Say it with me: “A point at Old Trafford is a good result.”
We all (myself included) need reminding of this fact, because with the heartbreaking nature of the match’s end and the ludicrous spat between Ashley Williams and Romelu Lukaku, it’s very easy to lose sight of the big picture. The Toffees have been dreadful on the road against top-six sides, and got a point Tuesday — that’s progress.
That said, conceding so late after such a massive effort is obviously disappointing, and it’s worth digging into how the Toffees kept Manchester United at bay for so long, as well as what went wrong to finally break Everton’s defensive dam. Let’s start by taking a look at the lineup Ronald Koeman selected.
The Toffees reverted to the more familiar 4-3-3, after a disastrous experiment with a 5-3-2 at Anfield over the weekend. Ross Barkley returned to a role on the right wing, with Kevin Mirallas getting the start on the left over Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman.
Mercifully, Koeman re-inserted Gareth Barry into the lineup with Morgan Schneiderlin still out, sticking him in behind Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies. Mason Holgate took Seamus Coleman’s spot at right-back, with the rest of the back four as you’d expect.
As you might expect given the venue, injuries to key players, and quality of the opposition, the Toffees came out with a somewhat defensive-minded gameplan, but in a wiser way than we saw against Liverpool.
In the Merseyside Derby, Koeman elected to go with five at the back, but with a central midfield trio that didn’t include Barry — and the Toffees were punished for their poor midfield play both in attack and defense. With the move back to a 4-3-3 and the re-introduction of Barry, Everton remained defensive, but with the following improvements.
- The players on the back line were in substantially more comfortable positions. Phil Jagielka returned to a regular center-back’s role after being forced to play on the left of a back three at Anfield, and Holgate was allowed a more natural right-back position, rather than the offensive-minded wing-back position required of him on Saturday.
- Barry sat in front of the back four, providing a final layer of protection that also freed Davies and Gueye to be a little more aggressive in pursuing the ball. While United had the better of possession, Jose Mourinho’s side couldn’t do much with it for long stretches of the match.
- Barry’s inclusion also increased Everton’s ability to maintain possession for short spells. As I said, United had the better of possession overall, but Barry’s vision, passing, and calming influence allowed for occasional breaks in that pressure through spells of possession in the middle and attacking third. In fact, Everton had nearly 80% possession in the five minutes before Jagielka scored — and it’s no coincidence that Barry made an inch-perfect pass to create the chance that led to the goal-creating corner.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the switch to a three-man front line also contributed to Everton’s long periods of defensive success in this match. In defense, Mirallas and Barkley tended to drop pretty deep, turning the 4-3-3 into more of a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1, that looked like the following.
With Barkley and Mirallas joining the midfield, Everton had essentially two blocks of four in front of Joel, which allowed the Toffees to uniformly apply pressure to United around 40 yards from goal without generating defensive weaknesses.
Against United, there is a big, pony-tailed, Swedish reason this is key — Zlatan Ibrahimovic. If you allow United to play crosses or aerial diagonal balls into Ibrahimovic, he’s going to eventually make you pay for it, so applying pressure far enough from your goal to prevent those passes from easily coming in is crucial.
Up to this point, everything we’ve looked at could form a perfect checklist for winning away to a top-six side:
- Defensive stability? Check.
- Spells of possession to relieve defensive pressure? Thanks for that, Gaz.
- Utilization of experienced players? Again, thanks Gaz —- and Jags and Ash.
- Score a goal on a set piece? One of the miraculous variety, even!
- Execute a plan to limit the opponent’s best player? Ibra’s ponytail is stupid anyway! (Please don’t tell him I said that)
So, if for large chunks of the match, Everton did the things a club in its position needs to do to win at Old Trafford, what went wrong?
In the second half, the Toffees made two absolutely crushing errors that a team simply cannot make in order to win away to a bigger club — Everton failed to convert on the counter and invited far too much pressure from United.
Let’s start with the first point, because it’s something everyone watching the match certainly saw. The Toffees had chances to make something of several second-half counter attacks, but they almost exclusively fizzled out before the attackers got anywhere near the goal.
Lukaku was guilty of ignoring open teammates at least twice, Barkley carried the ball into defenders on multiple occasions, Mirallas and Dominic Calvert-Lewin both ran the ball to nowhere, with the former taking an unfortunate slip on one of the rare occasions an Everton counter attack got close to David De Gea.
Koeman and the Toffees deserve credit for keeping Lukaku from becoming isolated for most of the match — the issue here wasn’t tactical, but in execution. While that’s frustrating, it’s encouraging to know that there’s a potential setup in place against high-level competition, given that Arsenal and Chelsea are still on the fixture list for the remainder of season.
The other issue — the inviting of constant pressure late in the match — was in large part due to Koeman’s choice to bring Matthew Pennington on and go to a back five. After the change, Everton looked like this:
With the change, Everton had more players in its last line of defense. But in the midfield, Koeman left three players in a space where four had been operating when United had the ball.
With Baines and Holgate pinned back by United’s wide players, Davies and Gueye were forced to cover a ton of space in the wide areas where United’s full-backs and midfielders could operate. The result was an enhanced ability to play aerial diagonal balls toward Ibrahimovic and a more advanced Marouane Fellaini — with only the young Pennington in as additional support.
Take a look at the passes United played before the Pennington sub and after it, courtesy of FourFourTwo.com.
United put more balls into the box in the last 25 minutes of the match than in the first 65. Of course, part of that is a desperation factor, but part of it was also Everton’s inability to prevent those passes from happening in the first place, due to a weaker midfield structure.
Take a look at how the play that created United’s equalizer began:
Davies has no help from a more forward player, so he’s got to go a long way to prevent an easy ball from coming into the box.
Barry comes out to head the ball clear, but the midfield shape is already a mess. Gueye rightly steps in to help, given that the play has drifted toward his side of the field, but now there’s no one around to chase down the headed clearance. Calvert-Lewin, playing behind Lukaku, is the closest player, but he’s unlucky that the clearances winds up nowhere near him.
As a result, an easy second ball comes into the box — at which point Shaw has ventured forward. In theory, I suppose the man who should be marking him is Calvert-Lewin, but that’s frankly asking for trouble. A fourth midfielder is needed to cover that space, but DCL is the closest thing the Toffees have to that — and he predictably fails to get a defensive reading on the play.
Say it again: “A point at Old Trafford is a good result.”
Hopefully Koeman has learned from his adventures with a five-man back line given available personnel, and we don’t see any more of that until both Morgan Schneiderlin and Ramiro Funes Mori have returned.
Of course, if Everton’s attackers had been more clinical in their multiple counter attacking chances, the match could well have been over before Zlatan Ibrahimovic was given the opportunity to level the score.