Despite the score, it was Everton that dominated the Saturday’s game. The Merseyside club edged Manchester United in possession and attempted 19 shots to United’s seven. The Reds, a few patches of good play notwithstanding, were under constant siege, and while United’s defenders had a better game, ultimately, it was luck that got the Manchester club through unscathed.
United started brightly in 4-1-4-1 formation, with Darren Fletcher playing as a dedicated holding midfielder, and central midfielders – Tom Cleverley and Wayne Rooney – combining well with the wide-men – Danny Welbeck and Ji-Sung Park – to support Javier Hernández in attack.
United’s wide-men were playing not as out-and-out wingers, but as wide midfielders – a defensive ploy, with United’s players working diligently to cover and regain possession. The central midfielders and wide-men overloaded Everton in the middle of the park, and converted the advantage into a goal. That’s when everything went pear-shaped.
Perhaps mindful of the recent 6-1 defeat, the United defence retreated to a very deep line – almost at the edge of the Reds’ penalty area. The giant gap between the defence and central midfield was simply too much for Fletcher to cover and Everton took advantage. With the Fletcher’s presence, and wide-men tucking in, United could have kept a higher line and compact shape.
After all, Everton lacked pace and the balls over the top were more or less innocuous. If anything, playing a deep line against Everton was perilous given Marouane Fellaini’s ability to win aerial balls in dangerous areas. Better opponents would have taken advantage.
Perhaps, with Jonny Evans and David de Gea in the side, two excellent distributors of the ball, Sir Alex Ferguson believed he could get away with a gap between the lines by instructing the pair to launch quick balls forward. But Hernández is hardly a target man. Slight in build and stature, the Mexican was quickly relieved of the ball by Everton defenders. Given the set up, Dimitar Berbatov would have been the better choice. Welbeck or Wayne Rooney could have dropped deep to link between midfield and attack, while providing some physicality up top.
One positive aspect of United’s more defensive approach was Fletcher’s coverage. The Scot dropped deep to form a temporary back-three at times, which allowed United’s the full-backs to attack. It is no coincidence that Patrice Evra provided the cross from which Hernández scored.
Yet, the most peculiar feature of the system was Rooney being deployed as a central midfielder. Many fans have campaigned for this deployment, and just as many argued against it. The Englishman combined well with Cleverley and worked hard throughout. The trio of Fletcher, Cleverley and Rooney holds much potential. Each player has a clear role – Fletcher holds, Cleverley passes and Rooney attacks. Cleverley and Rooney are versatile players who can dovetail between the two roles. Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs can also fit in multiple roles – Carrick can hold and pass whereas Giggs can pass and attack – allowing Ferguson to rotate and keep players fresh.
One worry, of course, is that Rooney’s deployment as a midfielder limits his goal scoring prowess but that needs not be the case. Paul Scholes and Frank Lampard have scored plenty from a similar position on the pitch. In the Everton game though, Rooney was limited to single attempt at goal.
Again, the deep line is to blame. To make full use of Rooney as a central midfielder, United’s defence must play a high line and keep the space between the lines compact. This will allow the English international to spend less time defending and more time bombing forward. The wide-men should also be pushed higher up the pitch to allow the former Everton striker to hit his trademark cross-field passes. With Carrick and Anderson out-of-favour, fans should expect to see Rooney as a central midfielder more often; he’s a brilliant forward but he has the potential to be an outstanding midfielder, given the right set-up.
However, from the tactical point-of-view, the system used against Everton didn’t make much sense. Just as players are blamed for poor results, the manager is also culpable. This column has lauded Ferguson’s tactical acumen many times but, on this occasion, the Scot got things wrong. Better teams than Everton would have exploited United’s weaknesses. With Manchester City so rampant, the Reds cannot afford to slip up. Ferguson must do better!