaps this had to with him being partnered with Gueye. Typically, it's best for Baines to have the wide left attacker be someone who looks to come inside and take a defender with him so that further space can open up in attack. Gueye stayed wide though and this hindered Baines and it was obvious that Everton was missing Pienaar -- the South African has a very good understanding with the left-back.
Many of Everton's chances are created on the left side of the pitch, however, many of the chances that they concede also come from that same side. The obvious risk with Baines' adventurous runs forward is that space is typically available for the opponents to exploit in behind him. Liverpool wanker/scumbag/douche Luis Suarez took full advantage and he continually made runs into the enormous right-channel space (see diagram above). This resulted in Everton left-center-back Sylvain Distin continually being asked to cover in that zone. The Frenchman is a solid defender and generally reliable enough on the ball so it was unfortunate that his poor pass in that zone led to Liverpool's first goal. The important takeaway from that though is that the genesis of a goal for Liverpool was always most likely to come from that zone.
The atmosphere at Wembley appeared to be tremendous but the quality of the game did not match it. Both sides were relatively poor and Everton increasingly lost control of the contest as it evolved. This resulted in Jelavic being isolated and he was mostly uninvolved in this match, despite his goal. Moyes decided to make an adjustment by switching Fellaini and Cahill. What resulted was a much more direct approach as Everton decided to punt the ball long for the big Belgian and bypass the midfield -- a zone in which the Toffees were struggling to compete in. Everton failed to improve however and they were ultimately defeated by their bitter Merseyside rival.
Who might feature for Everton vs United?
Baines' injury likely means that Phil Neville slides over to left-back while Tony Hibbert can be expected at right-back. Distin and Jonny Heitinga are possible again in central-defense but Phil Jagielka is in contention as well. Marouane Fellaini and Darron Gibson have formed a nice partnership in the center of the park since the former United midfielder made the short move West during the most recent transfer window. Pienaar likely returns to the side while Osman, Gueye, or Seamus Coleman are all possible on the right. Jelavic has been a hit since coming over from Scottish side Rangers in January so he's an automatic selection. Cahill likely plays behind the Croatian striker.
Diagram 2: A project Everton starting XI versus United on Sunday at Old Trafford
What approach might Everton take?
Moyes receives a lot of praise for his decade spent at Everton and rightfully so. However, he's certainly a pragmatist and reactive when it comes to tactics and because of this, I've often wondered if he would succeed at a big club or not. A successful manager at a title-contending club needs to bravely attack versus lesser sides so that their point haul from those matches can be maximized throughout a season. In addition, this manager needs the flexibility and wits to be pragmatic against title-contending and European foes as well. The pragmatic approach has made Everton a nuisance for big clubs and it's also made them difficult to eliminate in knockout competitions -- this partially helps explain their recent deep runs in the FA Cup. However, this also helps explain their inconsistent results versus the bottom-half -of-the-table sides.
Against United on Sunday, I anticipate Everton to 'park the bus' and the need for this tactic may be magnified with Baines unavailable. Quite obviously, Baines' absence and this approach limits Everton's attack but it may also result in them being more structurally sound. The Toffees already have the third best defensive record in the Premier League with the calculated risky runs forward from Baines so without them, they'll probably be tighter in the back. Therefore, don't be surprised if Sunday's match results in some sort of ugly 1-0, 0-0, or 0-1 scoreline.
Hibbert isn't the most adventurous right-back anyway so he'll likely be reserved positionally against Ashley Young. Neville will stay tighter to the left-center-back than Baines would so that channel won't nearly be as spacious as it would if Baines were playing. That would have been prime real estate for Paul Scholes' surgically placed long diagonal balls so that Antonio Valencia could receive there. This is fine though for United's wingers as they like to receive the ball at their feet near the touchline anyway rather than run onto balls played into space. However, Moyes could instruct his wide attackers to defend deep and double up on United's tricky wingers. This would limit their supply from Scholes, Michael Carrick, Rio Ferdinand, and Jonny Evans. Therefore, this would open up space for Patrice Evra and Rafael to get forward into so that they can receive and be brought into the attack. It may be United's full-backs that have the most available space in this match. If Everton's wide attackers don't position themselves ultra-conservatively, then the ability of United's wingers to beat their markers 1 v 1 will be key.
As previously mentioned, the Gibson/Fellaini partnership has been a fine one as both are tidy on the ball and able to supply the wide players -- Everton's 75% attacking from the flanks leads the Premier League so that is important for them. The two compliment each other well too as Gibson has the ability to stretch play by spraying long balls while Fellaini is impressive as a ball-winner.
Just as they did versus Liverpool, Gibson and Fellaini failing to adequately compete versus Scholes/Carrick/Rooney may result in Moyes deploying the switch to route one tactics. Fellaini could move further up the pitch and United's back four and Carrick would have be ready to duel bravely in the air. Keep this in mind and watch Fellaini's positioning if United dominate possession and Everton go through spells where they can't get out of their own half. Jelavic is adequate as well in his ability to play with his back to goal and hold the ball up.
Set-pieces could be scary for United as they simply might be lacking in numbers to adequately deal with Everton's aerial threat. By this I mean, Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans can mark Fellaini and Cahill and perhaps Carrick can mark Jelavic. However, there's still the matter of dealing with the center-backs and this is where United might run out of adequate markers for this situation. It's possible that Phil Jones or Chris Smalling could be brought into this match at right-back for this very reason but as mentioned, Rafa's superior ability to attack may be hugely important. Perhaps Jones provides a nice balance. Or perhaps in a surprise move, Dimitar Berbatov makes a shock start for the recently inconsistent Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez as the Bulgarian can also be an adequate aerial duel marker on set-pieces...