Manchester United – Everton: The Yearn for Structure (1-1)

As standard tactical issues grew for Manchester United, Everton’s counterattacking ability left their opponents with a bloody nose. Andros Townsend grabbed his team a deserved equalizer, as another worrying performance loomed over United.

Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker. 

Though there are differences in stature and season aims, these two teams are united in search of structure. Almost a decade on since Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes departed their respective clubs; a once established factor of Man United and Everton’s identity had been stripped away, but more positive signs are ahead.

Man United have the right ingredients, without the chef to create the perfect taste. This is a team that will get results, perhaps build a title charge with the individual quality bestowed upon them, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær needs to offer patterns and construction to his world-class cavalry. BSC Young Boys, Aston Villa, even recent victories to West Ham and Villarreal, are all indicators that this lesson is yet to be learned.

Years of misspending and mismanagement have caught up with Everton. Carlo Ancelotti left the club as he found it, about to face heavy repercussions for poor investments. However, they have appeared to have made one of their more sensible choices to guide the club. So far, Rafa Benítez has brought stability and guidance to a mixed squad. Additions of Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend seemed dull, but both men have surprisingly shone under Everton’s Rafa revival.

Solskjær made five changes, to the team that beat Villarreal 2-1 in midweek. Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw returned to the full-back positions, whilst Fred also came back into the midfield ahead of Paul Pogba. Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani were the two changes in the attack, as they replaced Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo.

With a squad restricted with injuries, Benítez’s only change to his 4-4-1-1 system was enforced. Alex Iwobi missed out, with academy graduate Anthony Gordon starting his first game since December on the left. Everton was without the duo of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the attack.

 United find early routes

From the first few minutes, the game shaped into the state that one would expect. Man United controlled the possession in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, against Everton’s 4-4-1-1 medium-to-low block.

This was a standard passing display from Solskjær’s team, heavily lateral and limited ways in flowing the ball back inside against an organized defensive block. However, Man United were able to find routes down the channels and threatened with crosses towards the back post or switches of play, as Everton faced some structural issues.

Much of this joy came down United’s right side, as Wan-Bissaka and Mason Greenwood often made progression from their carries and flexible positioning, to get into good crossing locations. Gordon was forced into a more central position, due to Allan stepping up to confront either of the double pivot in possession. This created space for either man to receive in space and both player’s created early opportunities, once United had moved the ball out of a central position.

5th minute: Buildup to Martial chance. Man United were able to move the ball smoothly due to Everton’s structural problems when defending the farside. Wan-Bissaka was able to beat Lucas Digne one-versus-one to access a great crossing location.

United’s lateral moves aren’t progressive, but they caused Everton issues because space was available down the farside and they were able to connect because of Wan-Bissaka’s positioning in the deeper halfspace. Scott McTominay aided the attack down this channel, with late runs into the area that wasn’t picked up by Everton defenders, but United didn’t make use of these movements.

Despite these positive routes forward, their forms of shot creation made their attack inadequate. Martial and Cavani both had aerial opportunities, one in which forced a great save out of Jordan Pickford, but there were no other forms of attacking other than these types of crosses into the box.

 Everton’s approach comes into play

After twenty minutes of limited offensive play, Everton’s attacking game plan started to become infused into the match. These came in the form of transitions, something which has been heavily improved since Benítez has taken charge.

Everton constantly found space when turning the ball over as Man United’s attempts to counterpress were uncoordinated and poorly staggered – especially down the left where Townsend or Abdoulaye Doucouré could turn and drive the ball into space.

24th minute: Buildup to Rondón chance. Poor counterpressure from Bruno Fernandes and Fred enabled Townsend to receive and drive the ball into space behind, with Doucouré still free as an option on the right.

When the chance to counter wasn’t available, Everton went direct to combative striker Salomón Rondón. Although he wasn’t mobile to carry the ball, his aerial advantage was a perfect platform for Demarai Gray, whose bursts down either channel was able to get Everton into the box and something that United had no solution for.

Everton’s transitions were successful because they were able to isolate a United center-back with any of one the attacking quartet. With Rondón down both channels, he could drag a center-back with him whilst Townsend, Gordon or Gray could take up positions around him and create a one-versus-one.

These counterattacks become more prominent as the half went on, and there were a number of occasions where Everton produced a cutback towards the farsided winger or a late box run by Doucouré, but getting quality shots away was another matter. Nevertheless, Everton created good openings.

Despite Benítez’s team growing more into the match, Man United drew first blood just before the first half had concluded. Moving the ball from right-to-left, space opened as Doucouré was dragged out of position, whilst Greenwood moved into the space behind. His pass reached Bruno Fernandes in the left halfspace, confronted by Ben Godfrey who had stepped too close to Yerry Mina. As a result, space opened for Martial to curl the ball past Jordan Pickford.

 United’s attack becomes blunter

With a goal in front, one could be forgiven for taking the foot off the gas, but Man United’s lead was hardly secured. The second half saw the worst aspects of United’s attack come to the forefront – unproductive, not progressive and very easy to defend against.

What didn’t help was Everton’s shifting in the defensive block improving. Spacing between the midfield and forwards were closer, whilst Gray’s deeper positioning was able to improve the staggering within the Everton block.

Solskjær brought on both Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo as the half continued, which did not improve the United buildup. Both players could drop into wider positions to receive, whilst Sancho had the one-versus-one advantage over Godfrey at right back, but a team with zero patterns is not able to progress through the lines of an organized defensive set-up.

67th minute: Example of Everton’s improvement in their shifting versus Man United’s problems within their buildup. Wan-Bissaka received and was confronted by Gordon, with Allan and Digne in support.

Once again, United was u-shaped in possession and incapable of creating. Their attack down the right side was not as fruitful as what it was in the first period as Everton had improved their positioning, with Allan more passive and Gordon further out wide, whilst there was more of an onus to flow play down the left. Despite Sancho making some good movements, no option back inside was made available.

 Everton grab their goal

Meanwhile, Everton’s transitions continued to cause United trouble. In the second period, Gray positioned himself higher up the field and put more pressure on the opposition center-backs, with Rondón slightly deeper than his attacking counterpart.

Gray caused massive disruption by roaming into the left flank and forced Victor Lindelöf into the wider channel. Eventually, Everton got their goal with a clinical counterattack. From a United corner, Gray beat Fred to the ball as United defenders were in heavily distorted positions. Doucouré joined the charge unoccupied and encouraged opposition players towards the ball, which created space for Townsend to finish.

From this point onwards, Everton counters were quieter whilst United struggled to break them down, despite Paul Pogba’s introduction. Benítez made things more difficult, as Gordon was replaced by Tom Davies, with Gray switched to the left winger position.

Everton were now more passive in a 4-5-1 formation, the nearest central-midfielder now able to press down the channel, with the support of an extra midfielder behind. Sancho and Ronaldo were only able to get in behind once, as Ronaldo’s run down the left and back inside was left undetected, his shot from an acute angle failed to hit the target. Benítez’s team thought they grabbed a winner late on, from the second phase of a corner, but Yerry Mina was in an offside position.


Standard United issues. The problem under Solskjær is that such issues have been present throughout his time and poor performances have often been overshadowed by good results. If Man United are to be taken as seriously as Liverpool or Chelsea, then they have to establish a much better structure than the one that is present. Two wins in your last six matches is not a good look.

Within the space of a few months, the difference between Ancelotti and Benítez’s Everton is already quite substantial. The presence of actual wingers, a solid defensive block and a flexible attack has equipped Everton to beat pre-season expectations. A tougher fixture list, which awaits, will be more of an indicator of just how far Benítez can take them this campaign.  

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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