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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  • Dean

    “Everton’s over-reliance on Fellaini bordered on ridiculous at times”

    Fellaini has proven to be an excellent premiership player and any team would look to play to his strengths when playing against United. Will Real Madrid be “over-reliant” on Ronaldo mid-week? Yes, of course they will because he is a sublime player, does that make Real Madrid “ridiculous”, NO! By simply playing to one of your key players strengths does not make a team “ridiculous” as you so eloquently put it, you have simply had a brief look at the statistics with your cup of coffee in hand and began to aimlessly type utter nonsense. If you wish for a better, well rounded and informative article get in touch and I’ll gladly write you one.

  • John Vasco

    One might say that United have been over-reliant on van Persie this season… Without him, they would be distinctly average…

  • reformist lickspittle

    In case you haven’t noticed, United were without RvP last season. They still got 89 points, and only lost the title on goal difference.

    So, what was your point – aside from pathetic ABU whataboutery??

  • Dean

    The point he is clearly trying and succeeding to make is that United without RVP would not be in the position they are in now, the original article points that Everton’s reliance on Fellaini is quote “ridiculous”. It is no more ridiculous than Manchester United’s reliance on Robin Van Persie and there is nothing wrong with that, plenty of clubs rely on top players its the nature of the game.

  • reformist lickspittle

    Yes, and United have almost always had a “top player” of which RvP is just the latest (viz Charlton, Best, Robson, Cantona, RvN, Ronaldo and Rooney) That is how they roll.

    If van Persie wasn’t there, the void would be filled somehow ;)

  • Alan77

    I love how utd fans point out they lost on goal difference but forget to mention they bottled it on the run in. I think utd have been fairly average all season and haven’t seen a game where they have dominated. I imagine even with a 12 point gap their fans are not celebrating just yet.

  • reformist lickspittle

    Ah well, haters gonna hate ;)

    If MUFC are “average”, what does that make EVERYBODY else??

  • Jonny Boyle

    I wasn’t denying Marouane Fellaini’s ability as a player. He’s proven, at Old Trafford as well, that he can cope in the Premier League. If you continue down the piece I credit the failure of this tactic more to Phil Jones’ performance rather than a bad one from Fellaini. I chose the word ridiculous because, as far as I could see, Everton had no plan B. I’m sure David Moyes would be the first to admit that the reliance on Fellaini was too much. Players like Victor Anichebe, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Pienaar failed to do enough.

    There’s so much that went on in the game, but those were the significant tactical moves. I understand you may be frustrated, but it was a fascinating game from a tactical perspective. Just a shame I couldn’t cover it all.

    Thanks for reading. Any other questions or criticism then get me here or on Twitter. Happy to talk about it.

  • andy

    I notice phil jones is getting a lot of credit some of which is deserved. However, he fouled fellaini persistently without punishment. He warranted a booking when he kicked fellaini twice from behind when it was not possible for him to win the ball. Fellaini tried to win the ball from cleverly in the 2nd half yet he was immediately booked. Everton’s failure lies more with their failure to score from some promising situations in the first half than the so called job phil jones did on fellaini or the apparent over reliance on him

  • Alan77

    Below average? Utd did blow an 8 point lead with six games to go which resulted in them losing the title on goal difference to a team that were dead and buried. I think most Utd fans would agree they haven’t played well in most of their games.

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