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The Tactics Board – United catch Merseyside Blues

The Premier League season opened for Manchester United this season with a challenging visit to Goodison Park to face a tough Everton squad. Many Red fans will remember our last game against Everton, a 4-4 draw that seemed to cost the Red Devils their 20th league championship. This game was highly anticipated by most people to see how Sir Alex Ferguson would play his squad after the addition of 29-year old Dutch striker Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. Unfortunately for most fans, Van Persie started the game on the bench and United played with Rooney and Welbeck on the field. United’s offense struggled at times against a well-disciplined Everton defense, while defensively the Red Devils had the same problem they had in the game last season: a tall, powerful Belgian sporting an afro named Marouane Fellaini.

Manchester United vs Everton

Goodison Park – August 20th, 2012

Starting Formation-

Manchester United (4-3-3)-
Many people were anxious to see how Manchester United would line-up to incorporate Robin Van Persie into the line-up, but the Dutchman started the game on the bench. The team came out in a 4-3-3, with an unsettled back line. David De Gea started in goal, much more settled in after his performance at the end of last season. Patrice Evra starts at left-back, with Antonio Valencia started at right-back while Rafael started the game on the bench. Nemanja Vidic made his return from his knee injury to start at center-back alongside Michael Carrick, drafted in with all the defensive injuries. At the age of 37, Paul Scholes started in the midfield alongside 23-year old Tom Cleverley. New arrival Shinji Kagawa got the start as the most advanced midfielder. Up front, Wayne Rooney started in the center, with Danny Welbeck supporting him on the left and Nani on the right.

Everton (4-4-1-1)-
David Moyes brought his squad in a fairly conservative 4-4-1-1 formation, but he picked his strategy well and used the players that would cause the most problems for the Red Devils. Former Red Devil Tim Howard started in goal, with Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka ahead of him. Tony Hibbert started at right back, while Leighton Baines got the start at left-back in front of the team that was reportedly chasing him all summer. A fairly defensive pairing of Phil Neville and Darren Gibson started in central midfield. After making his loan move permanent over the summer, Steven Pienaar started at left wing and Leon Osman got the nod at right-wing. Up front was former Rangers striker, Nicolas Jelavic, while the powerful Belgian midfielder, Fellaini, started behind him.

Starting Formation

Key Points-

  • Van Persie starts on the bench
  • De Gea keeps the Red Devils in the game with several show stopping saves.
  • Fellaini shows true class, and outmuscles United all over the field.
  • Everton pressures United high up the pitch on defense, causing problems for United as they try to play it out of the back.
  • Rooney & Nani put in a lackluster performance. United’s attack anemic in the final third.



Red Devils problem and standout

Sir Alex Ferguson lined the team in a 4-3-3, but it played closer to a 4-2-1-3 with Kagawa playing in the hole as a ‘number 10’ playmaker. Wayne Rooney led the front line, but he struggled with a poor game. On his left, Danny Welbeck got the start and he played very narrow, frequently staying near the center of the pitch trying to link up with Kagawa and Rooney. With Welbeck playing narrow, it was mostly left to Patrice Evra to get forward and provide any width to United’s attack on the left side. On the right side, Nani started out wide. While the Portuguese winger would try to cut in, he provided much more width on the right side than Welbeck did on the left side. In addition, Antonio Valencia had some success getting forward down the right side to provide crosses into the box.

Midfield Alignment

Shinji Kagawa had a very good first game for his new club. He showed great movement, moving laterally all over the field behind United’s front three. In addition to his quality movement, he had a deft touch and fantastic vision to pick out a defense splitting pass. He tried to link up several times with Wayne Rooney, but the play would often fall apart from a poor touch by Wayne Rooney. For as sharp as Kagawa looked, Wayne Rooney gave a woeful performance. He was off his normal pace, and his first touch was truly lackluster. It’s unknown if he’s sporting a minor injury, or still working off some off-season excesses, but one hopes he gets up to speed with Robin Van Persie lurking in the background.

Shinji Kagawa started in the hole behind Manchester United’s attacking three, and he excelled in that position. He struggled to find space in the middle, but he had great movement to move laterally into space to find the ball. While he looked sharp on the ball, and was able to play some defense splitting passes, the issues with Rooney led to most of his passes going sideways or backwards.

Deeper in the midfield for United was Tom Cleverley, coming off a great Olympics for Team Great Britain, and Paul Scholes, who played as the deepest midfielder. Cleverley put in a decent game overall, but he and Scholes struggled to put their stamp on the game as they were under constant pressure from Everton’s defense.

In addition to some quality passing, Cleverley’s work rate was appreciated on defense even though that isn’t the strongest aspect of his game. In the first 10 minutes of the game, Cleverley was able to pressure Gibson on receiving a pass from Fellaini and cause a turnover. Kagawa picked up the ball and started a quick counter-attack. He slid a perfect through-ball forward for Rooney between Jagielka and Distin. Rooney ran onto the ball, but seemed a bit slow and this allowed Distin to force him out of a shooting position. Rooney eventually passed the ball across the box for Kagawa, but Phil Neville was able to clear it just before the Japanese international could connect with a shot.

Everton press defensively

Defensive pressure up the field like this from United was rare, but Everton applied pressure up the field through most of the game and United struggled playing the ball out from the back. Fellaini and Jelavic were constantly closing down and pressuring the player with the ball on United’s defensive line. This pressure continued through most of the game, and it was successful at times causing United to play long-balls forward that were frequently won by Everton. The success of Everton’s pressure is evident by the fact that they won possession 7 times in United’s attacking third, while United never won possession in Everton’s attacking third.

Defensively, Phil Neville and Darren Gibson played very deep in the central midfield in a ball-winning role for Everton, having very little offensive responsibilities. They stayed very deep, and congested the middle of the field by combining with Jagielka, and Distin, to fill the middle of the penalty box and deny United’s attack any room to play. There was little space for United to play into and it’s evident as Kagawa received most of his passes deeper in the midfield or out wide. This congestion caused all sorts of problems for the Red Devils, as they were either reluctant to put crosses in or unsuccessful at playing the crosses in. Additionally, they seemed to prefer to try and play the ball in through the middle, rather than play in a cross.

The reluctance to play in crosses was puzzling, as they had Rooney, Nani, Welbeck, Kagawa, and often Cleverley moving up near the box. By trying to play the ball in through the middle, there were too many United and Everton players in the same area to allow any openings and the ball was frequently turned over, however, if they would have played crosses in from out wide, this congestion would have worked to Manchester United’s advantage. They attempted 34 crosses in the game, but were only successful with 6 of them.

Fellaini was responsible for pressuring Scholes when he received the ball, and he did a good job at not allowing the 37-year old time on the ball to pick apart Everton’s defense. When Cleverley stayed deep, Fellaini was also responsible for pressuring him on the ball. When both Cleverley and Scholes sat deep, Fellaini had problems shutting them both down but frequently Cleverley would try to step up towards the box and this relieved Fellaini from marking him, as Gibson then took over marking him.

Marouane Fellaini – Midfield Superstar

Everton Player Positions

The standout player of the game was easy for anybody to pick out. Marouane Fellaini had a simply exceptional game, and David Moyes built his attacking game plan entirely around his strength, aerial ability, and positioning. He played behind Jelavic, and he was easily able to outmuscle both United’s midfield and defense. His performance was so dominant that Phil Neville and Darren Gibson played almost no role in the attack. They were there as ball-winning midfielders, and stayed deep to ensure a United counter-attack couldn’t bypass their defense. Instead of playing the ball out of the back through the center, it was most commonly played out to the fullbacks, who would play a high ball (not a route 1 long ball) to Fellaini in the middle of the pitch, and he was constantly able to get up and win the ball. His skills with positioning and strength were such that he was repeatedly able to box out a defender, and play the ball off his chest to his feet where he was then able to play a pass to Pienaar or Jelavic. Note to the left Jelavic and the wingers positioned near Fellaini to retrieve the knockdowns.

Sir Alex Ferguson said after the game, “Fellaini is a handful. He’s a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball towards him all the time. That’s all they did and they worked it from that base. But he got the goal for them so it’s justified.”

A great example of United’s struggles came in the 14th minute. On a throw-in from Baines, Fellaini was able to position himself to block out Valencia. He took the throw-in off his chest, and flicked it past Michael Carrick at the edge of the penalty area. With Carrick half a step behind him, Fellaini took the ball in towards the near post before he tried to chip a shot over David De Gea from a poor angle that bounced off the outside of the goal post.

Fellaini caused multiple problems for United, but Jelavic was fairly quiet up front. The other most dangerous option for Everton came from Steven Pienaar. The newly acquired winger would cut in from the left to pick up knock-down balls or passes from Fellaini and come inside. With Nani’s lax defensive work on the right, right-back Antonio Valencia had serious defensive issues. Tom Cleverley(Purple) was left responsible for covering Pienaar(Purple) when he cut inside and Valencia(Yellow) would stay out wide to deal with Leighton Baines(Yellow).

MUFC Defensive Assignments

Near Misses, Super Saves, and finally a goal

Everton definitely had the best scoring chances during this game. If it wasn’t for some superb saves by Spaniard David De Gea, and hitting the post, Everton could have scored 3 or more goals in this game. In the first half, Steven Pienaar tried to curl a shot in at the far post that required De Gea to sprawl out and deflect past the post.

After De Gea made 3 quality saves in the first half, Manchester United also had a bit of luck on their side at the start of the second half. Hibbert, on one of his few attacking runs forward, plays a cross towards the back post, and Fellaini is able to up and win the duel versus Vidic. He flicked the ball back towards the penalty spot to an unmarked Leon Osman. Osman blasts a volley that bounces off the bottom part of the cross bar, and United is fortunately able to clear.

But the Red Devils luck couldn’t last, and the inevitable happened in the 57th minute from a corner set piece. Gibson delivered the ball, and Fellaini was able to get up past Carrick and powered a header into the net that De Gea had no chance of stopping.

Fellaini’s power in the air, and during set pieces, was evident through the full game and was on display during the 4-4 game last season, but the responsibility of marking him was left to Michael Carrick, instead of Vidic. Vidic was tasked with Phil Jagielka, but Jagielka wasn’t targeted with any set pieces. Carrick is a good defender, but he doesn’t have the strength and aerial ability of the Serbian defender.

Control Possession but no bite

In the first 25 minutes of this match, Manchester United controlled possession 64% to 36%, but Everton was getting the more promising scoring chances. The Red Devils struggled to unlock a very well-disciplined Everton defense in the box, as their only real chances came on the counter-attack. In the 38th minute, Kagawa played another dangerous looking through-ball behind Everton’s defense to Danny Welbeck just at the edge of the 18 yard box. Welbeck took a shot that went just wide of the far post as he was falling from a push by Jagielka.

Another great chance for United came in stoppage time at the end of the first half that would have given United a 1-0 lead. Completely unmarked at the edge of the 6-yard box, Wayne Rooney completely missed a beautiful lofted cross from Shinji Kagawa. It bounced off of Rooney’s shoulder, and Tim Howard was easily able to clear it away.

As the game went on, United continued to control possession. As the game wore on, with Everton leading by a goal, they started to defend a bit deeper and United started to control possession even more. But they struggled to unlock the compact Everton defense, and only 4 passes were completed by Manchester United into the 18 yard box.

Van Persie comes on and a tactical preview?

In the 68th minute, Robin Van Persie came on for Danny Welbeck as the Red Devils hunted for the tying goal. Once Van Persie came on, United’s attack changed a bit in what might be a preview of United’s attack for the rest of the season. They stayed in the same formation, with 3 forwards supported by Shinji Kagawa playing in a playmaking role behind them. There were two central midfielders, Cleverley and Scholes, supporting in a deeper role.

While the formation was similar to what had been played the rest of the game, the attack looked different. In an attack that is reminiscence of the attack in 2008, there was movement between the front three players, as they switched roles and played in each other to try and get into open space. In the remaining 20 minutes of the game, you would see Van Persie playing out on the left, with Rooney in the middle and Young on the right. Than Rooney would go out to the right and Van Persie would come central. Than Young would come left, Van Persie would go right, and Rooney would come back central. This type of attack and movement is similar to what Sir Alex Ferguson used in 2008 with Rooney, Tevez, and Ronaldo, with each player each being able to play all three front attacking positions.

To combine three attacking forwards like this with the abilities of Shinji Kagawa behind them should make any United fan excited, as this level of passing, movement, technical ability and tactical awareness should make the Red Devils a dangerous scoring threat as the season goes along.


Unfortunately, this game was not one of the Red Devils better efforts. Again, they struggled to deal with a tall powerful midfield presence. There can be no doubt that Fellaini was the man of the match, as he had a dominant performance. If not for David De Gea, Everton could have won more decisively. De Gea and Shinji Kagawa were definite standouts for United, while Nani made minimal impact on this game and his lack of defensive work caused problems for Valencia and Cleverley. Additionally, Manchester United’s talisman striker, Wayne Rooney, looked unprepared for league football as he was sloppy with possession, slow with his movement and just didn’t appear to be at his best. For United’s attack to really click this year, it is a pre-requisite that Wayne Rooney is up to his usual caliber.

By Range Rooney

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