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The Tactics Board – Squeaky Bum Time or Creaky Back Line?

Manchester United faced an Everton squad hoping to put the disappointing loss against Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final behind them. David Moyes’ squad came out and played attacking football, pressing United up high and using the aerial abilities of Nikica Jelavic and Marouane Fellaini to boss a lax United defense in the box. United’s attack was great, with excellent pace and movement off the ball, but the defense did not play with the same spirit. Rafael and Nani were caught out several times on defense, and this combined with an aggressive attacking strategy by Everton to possibly spoil United’s plans for a 20th league championship.

Manchester United vs. Everton

Old Trafford – April 22nd 2012

Starting Formations-

Manchester United-
Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad came out in a 4-4-1-1, with only one change on the pitch from the squad that beat Aston Villa 7 days earlier. The back line stayed the same, with De Gea in goal, and Rafael and Patrice Evra at right-back and left-back respectively. The solid center-back pairing of Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans got the nod again. In midfield, the right-wing was filled by Antonio Valencia again as he continues the strong form he’s had since returning from an ankle injury. In the middle of the pitch, Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes took up their positions deep. On the left wing, after scoring the 4th goal in stoppage time against Aston Villa, Nani got the start ahead of Ashley Young. Up front, Danny Welbeck got the start again while Wayne Rooney started just behind him in a supporting role.

Leighton Baines wasn’t available for the game, forcing David Moyes to make some adjustments to replace one of Everton’s more potent attacking threats. Moyes squad came out in a very narrow 4-4-1-1, but when on defense their shape looked more like a 4-1-4-1 with Phil Neville dropping back to fill the gap between the lines.

Tim Howard got the start in goal, while Tony Hibbard got the start again at right-back. Starting at center-back was Johnny Heitinga and Phil Jagielka, while Sylvain Distin moved from center-back to start at left-back. Leon Osman started on the right wing, while Steven Pienaar started on the left wing. In the central midfield, Phil Neville started as the deep holding midfielder, supported by former Manchester United midfielder Darron Gibson. Nikica Jelavic started up front, having scored 8 goals in 12 appearances since his arrival in January from Rangers. Supporting Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini started as the attacking midfielder and target man.

Starting Formation

Key Points-

  • Everton plays aggressive from the start, pressing high up the field and bossing United in the midfield.
  • Everton and United both struggle on defense.
  • United’s front 4 played with pace and fluid movement on the attack.
  • Fellaini- Man of the Match as United have no answer for the 6’4” Belgian
  • Both United fullbacks struggle on defense
  • Nani and Rooney exploit gaps between Everton’s lines
  • Toffees dominate the air, winning 18 of 25 aerial duels.


Everton’s attacking strategy-

Unlike most clubs who visit Old Trafford, Everton came out intending to attack instead of just sitting back and hoping that their defense could outlast United’s attack. With the ball, Everton played a hybrid 4-4-1-1 with both Darron Gibson and Phil Neville playing as deep lying central midfielders. Neville sat deep all game, never moving up the field to get involved in the attack. With Gibson and Neville both sitting deep, Leon Osman and Steven Pienaar both played very narrow on the wings as they spent most of their times attacking in the middle of the field.

Passes to Fellaini

Osman and Pienaar supported Everton’s attacks in the middle, but they didn’t have an effect on the game until later in the second half. The main thrust of Everton’s attacks came through Marouane Fellaini. He played up front, supporting Nikica Jelavic, and acting as a target man for Everton’s vertical attacks. Everton’s attack was very direct, but they weren’t just bombing it up the field for Jelavic and Fellaini to track down. Fellaini was able to use his strength, and aerial abilities, to trouble United all day as he was marked by Michael Carrick in the first half, and Rio Ferdinand in the second half. Both players struggled against him, as he ended the game winning 7 of 8 aerial duels.

United start slow

Everton started the game pressing high up the field on defense. Jelavic and Fellaini were both working hard on defense, pressing United’s back line with the ball to try and force a mistake. To go with the pressure on United’s back line, Everton made a point of shutting down Scholes and Carrick with the ball, not giving them the time to pick out their long passes. Gibson worked hard to shut down Scholes and make sure that he never had space to operate with the ball. Carrick was initially pressured by Neville, and this pressure in the midfield disrupted United’s attack and they were never able to get comfortable with the ball.


After 30 minutes, Everton seemed to relax their pressing defense as Fellaini dropped into the midfield on defense instead of pressuring United’s back line. The Toffees seemed to determine that Scholes was the key to United’s attack, and Fellaini worked with Gibson to trap and pressure Scholes. With Everton shutting down Scholes in the midfield, it was left to Carrick to play the longer passes out to the wing to start United’s attacks. In the 38th minute, Carrick played a great long pass over Everton’s defense to Danny Welbeck but Tim Howard broke it up just before Welbeck could get to it.

Carrick lobbed pass

As the game went along, Neville’s defensive efforts in the middle of the pitch became less effective. Phil Neville was marking Michael Carrick, which opened up a gap between Everton’s lines for Wayne Rooney to operate in. Neither Everton center-backs were willing to step out and mark Rooney in the first half, which gave Rooney room to operate at the top of the penalty box. Unfortunately, United’s opportunities were limited in the first half with the Red Devils slow start.

Everton exploit suspect defending

With 30 minutes of the game past, neither side’s attacks looked dangerous, but this changed when Everton were able to seize the first goal of the day. Both United fullbacks made forward runs to support United’s attacks during the entire game, but their forward runs left gaps at the back for Everton to exploit. The Red Devils really struggled on the left side, with Nani starting in place of Ashley Young. Both Nani and Young are dangerous attacking wingers, but Ashley Young works equally hard tracking back on defense to support Patrice Evra while Nani isn’t known for his defensive effort. The French left back missed Young’s work rate, as Osman tended to play narrow on United’s left side which left them vulnerable to overlapping runs by Hibbard. Plays like this lead to 2 Everton goals.

In the 32nd minute, Patrice Evra was dragged out of position marking Leon Osman. With Evra in the middle of the pitch, Pienaar played the ball to Gibson who passed it out wide to Tony Hibbard on the right side. Nani was slow to shut him down, giving Hibbard the time to put a lofted cross towards the far post, where Nikica Jelavic was able to get space from Rafael. Jelavic headed the ball up over De Gea and into the net from a very narrow angle.

United go on the offensive

After Everton took the lead, their defensive pressure seemed to ease with Fellaini dropping into midfield on defense and Carrick getting more space to operate. Carrick was able to control possession for United, and play the ball out wide. Valencia has been the catalyst of most of United’s attacks recently, but Nani was very effective on the attack. Everton struggled to deal with his pace and movement off the ball, as Nani worked between Everton’s lines often popping up on the right side of the field in space. Everton’s right-back, Tony Hibbard, struggled all game to deal with Nani’s pace, so Everton often had 2 players covering Nani on the ball, but instead of trying to pin him in with both players, one would drop behind the other as cover. This worked to prevent Nani from taking on Hibbard, but it left him with room to put crosses into the box.

In the 40th minute, after United were able to control possession they played it out wide left to Nani. Hibbard was hesitant to step out and challenge him, with Pienaar dropping behind the right-back as cover. Nani used the space to get the ball on his right foot, and put an in-curling cross into the box. The cross went just over Phil Neville to a waiting Wayne Rooney inside the 6 yard box. The former Everton player was to nod the ball into the net, and tie the game up.

Manchester United came out for the second half with the same strong attack that they ended the first half with. Nani was very effective, operating out on the left side while also making runs between Everton’s lines to create good opportunities. On the right side, Antonio Valencia didn’t play as far forward as he has lately. Everton played center-back Sylvain Distin out at left-back and he did a good job at keeping the Ecuadorian quiet through most of the game, a feat that not many other left-backs have been able to do lately.

With Everton focusing on shutting down Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney worked with Michael Carrick to move the ball around and control possession. Rooney was able to use the space at the top of the penalty arc to move the ball out wide to Valencia and Nani. In the final third of the pitch, Rooney completed 75% of his passes. His work at spreading the play was important to counter the pressure Everton put on Scholes.

Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck have developed a potent attacking partnership this season, with Rooney sitting deeper and feeding balls into Welbeck as he makes cutting runs through opposing defenses. They link their play together well, and they accounted for 3 of United’s 4 goals.

In the 56th minute, United was able to take the lead. After a long string of passes by the Red Devils, Nani tried to chip a ball into the center of the box for a waiting Wayne Rooney and Paul Scholes. Darron Gibson deflected the ball up into the air, and Nani was able to win an aerial duel with Phil Neville. Welbeck collects the knock-down at the top of the penalty arc. He feigns a shot to open up Heitinga, and then he curls a shot into the upper right corner of the net past Tim Howard.

Defensive Failings-

Distin's defensive work upfield on left

Manchester United had a 2-1 lead, with both sides looking shaky on defense but United appearing to be the better attacking side. Everton started to drop back deeper on defense, and United started to press the advantage. 4 minutes after Welbeck’s goal, United went after another. Nani worked between Everton’s lines, popping up on the right-side. Distin was marking Valencia up the pitch, which opened a space on for Nani to play in. Nani passed the ball back to Michael Carrick. Carrick passed the ball into the box for Welbeck, who flicked it into the box for a clean run by Nani. Nani took a first touch then chipped it over an on-rushing Tim Howard to give United a 3-1 lead.

With their second goal in 5 minutes, and their third goal of the game, United’s attack came alive as Everton was put on their back foot. Everton struggled to deal with the movement of United’s front 4, as Nani and Welbeck were consistently getting into dangerous areas behind Everton’s defense. United’s attack looked strong, but the strong attack was masking the problems at the back and soon Everton was able to expose them.

In the 66th minute, Everton got their second goal of the game and it was very similar to their first goal. The chance came from some lax defending by Nani and Patrice Evra on United’s left side. Evra was drawn towards the middle of the pitch again by Everton’s left-winger. The ball was played out wide to Hibbard on an overlapping run. Nani was slow to close him down again, and Hibbard chipped in a lazy cross that met an unmarked Fellaini in the box. Fellaini was able to take a simple volley to get Everton their second goal.

The Red Devils came back within 2 minutes of Everton and were able to get their 4th goal of the game due to the great linking play by Rooney and Welbeck. United went forward on the counter-attack, with Rooney and Welbeck playing two wall passes with each other as they split Everton’s center-backs easily and Rooney got his second goal of the game.

United with a 4-2 lead, what happened?

The Red Devils attack flourished as they carved apart Everton’s defense, but it couldn’t hide United’s own problems at the back.

With a 4-2 lead, and only 10 minutes remaining, United continued to come forward on the attack. They had a chance to put in a fifth goal, when Valencia played a cross into the box that Nani flicked on for Evra. Evra took a diving header, but it bounced off the post.

At this point in the game, would it have better for United to take off a striker and bring on an extra midfielder? Maybe a physical presence in the middle of the pitch who could challenge Fellaini? Unfortunately, the change didn’t come and with less than 10 minutes left in the game, Everton may have changed who wins the league this year.

United struggled with Fellaini’s strength all game. Fellaini was able to physically control and boss around the center on Everton’s attack. Fellaini often operated in the gap between United’s midfielders and the center-backs. He won all but 1 of his aerial duels, which gave plenty of knock-down opportunities for Jelavic.

Everton’s third goal of the came from just one opportunity, using Fellaini’s strength to out muscle United’s defense and opening a chance for Jelavic to finish. Phil Neville chipped a ball forward into the box and Fellaini was able to win the ball in the air versus Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans. Nikica Jelavic recovered the rebound and half-volleyed the ball past United’s Spanish goalkeeper.

As the second half went along, Steven Pienaar started to have more of an effect on Everton’s attack. He supplied the creative force for Everton’s attack, while Fellaini provided the strength to muscle United in the center of the pitch. Rafael was responsible for closing down Pienaar, but he was frequently caught out of position as he pressed too far up the field on the attack, and this open a gap that Everton exploited. Jelavic often operated on the left side of United’s box, taking advantage of some lax defending by the Brazilian.

The fourth goal of the game was a perfect example of all that went wrong at the back for United. Pienaar played the ball into the box for Fellaini, while the player on-loan from Tottenham continued his run into the box. As Pienaar continued his run, Rafael lost track of him and left the South African all alone for Fellaini to pass back to. Pienaar got the ball and knocked it over De Gea.

After Everton tied the game up, Phil Jones was brought on for Paul Scholes. It was a questionable change, as it would have made sense 5 minutes earlier when United were trying to defend their lead and shut down Everton’s Belgian midfielder who demolished United’s defense. With United now chasing a goal, taking off Scholes for Jones didn’t make much sense. With 5 minutes of extra time, United worked hard to try and snatch a last minute goal but Everton was able to hold on and secure the point.


Everton played a great game, with Marouane Fellaini and Nikica Jelavic both having exceptional games. David Moyes came into Old Trafford, and played strong attacking football to challenge a United side that has had weak moments in defense this year. Even without Leighton Baines, Everton was able to mount effective attacks that caused problems for United’s back line all games long. United didn’t have an answer to Fellaini’s strength and power, and both United fullbacks had defensive issues.

United-Left | Everton-Right

On the attack, United looked good. They attacked with great width, and were able to threaten Everton’s defense from all directions. Everton tried to shutdown Paul Scholes, but Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney did a good job at filling in for him. Nani’s movement caused problems for Everton all game. They were never able to shut him down, and he popped up all over the pitch on the attack and wreaked havoc with Everton’s defense.

The defensive failures ended up costing Manchester United 2 valuable points, and possibly the title. Manchester United’s attack looked as potent as it has all season. This performance on offense was reminiscent of the United attack that took apart Arsenal at the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, the defense was also reminiscent of the United defense early in the season that was beat 6-1 by City. Can Sir Alex Ferguson get the squad sorted in 7 days to ensure that United’s defense will be able to deal with a potent City attack?

By RangeRooney