Tactics Talk: Everton’s over-reliance on Marouane Fellaini bordered on ridiculous against Manchester United

Jonny Boyle

Recent meetings between Manchester United and Everton have been well documented and  David Moyes’ side could be labelled the Premier League leader’s bogey team. Sir Alex Ferguson has the trophies to override Moyes’ success at Goodison Park, but you have to go back to the 2007/2008 season to find a time when United beat their northern rivals over two games in the league. Last season’s memorable 4-4 draw at Old Trafford was a major contributor to the Reds missing out on the title and if they allowed Everton to do the double over them this season – they lost 1-0 at Goodison Park in August – then it could help Manchester City out of the hole a 3-1 defeat away to Southampton put them in on Saturday night.


Astonishingly for a team which heads the league table, Ferguson has never named the same United side for two games back-to-back at any point this season, so changes were expected. David De Gea continued in goals with a strong defence and midfield selected to deal with the physical threat of Marouane Fellaini and Victor Anichebe in attack for Everton. Patrice Evra and Rafael continued at full-back with Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans joining each other in central defence for the first time since early January. Out went the in-form Michael Carrick and in came Phil Jones with Antonio Valencia on the right wing and Ryan Giggs on the left. Crucially, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie started together as a front pairing which has 45 goals in total this season.

Moyes signalled his intent pre-match by insisting that Everton would try to have a go at United and his starting 11 reflected that. Only one change was initially made to the team which drew with Aston Villa last week, but the unfortunate, and late, injury to Sylvain Distin forced Moyes to reintroduce the dropped Johnny Heitinga to the centre of his defence. Joining him was Tim Howard in the sticks, Leighton Baines at left back, Phil Neville at right and Phil Jagielka through the centre. A flat midfield four of Kevin Mirallas, Leon Osman, Darron Gibson and Steven Pienaar operated behind the imposing afro-giant of Fellaini and Anichebe continued up top despite the goalscoring heroics of Nikica Jelavic in the same fixture last term.

Marouane Fellaini 300x225 Tactics Talk: Everton’s over reliance on Marouane Fellaini bordered on ridiculous against Manchester United

Marouane Fellaini was man-marked throughout by Phil Jones

First Half Ferguson gets his tactics half-right

It was clear from the opening five minutes that Ferguson had paid huge respect to the threats of the Everton team, and in particular, the presence of Fellaini. Jones would literally have gone to the toilet with the Belgian had his manager told him to. The adaptability of the youngster makes him the ideal man marker for United. Being able to run, tackle and head with quality is paramount, but his ability to anticipate where the ball will go, pass when necessary and his calm demeanour in the heat of battle is the reason why his manager chose him to deal with Fellaini.

That said, his infatuation with marking put pressure on the rest of the United midfield. Gaps appeared between Jones and Cleverley and without Valencia and Giggs tucking in, there was space for the Everton midfield to play – something they failed to do early on.

On 12 minutes a long United ball dropped between Heitinga and Jagielka and the Dutchman appeared caught in two minds whether to clear the ball or block van Persie before proceeding to do neither and Giggs was allowed to slot home after being fed by his team-mate. So far so good for United.

Moyes will have been happy at his team’s reaction. For 25 minutes of the half, Everton dominated United. That space between Jones and Cleverley grew larger and Osman and Gibson in particular began to play in it. From the 20 minute mark to half-time, Everton made almost double the passes of their opponents, had six shots but tested De Gea just once. Against a quality United team, their profligacy would not go unpunished.

A minute into injury time, van Persie broke onside from a high Everton defensive line and rounded Howard to make it 2-0. A demotivating goal some would call a killer, but Moyes had the break to help Everton recover. Could they come back at United again?

Second-Half Reshuffled United comfortably see of uninspired Everton

A manager as experienced and successful as Ferguson knows when something is going wrong and, despite United’s two goal lead, he quite rightly shuffled his pack at half-time. Giggs moved in one to play closer to Cleverley and Rooney dropped to the left. A wise choice as well considering the lead they had to protect.

For Moyes and Everton, the first 10 minutes of the second half must have been spent wondering what to do next. Their tactics were fine first half, but they had nowhere near enough in the final third to threaten the scoreline. Now United were wise to their plan what could they do?

Unfortunately, and it’s rare for Moyes, he and his side offered very little. Jelavic replaced Anichebe, but even his presence wasn’t enough. United edged it in possession – thanks in part to the introduction of Carrick – had three times as many shots as Everton and were more than worthy of their lead.

Everton’s over-reliance on Fellaini bordered on ridiculous at times as they looked for the forward 51 times yet he had no shots on target during the game and completed just 75 per cent of his passes in the final third. That’s not a criticism of Fellaini, but more testament to the tireless job done by Jones.

Full-time Everton lack the quality that United have too much of

Post-match, Ferguson highlighted the 25 minutes Everton dominated his side, but it was Moyes who made the more relevant point on what went wrong.

“I thought we had plenty of the ball and I thought we done the right things well enough, but we just didn’t really have that cutting edge or a little bit of enough at the top end of the pitch today,” said the Everton manager and he was completely right.

Everton did everything well when in possession, but didn’t do enough to threaten United. United’s shape was wrong early on yet they had a two goal lead at half-time thanks to their attacking quality and perhaps that best illustrates why there’s now a 23-point gap between the teams in the Premier League table.

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  • George_Hayduke

    I thought that was a poor assessment actually. I don’t think Everton did over rely on Fellaini. Other reports have more actually described how Everton players by-passed Felliani because he was being man marked. Quite simply,as DM said. Everton had lots of possession and played pretty football at times but have no bite. They’re further hamstrung by having to play Heitinga-who has become a liability- and Neville in defence.
    You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

  • justiceminister

    I would say that Everton played well in the first half and overall do rely on Fellaini a great deal to get something going. Ridiculous is not really the way to put it. It will happen when you have a giant and skillful target such as him in the team. As for United being reliant on Van Persie as mentioned in some replys, there is a difference. He will be normally finishing off a piece of play that has come through the whole team. However with Fellaini they are looking for him to instigate something central field and sometimes score. He’s not a natural finisher like RVP, more of a conduit. Everton would need a big tactical make over if they lose him.

  • Dean

    I really didn’t want to have to prove why Everton are not “Over Reliant” on Fellaini but you seem to be addressing this point adamantly.

    Chances Created this season (Man Utd-Everton comparison)


    So when you consider the chances created by Pienaar and Baines combined which dwarfs Uniteds top two creators, Is Fellaini really over relied on? As you put it a “giant skillful target such as him” should really be scoring for fun.

  • reformist lickspittle

    A nonsensical definition of “average”, then. Sadly this is not uncommon ;)

  • Alan77

    We will see how they do tomorrow and over the two legs. If they compete with Real Madrid then they are above average if not then this will have to be seen as an average Utd side.

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