Although this has traditionally been a fruitful fixture for Manchester United, recent results against Everton meant that there was heightened interest in Sunday’s clash. After a 4-4 draw at the back-end of last season and a 1-0 Everton victory at Goodison Park on the first day of this campaign, Sir Alex Ferguson would have been hoping to put those results behind him and, following Manchester City’s defeat to Southampton, open up a 12 point lead at the top of the table.
The league is not United’s only priority, however. With the first leg of their Champions League tie with Real Madrid on Wednesday, it was interesting to see which players, if any, Ferguson would rest. The Scotsman actually named a surprisingly strong team, but the inclusion of Ryan Giggs, Antonio Valencia and Phil Jones meant that the likes of Michael Carrick and Danny Welbeck were spared. Up front, the in-form Wayne Rooney started along-side the league’s top goalscorer, Robin Van Persie, in what is fast becoming one of the deadliest strike partnerships of recent years.
For Everton, David Moyes named an expected side, with Victor Anichebe retaining his place up front following his excellent run of form and Sylvain Distin partnering Phil Jagielka at centre-back. Elsewhere, Phil Nevile started at right-back in place of Seamus Coleman, so Darron Gibson and Leon Osman were given the central midfield berths. Calamity struck, though, and an injury to Distin in the warm-up meant that John Heitinga replaced him at late notice. Heitinga was brutalised by Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke last weekend, so Moyes would have been praying the Dutchman would be produce a more solid performance against Rooney and Van Persie…
Within minutes of kick-off it was clear that Phil Jones had been tasked with dealing with the threat of Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian had caused much damage in the previous two games against United and Ferguson was understandably wary of the danger he posed. Jones was essentially given a man-marking job, something you rarely see nowadays. It was an interesting tactical move and although Fellaini was kept quite quiet and United were 2-0 up by half-time, it didn’t really work. That’s what made this half so fascinating; United were the inferior side for much of the opening 45 minutes but were simply more clinical than Everton.
That said, Everton have only got themselves to blame for the goals they conceded. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the finger of blame must be pointed at poor John Heitinga for the first. The Dutchman was too weak and Van Persie was able to nip in front of him and find Giggs, who slotted home for his first goal of the season. 1-0.
Everton were looking dangerous, though. The problem for United was the way they had set up to deal with Fellaini. With Jones literally following him all over the pitch, huge gaps were appearing in the centre of midfield. As Fellaini pulled out wide, Cleverley was left isolated in the middle and Osman and Pienaar were able to simply stroll into dangerous areas in the United half. Pienaar was beginning to pull the strings in midfield and Osman had three efforts on goal in a short space of time. This, combined with the fact that Patrice Evra seems to have forgotten that he is in fact a defender, meant that the triumvirate of Mirallas, Pienaar and Osman were having increasingly influential roles.
The Toffees were dominating and nothing was more emblematic of this than a moment about half an hour in when Van Persie failed to hold the ball up and gave it away cheaply to Gibson, who then launched it to Anichebe. Where Van Persie tried a fancy flick, Anichebe simply held Evans off, controlled the ball and played it off to a team-mate.
Something had to change. Mirallas was afforded acres of space by Evra and he and Neville were combining well down that right-hand side, with Giggs struggling to press and close them down. For this reason, Ferguson switched the Welshman with Rooney. With Rooney left and Giggs central, United looked more solid defensively, but also struggled to break clear and get a hold on the game.
However, despite their dominance, Everton were unable to equalise and when the opposition have someone as clinical as Robin Van Persie in their team, you simply cannot afford to switch off at the back, no matter how well you are playing. The Everton defence had already been warned that the Dutchman would be willing to run in behind them when he rounded Howard and hit the post early on but they repeated their mistake just before half-time. Stepping far too high up, Van Persie had the simplest of tasks of tapping into the empty net after going round Howard again following a simple through ball from Rafael. They had pushed up dangerously high and with Van Persie about, this will inevitably result in a goal being scored. 2-0. Half-time.
The second half was disappointing for Everton, the neutral, and guys writing tactical reports. Having secured their 2-goal advantage, United were happy to keep the ball and see the game out as efficiently as possible. They pressed quickly and tried to circulate the ball around the defence and the midfield to not allow Everton to gain any momentum. United minds were undoubtedly on their trip to Madrid on Wednesday but it was interesting that Ferguson still felt the need to turn to Michael Carrick to help see the game out. Carrick came on for Jones, and Operaion Man-Mark Fellaini was abandoned. At this point, however, the Belgian had grown frustrated with his lack of influence on proceedings and had dropped deeper and deeper.
With Carrick on and their midfield solidified, United were able to stroke the ball about with ease. This was not helped by an injury to Victor Anichebe, who was replaced by the off-form Nikica Jelavic. Jelavic is known for his astounding finishing ability – not his hold-up play – and what Everton really needed was for someone to get the ball down and feed the midfield runners, like they were doing so well in the first half.
It was not to be. The threat of the Everton midfield was completely nullified and the tempo dropped to a disparagingly low rate. The best chances of the half came from set-pieces, with the excellent Jonny Evans coming closest in a classic goalmouth scramble.
Despite hardly getting the ball, Fellaini was once again the greatest danger to United’s defence, although this time it was indirectly. As he dragged Jones away from central midfield, the pitch was opened up for Pienaar and Osman, and they were able to get the dangerous Mirallas on the ball. For this reason, Everton were the better side in the first half. However, no matter how well you play, you can’t afford any defensive errors against Robin Van Persie. The ex-Arsenal man nicked the ball off Heitinga to set up Giggs’ goal and capitalised upon an erroneously high line to score the second and finish the game. The introduction of Carrick helped United control the second half and Everton, without Anichebe for a considerable chunk of the half, were unable to muster any sort of momentum. In all, Ferguson will be delighted with the result and the fact that his key players won’t be too tired for Wednesday. On the other hand, it would be a surprise to see him try to man-mark Fellaini again without a third centre-midfielder.
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