David Moyes’ return to Goodison Park for the first time as manager of Manchester United ended up being the match in which his side was officially eliminated from the possibility of a top four finish and Champions League football next season. There was practically no hope that a top four finish could be achieved anyway, but it is ironic it became official against his old side, Everton. An Everton team that stepped onto the pitch knowing they needed three points to stay within a point of Arsenal, their race for the top four and the potential of European nights on the blue side of Liverpool very much still alive under the guidance of Roberto Martinez.
After stumbling in their last match against Crystal Palace, Everton handed control of fourth spot back to Arsenal, who kept control in a match that ended just before this one with a comfortable 3-0 over Hull City. Manchester United also would have been aware that Tottenham had pulled six points clear of United in sixth position as both teams are looking to salvage disappointing campaigns with a berth in next season’s Europa League.
Moyes selected his 51st different side in his 51st match in charge of United, a 4-2-3-1 with Rooney leading the attack with Juan Mata in behind and supported on the wings by Nani and Kagawa, with Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher sitting in front of a back four featuring Alexander Buttner at leftback, Chris Smalling as the rightback and Phil Jones and Jonny Evans the central defensive pair.
Roberto Martinez in keeping up with his Liverpool counterpart, Brendan Rodgers, had a tactical surprise of his own to spring, choosing to play both Romelu Lukaku and Steven Naismith up top in a 4-4-2. The ever present central pairing of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry was flanked by Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas. The back four once again saw John Stones selected along with the usual suspects at the back for Everton.
The opening fifteen minutes very quickly revealed how almost the entire match would play out for both sides. United had a large chunk of the possession and both Kagawa from the left and Nani from the right would frequently drift inside leaving the fullbacks as the only ones to provide width to their build up and attacking play. This approach played directly into the hands of both the Everton defence and provided them with a way to counter attack.
The most glaring problem was the combination of Buttner and Kagawa on United’s left flank, Kagawa likes to get on the ball in central positions and Buttner is more than willing to get forward and support the build up. When Kagawa moved centrally Everton’s rightback, Seamus Coleman and right mid, Mirallas, only needed to contend with Buttner who was constantly pushing in advance of Mirallas. When Everton regained possession Mirallas and Coleman would both break past Buttner and Lukaku frequently positioned himself wide on this side as well and they were easily able to overload the space in behind Buttner.
On United’s right side, Chris Smalling was much less willing to come forward, which kept Everton from breaking through Barkley at left mid and Baines at leftback but it also left Nani isolated and ineffective when he tried to provide width as both Baines and Barkley were able to double up on him with Smalling hesitant to overlap. This left Nani also drifting inside and coupled with Kagawa doing the same on the opposite side and Rooney and Mata dropping deep off Everton’s backline, United were extremely narrow in Everton’s half. They had plenty of possession, especially in the first half, but with no one looking to make runs in behind or stretch the play, Everton defended very comfortable for long stretches.
Aside from breaking down United’s left, Everton also looked long to Lukaku and Naismith frequently. In the twenty-third minute Everton took a free kick around the midfield line and went directly for Lukaku, who knocked down the long pass for Naismith who was in plenty of space for a shot, which he put well over the bar. Only four minutes after this, Everton again played long to Lukaku and him and Naismith attacked United on their own, which ended with a shot from Lukaku adjudged to have been blocked by Phil Jones’ hand in the area. Baines converted the penalty and Everton had the lead.
In the thirty-sixth minute, Everton broke through Naismith who fed Coleman advancing free down United’s left who crossed and narrowly missed finding Lukaku in front of goal. That combination of Naismith playing it wide to Coleman produced Everton’s second goal in the forty-third minute. Coleman was easily beyond Kagawa and Mirallas made a run through United’s back line from a central position before Coleman slipped a through ball into him and Mirallas put Everton up, 2-0. Buttner made two crucial mistakes for the goal, by following Lukaku out wide beyond United’s area, he provided the gap for Coleman to pass to Mirallas. He had also dropped deeper than his centre-back pairing which allowed Mirallas to run beyond them but still stay onside and get free in behind.
Coleman was vital in the first half, receiving possession twenty times and completing fifteen of sixteen passes. While Buttner would wind up completing 38 of 42 passes, none of his passes from out wide found a player inside Everton’s area and just one of his six crosses found a United player. Most of his passes were short, square or backwards, and in a narrow band of the pitch out wide. His advanced positioning offered a glaring defensive gap and didn’t provide anything going forward as a return on that gamble.
At half-time, United had 66% possession, completed 110 passes in Everton’s defensive third and only produced one attempt on goal. The only trouble caused to Tim Howard came from an inadvertent attempt on goal, straight at him, from a corner, off the back of one of his own players. Despite all that was going wrong for United and the scoreline, Everton were the ones making a change, as Antolin Alcaraz came on for Distin, who had picked up a knock. United did manage an early shot on target from Kagawa from a set piece and Rooney was able to get in behind in a 1v1 with John Stones but Kagawa’s shot was easily saved and Rooney took too long to try and create a shot and instead came away with nothing.
On sixty-one minutes, Moyes made a move to try and shake things up, bringing on Chicharito and Antonio Valencia for Nani and Evans. The move for Chicharito made perfect sense, he would be more willing than Rooney or Mata to stay on the shoulders of Everton’s defenders and look to get in behind and cause problems. Shortly after coming on he dribbled around the edge of the area, dancing away from a few Everton defenders and found Fletcher free at the top of the area, only for Fletcher to shoot well wide of goal. It was also Chicharito who found Rooney making a run that got him beyond the Everton back-line, had McCarthy beat for pace, and left Rooney 1v1 with Howard whose fantastic save sent Rooney’s shot and United’s best chance of the match, over the bar.
Moyes other change made little sense, as Valencia went to right-back, Smalling moved to centre-back and Mata moved out to right mid to accommodate Rooney and Chicharito playing centrally. United defended in a 4-4-2 but Mata was still going to drift centrally in possession and leave Valencia alone on the right flank. Moyes was hoping that Valencia would get further forward than Smalling had done from right-back and provide width to the attack. But wouldn’t that have been inviting Everton to counter down that side in the exact same manner that they had already countered effectively, for the same reasons, on the opposite flank?
United continued to pack the central areas in possession and with the constant presence of McCarthy and Gareth Barry sitting to protect the back four this was not the area of the pitch United were going to find a way through. Adnan Januzaj was on the United bench, wouldn’t he have made more sense to come on and try to stretch Everton out and then create the possibility for one of the fullbacks to overlap? United’s final change saw Welbeck come on for Kagawa in the seventy-fifth minute and he went up top with Chicharito and now Rooney pushed out to left mid. It is interesting Moyes would finish the game with neither Rooney or Mata’s base position being in a central area, as they were always going to come central to get on the ball and when they did, they allowed Everton’s wide players to tighten up and crowd out the space they were coming central to look for in the first place.
The second half carried on with Everton slowly becoming more willing to pressure United higher and higher up the pitch and keep a higher line, a style they are familiar playing in. On one of the rare occasions they may have been troubled, Mata looked long to Chicharito, as Everton were high up the pitch and exposed a great deal of space in behind but Stones recognised that he was playing him on and Mata was about to pass and crucially stepped forward just enough so that Chicharito’s attempt to curl an onside run failed and he was hung offside in a moment of quick thinking from the young centre-back.
Everton continued to counter effectively well into the second half, and on seventy-seven minutes Mirallas was free once again in space on the right and crossed for Naismith who couldn’t get good control on a miss hit shot. Two minutes later, Rooney dribbled himself into a hopeless situation surrounded by three Everton defenders, lost possession, Everton countered 4v3 and Naismith’s chance missed and failed to kill off the game. Again, the left of United was an outlet for an Everton chance on eighty-one minutes, a square cross into Everton’s area from Buttner was blocked and a counter attack through Coleman ended with a shot from Lukaku blocked and out for a corner.
Everton looked the more likely to score from the first minute to the last and never had to change their approach, the options on the counter were always present for them and when they took those options they were not exposing themselves, they were never forced to gamble at any time during the course of the match. They were also not asked to change their defensive approach either, Moyes made changes to his side, yes, but he did not make changes to try and pull Everton apart or broaden the attack or quicken the pace. Every change of personnel and shape still left them far too narrow.
Credit should be given to Martinez for the initial way in which he set his squad out to play but Moyes never did anything to attempt to change the course of the match and in the end, it didn’t. It was always going to be Everton’s day the way things looked from the onset and for the first time at Goodison Park, that wasn’t what David Moyes would have wanted.