Manchester United defeated Everton 2-1 at Wembley, with a injury time goal from Anthony Martial sending the Red Devils through to the FA Cup final. It was a thrilling match, though hardly what you could call a compelling tactical battle. As the game wore on, both teams eschewed structure in favor of fluidity, creating a rather open match that was great for a neutral but heart-pounding for those in blue or red.
After Ramiro Funes Mori's sending off and John Stones's illness in the midweek derby, it appeared Roberto Martinez was facing a bit of a crisis at the heart of his defense ahead of this semi-final. As it turned out, both Jagielka and Stones passed late fitness tests and were able to start. However, Seamus Coleman's hamstring injury meant that Martinez was again forced to use a makeshift right back; after Bryan Oviedo's struggles against Liverpool, the manager opted to use Muhamed Bešić in the unfamiliar role. Gareth Barry's groin injury meant that Darron Gibson was handed another rare start in a deep central midfield position. The selections in attack were fairly standard-issue for Martinez.
Louis van Gaal left Morgan Schneiderlin on the bench in favor of Marouane Fellaini, and fielded Wayne Rooney in a slightly deeper central midfield position than he is typically accustomed to.
United control possession and territory; Everton's press remains a mess
The first half unfolded in a not so unexpected manner. Manchester United set up shop in Everton's half of the pitch, playing the ball around with relative ease. The Toffees have had problems all year long with defensive penetration, and this game was no different. United easily bypassed Everton's disorganized pressing, often finding themselves with time and space between Everton's midfield and defensive lines. In these situations they looked to play through balls in behind to diagonal runs from the forwards. The movement of Anthony Martial in particular was causing problems, but it was Jesse Lingard who first forced a save from Joel after a lovely chipped ball from Rooney on 11 minutes.
All in all it was fairly typical stuff from Everton in defense. United's forward players were simply too energetic and intelligent for them, and the Toffees failed to impose any compactness that would restrict space and close off passing lanes. This surely is one of the most damning features of Martinez's sides, and United looked quite comfortable in attack. Everton could few complaints when a clever run and scuffed finish from Fellaini delivered the Red Devils a 1-0 lead with a little over a half hour gone.
Everton did manage a few chances from long balls, and these were mostly down to the pace and physicality of Romelu Lukaku. Unfortunately for them, his touch was on a few occasions a hair heavy, and they could not take advantage. It was probably fair on them to head into the break down a goal.
Open second half
The game burst to life in the second half. Neither team really looked like they wanted to defend very much, which for Everton was to be expected, but was a bit surprising coming from Louis van Gaal. United were allowing their creative players to shine, but in doing so sacrificed positional structure and therefore allowed Everton to break somewhat regularly with ease. Ross Barkley began to come into the game more, and eventually won the penalty that set off a helter skelter half hour.
Two events in particular seemed to kick the game into high-octane mode: (1) the aforementioned penalty and Lukaku's subsequent miss, and (2) the introduction of Gerard Deulofeu. For whatever reason, Everton seemed to really pick themselves up after De Gea's magnificent save. They still were often guilty of heavy and slow touches at times, but their overall movement was better, and they succeeded in dragging the United defenders out of position.
This is was especially evident on the equalizer, as Lukaku's presence at the edge of the area attracted both Smalling and Rojo, which left acres of space for Deulofeu to pick out a dangerous ball that caused the own goal. It was classic Geri--he often takes up such a wide position that he is off the TV screen--and despite the fortune of it being an own goal, it was a genuinely good attacking move from Everton.
At this point the match showed no signs of settling down, and both teams looked like they really wanted to avoid extra time. It was more of the same--players been dragged everywhere out of position, diagonal runs from Martial, Rashford, and Lingard causing Everton fits, and the pace of Deulofeu, Barkley, and Lukaku, creating chances on the counter. Tactically it was an absolute mess, but that doesn't mean it wasn't extremely enjoyable.
In the end, the winning goal was quite fitting: Martial, who had been dangerous throughout, picked up the ball on the touchline, exchanged a couple one-twos, made a trademark out-to-in run, and slotted cooly past Joel. The play started with Rooney in a very deep midfield position, and ended with John Stones ball-watching and ultimately a step too late. To top it all off, it took place in stoppage time. You'd struggle to imagine a 15-second passage of play that could better typify the game, or indeed Everton's entire season, than what happened here.
Martial's 2-1 goal! Great team play— MUnitedHome™ (@MUnitedHome) April 23, 2016
In truth this match lacked significant tactical intrigue but contained enormous amounts of action. The second half had the feel of a pickup game, with players running all over the place with little organization but buckets of energy and creativity. Everton deserve loads of credit for the way they took the game to United in the second half. However, they never looked anything but vulnerable defensively, and ultimately this was their downfall.
Both teams did well at creating dangerous situations through isolation of defenders, but United's attacking players and especially Martial really impressed with their ability to exploit the holes in Everton's defense. The Toffees' lack of both horizontal and vertical compactness was unfortunately a familiar sight. While crosses were the undoing in the midweek against Liverpool, here it was through balls that broke down the defense.
Surely it seems now that Martinez's time at Goodison is coming to a close, and the evidence as to why was on display for all to see at Wembley. Three of Everton's four remaining fixtures could prove crucial, though only for their opponents in the relegation and title races. The Toffees themselves have virtually nothing left to play for except personal pride, and if the manager is indeed on his way out, motivation will perhaps be even less without anyone in particular to impress. For the fans, all eyes are on the board now.