Manchester United – Everton: United Make Tough Work Of Everton But Progress To The Fourth Round (3-1)
The third round of the FA Cup began with a big tie between Manchester United and Everton. The scoreline may suggest that this was a relatively routine win for the hosts, but they made life tougher for themselves than it needed to be. In the end, though, they had too much quality for their opponents to handle.
Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.
Erik ten Hag’s time at Manchester United did not get off to the best of starts, but things were well on track now. Heading into this game, they had lost just one of their last sixteen competitive fixtures and won four on the bounce after the World Cup break, so momentum clearly was on their side. Their primary objective for the season must be to maintain their top four spot in the league, but any silverware will obviously be welcomed, and the FA Cup provided a decent shot at that.
Frank Lampard’s first full season in charge at Everton has followed the opposite trajectory so far. After a somewhat positive start to the campaign, they have been in a downward spiral since October. Before the World Cup break, they had just one win in eight matches in all competitions, and that run has only continued. The 1-1 draw with Manchester City last weekend was slightly encouraging, but any optimism it might have generated was quickly quashed by a 4-1 thrashing from Brighton at Goodison Park.
Manchester United named a near-full-strength eleven based on the players they had available. David de Gea started in goal behind a back four of Diogo Dalot, Raphaël Varane, Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia. Casemiro was partnered by Christian Eriksen in midfield with Bruno Fernandes ahead of them, whilst Antony and Marcus Rashford flanked Anthony Martial in attack.
Everton switched back to the 5-3-2 formation they most recently used against United’s local rovals. Jordan Pickford retained his spot between the sticks behind Séamus Coleman, Ben Godfrey, Conor Coady, James Tarkowski and Vitalii Mykolenko. The midfield trio of Alexander Iwobi, Idrissa Gueye and Amadou Onana remained unchanged, whilst Demarai Gray joined Neal Maupay up front.
Everton’s defense gets exposed in transition
Undoubtedly, Lampard’s decision to switch to a back five was taken with defending in mind. His team unsurprisingly saw the minority of possession in the match, so they had to focus on restricting their opponents quite a bit.
In settled defense, they did so fairly well. Their 5-3-2 block stayed quite deep, was compact between the lines and packed out the center. Therefore, the hosts were mostly forced out wide in the final third, where Everton’s wing-backs squared up to the opposition wingers with the wide center-backs behind them for support, whilst the near-side midfielder or Gray tracked United’s fullbacks, who were quite reluctant in getting forward.
However, the visitors’ defensive performance cannot be described as solid. They conceded a good few chances and allowed their opponents to advance in dangerous situations, mostly doing so in defensive transitions.
The reason behind that was the fact that Everton’s three center-backs split pretty wide in possession to allow the wing-backs to push forward. Therefore, they committed a lot of numbers forward, but each member of the back three seemed reluctant to advance beyond halfway since they had a pace deficit against United’s forwards.
Counterproductively, this only made them more vulnerable to transitions as there were big spaces left between the lines after turnovers. This issue proved quite costly very early on, as the opening goal originated after a turnover where Martial received a forward pass from Casemiro with his back to goal, wriggled away from a couple of center-backs on his back, had time and space to carry the ball across before playing in Rashford, who then provided the assist.
4th minute: After a turnover, Anthony Martial receives a pass, carries the ball across and feeds Rashford in the buildup to Manchester United’s opening goal
Everton get back in the game thanks to De Gea and improved buildups
Things were looking rather bleak for Everton after conceding so early. Not only were they conceding transitions when attacking, they seemed to struggle to get past Manchester United’s high block too and gave away a few dangerous turnovers, which again led to defensive transitions. Therefore, they found themselves either defending in a settled block or defending in transition.
How they could possibly score an equalizer was a huge question, but David de Gea had the answer to it. The Spanish goalkeeper stood and did precisely nothing as a near-post cross squeezed through his legs and went in front of an open goal, where Conor Coady was at hand to turn it in having stayed up during the second phase of a set-piece.
Soon thereafter, Everton seemed to find a fix to their buildup issues too. Around the 21st minute, when one of his teammates was receiving treatment on the pitch, Tarkowski went across to Lampard and seemed to discuss the buildup phase (there were clear hand gestures of long balls and width). Immediately thereafter, Everton started to play out from the back much better.
Their plan was quite simple. Manchester United’s high block was centred around player-marking, as the front three tracked each of the opposition center-backs, whilst the three midfielders followed their opposite numbers. Therefore, Everton’s back three split very wide in the buildup phase too to pull United’s attackers apart, which meant that Pickford (the free man) would have time on the ball. His task was to go long, which was helped by Onana pulling Casemiro forward, whilst Iwobi pushed up and fancied himself in aerial duels against Eriksen.
25th minute: Jordan Pickford, with time on the ball, picks out Alexander Iwobi, who contests the aerial duel which leads to Demarai Gray picking up the second ball.
In this way, Everton were able to construct attacks or, at the very least, lose the ball to United’s defenders in their own half rather than doing so in much more dangerous areas. So, they performed a lot better from this point onwards, although their attacking threat remained very limited.
United make closing out the game hard for themselves
For all their good work in settled defense, Everton always remained susceptible to being undone by a moment of individual quality given how deep their defensive block sank. That is exactly what led to the second goal, as Rashford turned Coleman inside and out before getting to the byline and flashing a dangerous ball across goal, which was turned in by Coady.
Marcus Rashford forces an own goal from Conor Coady.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 6, 2023
He's playing on another level right now 👏 pic.twitter.com/EOLEtnpowz
As aforementioned, whilst Everton did improve a little defensively over the course of the game, their attacking output remained woeful. Therefore, it seemed United could cruise to a victory again even if they didn’t add a third goal to cushion their lead. Once again, though, they decided to make life hard for themselves.
In the 74th minute, Everton put the ball in the back of the net after a nice move from back to front, but the goal was ruled out for offside. Immediately after that, Ten Hag introduced Lisandro Martínez for Tyrell Malacia and switched to a back five. Now, whilst having an extra player in the back line theoretically makes a team stronger defensively by virtue of having more defenders, that is not necessarily the case in practise since the players are likely not used to playing in a different system unless pre-planned.
So, the ending to the match was a lot tenser than what Manchester United would have liked. But, they did manage to keep their lead safe until the last minute of stoppage time, when a penalty converted by Rashford sealed the result for good.
This was a decent but totally unspectacular performance from Manchester United. It was a six out of ten in all departments as individuals greatly influenced the match at both ends of the pitch – Rashford with his attacking brilliance, and De Gea with his goalkeeping howler. Of course, the most important thing in a cup tie is the result, which deservedly went their way.
Everton certainly looked a lot better here than they did against Brighton in midweek, but that can be attributed to their conservative approach and switch to a back five. The major questions about chance creation remain unanswered or perhaps even compounded if the injury Iwobi suffered in this match keeps him out for a while. Whilst their settled defense in the back five was good enough to keep United at bay for the most part, it should be said that they were not fully tested, and such an approach will not suit big matches against fellow relegation-battlers.