I could write 5,000 words on tactics and use 50 different graphics, but it wouldn't get completely to the heart of what caused Everton to fall emphatically at Goodison Park on Saturday.
Tactics won't explain how Phil Jagielka put forward his worst performance of the season. Tactics aren't the reason Seamus Coleman looked very much like a player who has missed significant time due to injury this season. There wasn't much tactical about how Gareth Barry and James McCarthy got bossed by Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the center of midfield.
Make no mistake about it, Manchester United was the better team by a wide margin on Saturday. David De Gea looked every bit like the goalkeeper Real Madrid wanted so badly. Anthony Martial continued to show why his seemingly ludicrous price tag might not be so ridiculous after all. Chris Smalling put in a dominating performance at the heart of United's defense.
The fact that United have a more talented side than Everton should not be particularly disconcerting to Everton supporters. A loss to a United side which has been among the league's best this season would not have been too saddening, if the Toffees had been able to stay close with the Red Devils from the start of the match.
But, perhaps the most concerning aspect of the 3-0 loss was the fact that once again, Everton got off to an incredibly slow start, in which the players were always going to struggle to create chances.
This happened against West Bromwich Albion, but the Toffees had enough talent to overcome a slow start against a lesser side.
It happened again against Liverpool, who lacked the incisive edge to make Everton pay in the early going.
This weekend, the Toffees couldn't get away with another slow, confused start against a club with legitimate title aspirations. With slow starts now officially turning into a trend, let's dive into exactly what the issue has been for Everton over the last three matches.
As always, let's start with Everton's starting lineup.
Seamus Coleman and John Stones both returned from injury, while Aaron Lennon replaced Gerard Deulofeu on the right wing.
Before I dive into what's gone wrong from an Everton perspective, I have to give credit to Louis van Gaal and the way he set up his team.
Van Gaal utilized a variation of a 4-2-3-1, with Martial coming out on the left side. Using the 4-2-3-1, rather than the 4-4-1-1 with Wayne Rooney as the no. 10, helped utilize the strengths of multiple players.
Martial was able to use his speed in his wide starting position, Rooney could play in his preferred role as a true striker, and Ander Herrera was given a freer role in the center of midfield. Martial's speed helped create United's second goal, Rooney found United's third goal from his position as a true striker, and Herrera was a constant threat from his roaming midfield position.
In addition to playing to the strength's of his attacking players, van Gaal's tactical shift caught Everton off-guard and played a role in the Toffees' slow start.
But, Everton's struggles had just as much to do with their own issues.
Once again, Everton started with an out of position striker at left midfield, which they have proven can be an effective tactic if utilized correctly. But, the Toffees did not do so.
In an ideal world, Everton would have created most of its attacks down the right wing, particularly with Coleman back in the lineup. Lennon and Coleman have the ability to stretch the pitch with their pace, forcing defenders either to give them space out wide or to leave space in the middle to close them down.
With Steven Naismith pinching in from the left, Lennon and/or Coleman would have two options to cross into the box to, and Barkley potentially in space at the top of the box.
In the second half comeback against West Brom, this worked to perfection. On the Toffees' first goal, they got the ball into Gerard Deulofeu on the right early.
Deulofeu is in tons of space because of how wide his starting position is. Naismith and Lukaku are both available for crosses in the center, and Deulofeu, with time to work, picks out the big Belgian with a perfect cross.
On the second goal, Deulofeu starts in an almost identical position, but the West Brom defenders have adjusted to his presence.
Deulofeu stretches the back-line, and there is plenty of space to get the ball to Lukaku on the ground. One pass later, Arouna Kone is in behind the defense and scores the equalizing goal.
In the first half hour of the match against Manchester United, Everton failed to replicate these kinds of attacks.
Instead, most of the attacks came from the left, leading to what you see below.
Because Naismith constantly came inside, Ross Barkley often drifted out to the left. We saw some of Barkley as a left midfielder last season while he was struggling, and he did not do particularly well there. It was an understandable move from Roberto Martinez, as the young Englishman was not playing well enough to displace Naismith in the no. 10 role.
However, Barkley has been an absolute diamond in the center of midfield this season, and he simply must be allowed to operate at the center of the pitch. When attacks come down the left though, we often see him here:
Barkley operates best in tight spaces, not situations where he needs to be taking players on 1-on-1. We don't ever want to see Barkley in this position. Yet, that was the story for Barkley, both in the first half hour and in the game as a whole. His heatmaps from the opening 30 minutes and the entire match are below, courtesy of EvertonFC.com
Additionally, Brendan Galloway is the one making a run here. While I praised Galloway last week, he still is nowhere near as dangerous in the attacking third as Coleman, yet another reason attacks should be coming down the right.
Meanwhile, I received nearly as many passes on the right wing as Aaron Lennon did in the first half hour of the match on Saturday. The graphic below, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com, displays this clearly.
Five passes. Lennon received five passes in the first 30 minutes of a home match. That simply cannot happen if Everton wants to win matches. But, with the attacks coming primarily from the left, Lennon was totally isolated down the right.
The story wasn't much better for Seamus Coleman.
Coleman only got the ball in the attacking third four times, two of which were short passes that didn't stretch the defense in any meaningful way.
It was not the case that Everton simply never got the ball forward in that period, as Steven Naismith saw plenty of the ball on the left in the opening half hour.
As a team, the attack became completely one-dimensional in the first 30 minutes, as the team's heatmap shows.
There simply is no Everton possession down the right in the first third of the game.
This was not the first time the Toffees truly punished for not creating chances down the right and constantly turning the ball over down the left.
Against West Brom, who had a 2-0 lead on Everton at one point in the match, Gerard Deulofeu faced the same problems as Lennon did Saturday. His passes received in the first half hour of that match are displayed below.
Against Liverpool, who jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the story was the same. Deulofeu's heatmap for that entire match is displayed below.
Everton's inability to control the ball and create chances as a result of this issue cost them dearly against Manchester United, who scored twice before the Toffees managed to get anything going offensively.
Martinez needs to find a solution this problem. The encouraging thing is that his side has certainly proven it can create chances down the right, as we saw against West Brom, through the middle, as we saw against Liverpool, and even via the long ball at times.
Martinez's duty, then, is two-fold. First, he must reiterate to his side that if Naismith or Kone is playing on the left, the brunt of the attacks should be generated on the right.
Second, and equally important, he must instill the ability to adjust on the fly in his players. Against Liverpool, neither wing was a particularly fruitful avenue for building attacks, so James McCarthy and Ross Barkley became the team's primary playmakers. The duo had so much success that the Toffees were a little unlucky not to find a winner.
With a match against Arsenal up next, Everton must be prepared to create chances and hold possession effectively from the start of the match, otherwise we may see a repeat of the horror show at Goodison.