The lineup sheet read: Joel Robles, Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, John Stones, Seamus Coleman, Tom Cleverley, James McCarthy, Ross Barkley, Gerard Deulofeu, Aaron Lennon, and Romelu Lukaku.
It seemed, finally, Roberto Martinez planned to give Lennon a shot at left midfield, with Deulofeu on the right. Two-winger lineups have been rare for Everton this year, which is defensible to an extent given the poor play of Kevin Mirallas and the youth of Gerard Deulofeu.
But, in a match that ultimately didn't mean much and against a team with wingers unlikely to contribute much defensively (Anthony Martial and Juan Mata), Sunday's match seemed to be the perfect time to give it a shot. With Gareth Barry suspended, Tom Cleverley even kept his spot in the lineup, deservedly so given the positive overall play of the Englishman in an unnatural left wing position for much of the season.
Such a setup would have looked something like the following.
Imagine my feelings then (ranging from depression to rage to existential dread), when Martinez sent these players out in this formation.
In a move that perhaps only Jurgen Klinsmann managing the US National Team would consider reasonable, Lennon, Cleverley, and Barkley traded positions from what seemed to be the most reasonable setup.
In essence, a winger played as the No. 10, because the No. 10 played as a traditional central midfielder, because a traditional central midfielder played as a winger.
In truth, Lennon operated more as a second striker than a traditional, play-making No. 10, playing closer to Lukaku than we usually see Ross Barkley. I can vaguely see what Martinez was thinking with this setup, so allow me to briefly explain his madness before angrily lighting my computer on fire.
Throwing Lennon up top behind Lukaku gave the Toffees more pace than usual on the front line, in theory allowing the team to strike more quickly on the counter. With two committed blocks of four defending at the back, the team had enough defensive strength to repel most United attacks comfortably, then throw the ball forward to the wingers, then up top, where the strength of Lukaku and the speed of Lennon could create chances.
At least, that's how the theory went.
Early in the match, this plan had at least moderate results. Deulofeu was a major headache for United full-back Marcos Rojo, and the Spaniard created a few early chances for Everton by taking Rojo on 1-v-1 and by whipping early crosses in toward Lukaku before the United back-four could get set. None of the crosses connected, but the chances were there for the taking, briefly.
United quickly wised up though, and started to focus their defensive pressure on Everton's right side. After about 25 minutes, service to Deulofeu was completely cut off, as shown in his passes received map (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com).
The first graphic depicts all of his received passes from the entire match, while the second displays only those received after the 25th minute.
A grand total of four successful passes came Deulofeu's way down the right wing after the first 25 minutes of the match.
With that outlet closed, the Toffees had two options: try to play through Cleverley down the left, or just boot the ball forward toward Lukaku and Lennon, hoping something good happened. Neither plan was successful.
Cleverley's heatmap and passing map (courtesy of EvertonFC.com) from before Everton's introduction of Kevin Mirallas, and subsequent change of shape, clearly show what happened when the ball came to Cleverley on the left wing.
Cleverley saw plenty of the ball in the middle third, but failed to consistently get it forward. The English midfielder lacks the pace or guile to beat defenders 1-v-1, so most of his possessions ended with backwards or sideways passes, because he had nothing else he could do.
When Cleverley didn't work out either, Everton simply started playing hopeful long balls. A lot of hopeful long balls, in fact. A great deal, plethora, bulk, bundle, or any other synonym you can think of, of long balls.
54 long balls before the introduction of Mirallas, to be precise. As you can see, the majority of these long balls came from midfielders or defenders toward Everton's two attackers and very rarely found their target.
This strategy completely marginalized Everton's arguably three most important attacking players: Romelu Lukaku, Aaron Lennon, and Ross Barkley.
As you can see below, most passes Lukaku received were long balls, almost none of which came into dangerous areas.
If these are the passes your team plays to its striker, you better either have Lionel Messi or be playing against Aston Villa's backups if you want to score.
Lennon was so isolated in the space between the midfielders and the big, long-ball chasing Belgian that he probably would have been happy to have traded places with Lukaku.
Aaron Lennon, one of the hottest attackers in the Premier League, received 12 passes in the first 63 minutes of a match against Manchester United while playing blatantly out of position. I tried for a long time to summarize this in a catchy or humorous way, but there just isn't one. It simply reflects a plainly broken gameplan.
Ross Barkley, on the other hand, at least was able to get on the ball, but in no position to make an impact on the match, as his heatmap indicates.
Barkley is good, but he isn't good enough to pick out a double-covered striker from 55 yards from goal.
After 63 painful minutes, Martinez finally made a change, but removed Deulofeu, easily Everton's best attacker of the match, for the the ever-unpredictable Kevin Mirallas.
Thankfully, the change at least saw the Toffees switch back to a 4-2-3-1 with Mirallas, Barkley, and Lennon as the attacking midfield trio, but the move was not good enough and came too late. Mirallas failed to make any significant impact on the game, Lennon still looked lost after his forays in the middle of the pitch, and United was more than happy to keep players behind the ball against a hapless Everton attack.
For the majority of this season, I have been most critical of Roberto Martinez's ability to instill confidence, game management, and defensive steel into his players, rather than his tactics. He certainly has been far from infallible, but more often than not, the Spaniard has been at least on the right path.
But Sunday, Martinez gave his players no real chance to succeed. The team's best scoring chances fell to Phil Jagielka on corner kicks, with no other chances of note for the entire 90 minutes. The Toffees are in need of investment at multiple attacking positions, yes, but there is still too much offensive firepower on this team to go a full match with so little attacking impetus.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that Martinez needed to quickly improve the direction the team was heading in if he wanted to secure his job for next season. After this ugly loss to Manchester United, Roberto Martinez has left himself even more to do in the final weeks of the season.