After two weeks of anticipation, Everton and Liverpool provided us with a choppy and mistake-filled derby on Saturday. Perhaps it is fortunate, then, that we have little time to reflect and must now turn to tomorrow’s trip to Old Trafford to face Manchester United.
Manchester United overview
The Red Devils have not lost a league match in over 5 months (!). However, that 19-game stretch has included just 10 wins. As such, United have been unable to make any significant headway in the table. As it stands, they reside with Arsenal on the outside looking in at the top 4. Unlike Arsenal, though, they’ve never really looked like finishing in the top 4:
Again, this is despite losing just 3 games all season and going on the aforementioned 19-match unbeaten run. Looking at expected goals, United have averaged 1.7 for and 0.6 against during this period, according to Michael Caley’s model. Since their late-October loss against Chelsea, United haven’t just managed not to lose, they’ve not once been genuinely outplayed for 90 minutes. It’s been since mid-December that a team has even managed to come within 0.5 xG of them in a match.
This is all extremely impressive. So why again are United entrenched in the 5th-6th zone instead of battling for a Champions League place or a title? Despite being able to create chances like a top-4 side, they’ve not been able to score goals like a top-4 side. In fact, no other team in the league is underperforming their xG numbers on the attacking side as much as United is:
Here’s another stat to throw on the pile: Manchester United have taken more shots on target than any other team in the league, but those shots have gone into the net at a rate lower than any other team in the league but Southampton.
It would take a lot of film study and granular xG analysis to figure out what exactly is going on here but what I want to impart on the reader here is that history tells us that in general, these things tend to turn around. In other words, when you’re looking ahead to this game and forming an idea of how good United’s attack is, try to look beyond the fact that they’ve scored as many goals this year as Bournemouth. It sure seems like they’ve been pretty darn unlucky, and that can’t last forever (alternatively, this could be a case of cosmic retribution of the football gods against Mourinho for being Mourinho but that’s beyond my level of expertise). In any case, this is a very solid offensive unit and they should be treated as such.
So what sort of things do United do to generate so many shots on target? Well, it depends. Unlike Jürgen Klopp, who tends to be consistent in his tactical approach, José Mourinho is a bit of a tinkerer. Early matches this season reinforced this notion; against Southampton, it was a fairly deep and controlled 4-2-3-1/4-4-2, at Anfield they employed a midfield press to stifle Liverpool, and the match against Arsenal saw a direct 4-3-3. Moving more recently, Mourinho ceded 64% of possession to Middlesbrough a few weeks ago and still created the better chances, taking a 3-1 win from the Riverside. Their passing network from that match is a great example of how Mourinho knows multiple ways to win a game.
For his last 4 games, United has stuck with the 4-2-3-1, but they went with a 4-3-3 against Everton in December. The main difference between the two is the orientation of the midfield three. Note Michael Carrick’s positioning relative to Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera against Everton:
Compared with Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in Saturday’s draw against West Brom:
It will be interesting to see which Mourinho goes with tomorrow; he may see Everton’s issues creating chances against Liverpool’s 4-3-3 as a reason to go in that direction, but I suspect a lot will hinge on Pogba’s availability, which is currently unclear. If he is unfit, I think we could see a Carrick-Fellaini or Carrick-Herrera double pivot, especially if Mourinho wants control of the ball.
One big boost he does have is the return of Zlatan Ibrahimović from suspension. At 35, he remains one of the league’s premier forwards, by both simple and advanced metrics:
Matching up with Everton
Because of Mourinho’s adaptability, it’s hard to predict exactly what type of game this will be. We do know for certain that Ronald Koeman’s injury headache remains. RBM’s Adam Braun made a convincing case that he dealt with this ineffectively on Saturday. Oddly enough, both Caley’s and @11tegen11’s xG models had Everton slightly ahead of Liverpool, so perhaps the story isn’t quite so clear (there’s a Joel Robles conversation to be had here, but we’ll leave it for now).
One change I think we’ll almost certainly see is Gareth Barry in the starting lineup. The Idrissa Gueye / Tom Davies midfield was a disaster against Liverpool, and Barry’s stability is needed here. Looking back at December’s matchup against United, Everton were mostly outplayed until the final 15 minutes. This seemed to coincide with Koeman bringing on Enner Valencia as a second striker and opting for a more direct approach. Perhaps we will get something like that here, although I must admit that Koeman’s setup against Liverpool has left me feeling that I can predict him less than I previously thought. Ultimately if it were up to me I’d probably return to a back 4 (sorry Pennington), employ a Barry / Gueye pivot, and just try to keep things solid and compact. Hopefully this will free up Davies and Barkley (returned to the right wing?) to give Romelu Lukaku more service than he had on Saturday.
This match is probably Everton’s last chance at making a push for anything above 7th this season. Having short rest and key injuries aren’t exactly the best circumstances for a match like this, but such is football. Perhaps we can at least learn how good Koeman is at learning from his mistakes.