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Changes needed as another test awaits

Everton’s sputtering attack gets set to take on another solid defense

Manchester United FC v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa League Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images

On Sunday, Everton were totally outclassed by a side that could reasonably seen as their equal. This weekend they face a team who, on paper, are a cut above. Manchester United may have looked ineffectual or uninspired at various points this season, but on the whole they have posted some decent numbers, displayed some decent football, and indeed now sit a point ahead of Everton in the table. They come into this fixture with 5 draws, a win, and a loss in their last 7 league matches.

Manchester United overview

Last season under Louis van Gaal, United played incredibly restricted football. Their defensive numbers (shots, shots on target, goals, expected goals) were all top-4 quality, but they were mid-to-lower table in the same metrics on the attacking side. LVG imposed structure and organization, sadly at the expense of creativity. José Mourinho isn’t exactly a manager known for his free-flowing aesthetic philosophy, but he has brought a certain cutting edge to the United front line. They’ve sacrificed little defensively in terms of their numbers but the offense has improved markedly thus far:

I wouldn’t quite call United a title contender (what does that really mean in November anyway?) but they have quietly been pretty good this season. While certain results (0-4 at Chelsea) remain unacceptable from a United perspective, the early signs are that Mourinho has injected a bit of urgency into a side that desperately lacked it under van Gaal:

Tactics

Much has been said and written about Mourinho the tactician that needn’t be explored here. For our purposes it’s worth noting that with United he has mostly played with a 4-2-3-1, with the one exception being the 4-3-3 he rolled out against Arsenal. The back four and double pivot tend to be quite structured and disciplined in their positioning and movement. With the ball, their job is to circulate possession, probe for holes in the defense, and find the front 4 with a pass. Without the ball, they usually employ a zonal marking scheme (with a few exceptions) wherein the goal is to remain compact and restrict space in central areas.

The front 4 tend to be a little less structured, and instead will roam the channels, using lateral movement to drag defenders out of position and create space. This is not unlike what I described with Southampton last week, but with slightly different numbers (4-2-3-1 vs Saints’ 4-3-3).

Putting it together, you usually get something like this:

As is common with a 4-2-3-1, the fullbacks provide most of the consistent width, and the wingers are allowed to drift inside when the situation calls for it. Here’s what a typical buildup can look like:

At this point, one of the front 4 will likely drop between the lines while another or two run in behind. From here it’s up to one of the CMs (Paul Pogba or Ander Herrerra in this case) to either move the ball short or perhaps ping one over the top.

None of this is exactly groundbreaking, but as I said it’s been pretty effective going forward this season compared to Louis van Gaal’s system. For me the intriguing aspect of Mourinho’s tactics is his adaptability. Looking at certain stylistic metrics, such as possession, cross emphasis, or long ball emphasis, on a game-by-game basis, one is struck by how United have changed strategies so often this season.

This is not a new thing for José—much has been made over the years about his often-stifling tactics in big game scenarios, but it goes beyond just trying to nick points away from home or frustrate opponents for the sake of it. For such a high profile manager, it’s interesting the extent to which he doesn’t mind tailoring his gameplan to his opposition, rather than imposing his vision on the pitch. The match against Arsenal was a good example; here is United’s pass map:

The formation change is one thing, but that’s not what I want to focus on; in fact, it’s not far from a 4-2-3-1 anyway. Instead look at the networks, and which connections were emphasized and de-emphasized. As Sander notes in the caption, they were quite vertical compared to their usual. In addition, the main circulation is between the midfield three and is higher up the pitch, as compared to the West Ham game, where most of the circulation took place between the back 4 and the double pivot. This suggests a concerted effort to buildup not slowly from the back, but by hitting a long ball forward, winning it high up the field, and establishing possession there.

For United fans, this versatility will be a welcome change from the van Gaal days, and I think it suits the team well—they have the personnel to play pretty or to just power their way through to goal.

Matching up with Everton

A few weeks ago I wrote about Ross Barkley and his lack of creative output. Reading Adam’s analysis of the Southampton match reminded me again how much of a dead end he can be in terms of passing. Here are his key passes so far this season:

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: it worries me that we have a number 10 who doesn’t play dangerous balls centrally into the box. Adam has suggested that Ross really ought to be thought of as a second striker; others have thought he should be pulled deeper and allowed more space to dribble. The point is that either way, Everton don’t really have a creative presence in the midfield.

I bring this up for two reasons: one, to suggest that Everton will again likely have problems breaking down their opposition this weekend. I think we can expect more of Bolasie to Lukaku and maybe not much else going forward unless Koeman makes a change of some kind. Honestly I don’t have any answers but I do think it’s the biggest problem the manager currently faces.

Secondly, if Ross needs someone to look to, Paul Pogba’s not a bad start. He’s had an up-and-down (re)start to his United career but is still in the league top 10 in open play creation. Here are a few passes from his last two games to ponder in the context of Barkley’s struggles:

I know they are two different players who are asked to do different things, and that one is the most expensive player in the world and thus should be held to a higher standard, but in this very specific context I’m only trying to point out something that Everton really need: a midfielder who can look up and pick out a teammate in front of him. Barkley does this sometimes; Everton need him to do it all the time.

The last point I want to make about this game is regarding pressing.

Given that Everton have been pretty non-aggressive while United have been somewhat successful in that regard, I’d expect the Toffees to revert to long balls and building up down the wings, rather than short through the middle. Mourinho will want to prevent this by keeping things compact, forcing Everton into tight spaces, and creating dangerous turnovers. On the other side of things, it seems likely that United will be more in the mode that they were in against West Ham (possession 4-2-3-1) then against Arsenal (direct, vertical 4-3-3).

If Everton look anything like they did last week, they can expect a similar result or worse. The onus will be on Koeman to make changes on both sides of the ball to inject some life into the side. If he doesn’t, Everton won’t be in 7th for long.