"Vida, YOU mark the big Belgian on set-pieces!"
To be completely forthcoming, it's highly unlikely that I'll be able to provide the same sort of tactical analysis that I attempted to offer on this site over the past season-and-a-half due to current commitments and time constraints. For nearly every league and Champions League match during the 2011/12 season, that typically meant a second viewing for me -- one that usually had me in a calmer state in comparison to the initial one -- so that I could try to capture more detail or cover talking points that the managers had discussed in their post-match interviews. I'll still be able to do this at times this upcoming season but whenever Michael Cox (AKA Zonal Marking) or Jonathan Wilson -- my two main football writing inspirations -- offer up their own analysis on a particular Manchester United match, I'll likely refer you to them and try to offer up some other things that I felt were important. So before I go into five particular talking points that I felt were tactically important or interesting from Monday night's defeat by Everton, I suggest you first read these pieces by Cox and Wilson:
* 'Everton 1-0 Manchester United: Fellaini dominates in the air' - Cox: As you might expect, this piece does well to explain how Marouane Fellaini was the key man in this match.
* 'Ferguson showcases a 4-2-1-3 against Everton' - Cox: A discussion on what he calls United's 4-2-1-3 system versus Everton
* 'Injuries hurting, but Man Utd failed to address its most pressing need' - Wilson: This quotes starts off his piece: "I asked for a sofa, and they bought me a lamp shade." I've expressed similar concern for United's need for a more combative force in central-midfield.
1. Baines -> Fellaini -> Pienaar -> Jelavic/Osman: Cox explained this very well but this is simply a slightly further elaboration on how Fellaini was used as the fulcrum of Everton's attack. Whenever David Moyes' side was building an attack from the back, they frequently sent a long-ball -- or perhaps more accurately when the passing range was shorter, a 'high ball' -- to Fellaini. As Cox points out, the most frequent passing combination was Leighton Baines to Fellaini followed by Fellaini to Steven Pienaar. Baines was very aggressive with his willingness to get forward -- perhaps this is why Sylvain Distin was perferred to Johnny Heitinga as the left-central-defender because the former has more pace to cover for Baines -- and he looked to be the chief orchestrator from deep for Everton. The central-midfielders -- Darron Gibson and Phil Neville -- were often bypassed.
A typical attempted move was this (see diagram below for visual detail):
* Nikica Jelavic darts high and right and occupies Nemanja Vidic.
* Fellaini occupies Michael Carrick's zone (or Paul Scholes' or Tom Cleverley's if the big-haired man was deeper) and looks for a lofted ball from Baines.
* Pienaar cuts inside and looks to win the second ball or collect a well-controlled chested down ball from Fellaini.
* From here, Pienaar is able to either look for a clever reverse pass for a Jelavic run or find Osman racing towards the edge of the box from a right-sided attacking position after a Jelavic run clears space for him.
* The solid arrows indicates off-the-ball movement while a dotted arrow indicates a pass.
2. Everton sets the tone early with aggressive pressing and physicality: It was certainly a lively crowd at Goodison and perhaps in an attempt to feed off this anticipated energy, and the obvious intent by United to control possession after a quick glance at their starting XI, Moyes instructed his side to press with intent at the game's beginning. This tactic certainly set the tone in the match as the first ten minutes were essentially characterized by United being unsettled due to Everton closing down and compacting the deep spaces that Scholes, Cleverley, Carrick, and Vidic were occupying. Scholes in particular was sandwiched by either Gibson or Neville in front of him and Fellaini in behind him. At one point in the second half, EPL Index's Twitter account revealed that Everton had won the ball back seven times in their attacking third while United had done so zero times in their own. Perhaps frustrated by this, the ginger maestro attempted a few rash challenges and picked up an early booking.
The result of this was United's early failure to keep the ball enough and quite often, their early relief from pressure was a ball hoofed up to one of the front four players. Everton's back four had little trouble dealing this in the early going -- with the exception of Nani peeling off Baines in the opening minutes (which Distin's pace allowed him to cover for) -- and from here, they themselves simply pumped the ball long and looked to win a second ball in the attacking third. The difference was that this was a comfortable game-plan for them. From here, one of their creative attackers -- Pienaar or Osman -- looked to get the ball in dangerous positions and create chances near the box.
3. United eventually gain some control of the match: The lads in tartan red did eventually settle into this match as evidenced by their 69% possession. The home side simply couldn't keep up their frantic pressing for an entire half and Moyes' base tactic was likely to stay organized with two compact banks of four anyway while defending. Gibson and Neville were high up the pitch in the early going and whenever United gained the ball back, Shinji Kagawa was cleverly finding space in behind them to ignite counter-attacks. A few beautiful through balls by United's new playmaker sent notice that Everton were vulnerable if they kept this up.
Eventually Gibson and Neville began to back off a bit and this allowed time on the ball for Scholes and Cleverley. The United passers moved the ball around well and began to slow down the tempo -- while actually still moving the ball around quickly (*) -- of the match and this benefited United. Because they were controlling the middle third of the pitch, they had control of the match. But they certainly weren't the better side because Everton was more threatening in their attacking third in comparison to United (Everton's effectiveness is discussed in point #1).
(*) This isn't as contradictory as it might sound. Rather than frantic and frenetic long balls being sent because high pressure forced continual difficulty in executing short passes, quick short passes were eventually completed and this controlled tempo was more suited to United's comfort level.
For the majority of the match, Everton defended with solid organization and the gaps were few for United in the attacking third. Scholes and Cleverley did decently well to quickly supply the attackers but it was most of the front four that failed United. As previously mentioned, Kagawa was consistently dangerous and he sent a few tremendous through balls that Danny Welbeck or Wayne Rooney failed to do anything meaningful with (not Kagawa's fault!). In addition, the movement, touch, and decision-making from Rooney was simply disappointing in this match. Furthermore, Nani was simply horrific with his supply from out wide. Antonio Valencia's marauding runs down the right flank from his full-back position failed to provide incisiveness from out wide either. United needed to use effective width in order to help open up a deep-defending and compact Everton side. However, their 6 successful crosses from an attempted 34 shows how woeful they were at this method of attack.
4. United's 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 shape: Cox described United's system as 4-2-1-3 in this match but the base system was likely to be 4-2-3-1 (I think). The differences are very subtle anyway. In the early going, Welbeck and Nani were certainly tracking back and they were level, or behind Kagawa. Perhaps 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1ish was certainly the shape when United were out of possession. Because United had long dominant spells of possession, and because Neville's and Gibson's closeness to their back four caused Kagawa to drop in front of them in search of space to receive in, the resulting shape when United were in possession was 4-2-1-3 for much of the match. Kagawa's understanding of space is tremendous (also based on his Borussia Dortmund days) and he did well to adjust to adjust to the positioning of Neville/Gibson.
Perhaps this will be United's 'big game' shape this season. Kagawa certainly played deeper in comparison to Rooney in United's recent 4-4-1-1ish system but he played higher than the most advanced midfielder in United's recent 4-3-3/4-5-1 system. The difference is Kagawa being a number 10 versus someone like Ryan Giggs/Park Ji-sung/Anderson being a driving midfielder with late-arriving runs. These two systems by United were certainly different in recent seasons but they did have the common trait of having the 4-3-3/4-5-1's midfield trio rotated from a normal 4-3-3 system (one holding player with two advanced midfielders ahead)-- meaning that the 4-4-1-1ish system and 4-3-3/4-5-1 system both had two relatively deep central-midfielders. This 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 system might be an evolution of Sir Alex Ferguson's past preferences and of his recent more cautious and counter-attacking approach when in the 4-3-3/4-5-1 shape. It's certainly worth watching in the upcoming months.
5. United's marking on set-pieces: The big concern during and after the match from many United fans was Carrick, and not Vida, marking Fellaini on set-pieces. Mine too. And yes, United do usually man-mark on corners. I mentioned the perils of man-marking on set-pieces when Vincent Kompany crushed us in the title-decider.
I haven't gotten the chance to re-watch the match for a second viewing but I did go over some of the Everton corners. Yes, it was mostly man-marking with a player on the far-post. Yes, Everton tried to crowd David de Gea again and Vidic often picked up at that front player. Yes, no one was ever marking the near-post.
Here were your typical match-ups: Carrick on Fellaini, Vida on Phil Jagielka, Valencia on Jelavic, and Rooney on Distin. Everton winning 1-0 in a tightly-contested match on a corner is highly understandable if you didn't even watch the match but knew set-piece match-ups.
No, I have no idea why Vida wasn't on Fellaini.