Everton 3-3 Manchester United: Amazing stoppage time comeback

September 11, 2010

The starting line-ups

Manchester United concede two goals in stoppage time for the first time in Premier League history and throw away what seemed a certain win.

Everton were without any fully fit strikers, and so were forced to play Tim Cahill upfront with support from Marouane Fellaini. Leon Osman came in on the right, whilst Jonny Heitinga started just in front of the defence.

Sir Alex Ferguson chose to ‘rest’ Wayne Rooney, and therefore played Dimitar Berbatov upfront alone. His other notable decision was selecting John O’Shea deep in central midfield, so Gary Neville played at right-back.

Therefore, we had a strange situation – only one recognized striker on the pitch at kick-off, with no fewer than ten nominal defenders if we include Heitinga and O’Shea. That didn’t stop it being an open, attacking, entertaining game – the trend towards playing fewer strikers doesn’t necessarily create defensive-minded, boring matches.

Everton started the stronger, pressing all over the pitch and taking the game to United. Cahill is not a natural striker but nevertheless still a very good one, and probably a better option in that position than Jermaine Beckford, who hasn’t started his Premier League career particularly strongly.

Everton aerial threat

The most immediate threat from Everton was in the air. Cahill is a tremendous leaper and caused Jonny Evans problems all day in that respect (this seems to be a pattern, as Andy Carroll and Bobby Zamora have also unsettled Evans) and the close assistance of Fellaini made aerial bombardment a good method of attack for Everton, despite numerous technically gifted players in their side.

The other cause for concern for Ferguson was in the right-back position, where Neville was having difficulty with Steven Pienaar’s darts into the centre of the pitch. Neville was outpaced and outmanoeuvred early on, and was fortunate not to be cautioned for a clumsy tackle after just five minutes. Mikel Arteta hit the bar from that free-kick.

O’Shea useful

These two problems (the aerial threat of Cahill and Fellaini, and Neville’s difficulty against Pienaar) combined to make O’Shea an extremely useful player in the centre of midfield for United. Had Ferguson used Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher in the centre of midfield with Park Ji-Sung ahead, as he did against Milan earlier this year, he would have had more problems defensively. O’Shea’s natural defensive qualities meant United could field him goalside of Fellaini, in order to and track the Belgian’s runs into the penalty area, rather than treating Fellaini as a withdrawn forward and leaving him to Nemanja Vidic.

The effect of this was not only that Fellaini was closely marshalled, but that United now had a spare man at the back, able to keep an eye on Pienaar’s drifts inside. If the centre-backs had been 2 v 2 against Cahill and Fellaini, Pienaar would have been a lot more dangerous, as leaving Neville exposed 1 v 1 against him would have been very risky. A covering defender was vital.

Baines forward

A further problem down Neville’s side came, in theory, from Leighton Baines, who overlapped brilliantly in the game against Aston Villa. Today, though, a lot of credit should go to Nani – a player often criticized for his lack of defensive awareness. He tracked Baines up and down the flank very well, and the left-back was not as influential early on in this game as he had been at Villa Park.

Everton were having the same problems as in that game, however – dominating yet not able to manufacture clear-cut chances. They didn’t get a shot on target until the move which produced the opening goal of the game – Arteta went clear, shot weakly at Edwin van der Sar, before Leon Osman passed the rebound to Pienaar, who tapped home.

Value of counter-attacking

That goal says a great deal about the relative ease of counter-attacking in modern football. That goal came after 39 minutes, and it had been the first time United had started to push forward and commit bodies into the Everton half. Hence, it was the first time Everton were able to break into space, and the first time they managed to get shots on target.

In the 90 minutes against Villa and the 39 minutes here, it was quite possibly the only occasion the opposition had a sustained five minute period of pressure against them, and yet coincided with their only goal in that time.

Fletcher goal

United hit back quickly when Nani’s excellent cross was converted by Fletcher, who was the United midfielder making the most frequent runs into the box. It was no surprise Everton were undone by a ball in from the right – Baines-Pienaar is a good combination going forward, but also one that can be suspect defensively.

Nani v Baines was the game’s battle – by Guardian Chalkboards

The goal Everton conceded against Wolves was from a low right-wing cross, and Villa’s winner against them was when Pienaar let Luke Young go free. Combined with United’s tendency (last season, at least) to attack predominantly down the right, it was a natural way for United to score.

Half-time changes

At half-time, David Moyes switched Arteta and Fellaini, putting the the latter deep alongside Heitinga, with Arteta creating from higher up the pitch. This approach wasn’t particularly effective, though, since Fellaini’s physical presence was a factor in Everton’s first-half dominance. He and Heitinga (not a particularly good holding midfielder, it must be said) were doing the job of one player.

Heitinga was playing the same role as O’Shea on the other side, but whilst Everton’s 4-4-1-1 meant O’Shea generally had a direct opponent to pick up, United’s 4-5-1 meant Heitinga, who played very deep, was often left doing nothing as United patiently passed the ball around in the centre of midfield.

United extend lead

Vidic headed United into the lead with a goal remarkably similar to the first – from a right-wing cross from Nani, and then Berbatov made it 1-3 with a wonderful finish after a measured Paul Scholes pass over the defence. Berbatov’s most obvious contribution until then was the sheer number of times he was caught offside. Whilst this suggested both poor timing of his runs, it also showed that United were constantly trying to play him in over the top. This owed much to Everton’s high defensive line – in turn a result of their heavy pressing game – and Berbatov was always going to have more joy making runs off the back of Sylvain Distin, rather than the pacier Phil Jagielka.

Moyes withdrew Heitinga to put on a striker, Yakubu, but he offered little threat. In fact, there was very little sign that they were going to get back into the game – Osman had a decent chance which he scuffed at van der Sar, but United were doing a fairly decent job at taking the sting out of the game.

Cahill crucial

The match started with Cahill causing United all kinds of difficulty in the air, and it ended that way too. First Baines whipped in a cross for the Australian to head powerfully past van der Sar to make it 2-3, and that combination created the equaliser too – Cahill produced possibly an even better header to cushion it back to Arteta, who smashed it into the net via a deflection. Here’s a stat for you – of the all-time top 100 Premier League goalscorers, Cahill has a higher percentage of his goals scored with his head than any other player, according to unofficial-but-reliable statistics.

So Nani’s tracking back wasn’t so good after all – to blame him for the second goal would be harsh, but for the third, he let Baines go free. This is why managers are so keen to play defensively-aware player in wide positions – one lapse of concentration can cost vital goals.


Why did United blow it? It’s tempting to question Ferguson’s substitutions in a situation like this – he only made one, choosing to bring Park on for Evra (who looked completely out of shape), meaning O’Shea went to left-back. This seemed of minor interest at 1-3, but O’Shea’s presence in the centre was missed late on. There’s a decent case to make that he would have been closing down Arteta for the equaliser – after all, with Arteta’s move forward in the second half, O’Shea spent much of that period tracking him.

Using the energy of Darron Gibson or Rafael might have relieved some tired legs – but equally any XI United had out should not have let a two-goal lead slip in the space of two minutes, and Nani and Berbatov wasted chances to put the game out of reach.

But this was a game full of fascinating features – centre-backs in midfield, no-striker formations, wingers not tracking back, substitutions not used effectively. Tactically interesting games don’t have to be dull spectacles.

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