Everton 1-0 Manchester United: Fellaini dominates in the air

August 21, 2012

The starting line-ups

Marouane Fellaini was the game’s star player, and scored the winning goal with a fine header.

David Moyes used a familiar 4-4-1-1 system, with Fellaini deployed behind Nikica Jelavic.

Sir Alex Ferguson had major injury problems at the back, with Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand all out. Michael Carrick had to play at the back, and Antonio Valencia started at right-back, with Rafael still recovering from the Olympics. Further forward, Shinji Kagawa started as the number ten, but Robin van Persie remained on the bench.

Manchester United performed as you’d expect by looking at their starting XI – they dominated possession and passed the ball swiftly across midfield, but they lacked a physical presence in midfield, and Carrick’s defensive weakness was exposed at the back.Discussion of Manchester United’s system is here – this article will solely discuss Everton’s strategy involving Fellaini.

This was a perfect game for Moyes, for two reasons. First, United were fielding a supremely technical and quick front four, which played into the way Everton defend – deep, with two banks of four.

Second, Moyes is arguably the most reactive manager in the league (although Paul Lambert’s constant successful formation switches at Norwich probably make him a better candidate for his title), always changing his strategy to suit the demands of the particular opponent. As United had a clear weakness on the right side of their defence (Carrick can read the game well and distribute the ball well from the back, but he’s not very strong in the air, and Valencia still doesn’t appear completely comfortable at right-back) Moyes formatted his side accordingly.

While one could say it was the obvious strategy was to use Fellaini up against Carrick, Moyes deserves more credit than that, as another coach may have been more conservative when exploiting his weakness. They might have told Fellaini to play as a third central midfielder to help out against United’s three, and used Jelavic to the left of the pitch against Carrick. But instead, Fellaini played a dual role. When Everton were without the ball he chased back, but when they had possession he became a second centre-forward.

And the fact that he was the second centre-forward was the key. The role of Jelavic was crucial, as he occupied Nemanja Vidic on the other side of the pitch, which meant Fellaini against Carrick was a true one-versus-one clash, and Fellaini completely dominated.

Everton were deliberately more direct than usual, as Phil Neville confirmed after the game, and their joint most-frequent passing combination was Baines to Fellaini down the left-hand side – the Belgian could either flick the ball on, or bring it down on his chest.

Moyes also did well to bring Pienaar inside from the left-hand side to get in the zone around Fellaini, which caused Valencia positional problems and sometimes overloaded Carrick. Fellaini to Pienaar was the other most frequent combination, so a clear pattern is emerging – Baines to Fellaini, who knocks it down to Pienaar. (Interestingly, when Pienaar drifted up in central positions and moves broke down, sometimes Fellaini was the man to cover the left wing against Valencia.)

With Leon Osman breaking forward towards the edge of the box from the opposite flank, and Jelavic always offering clever movement to collect through-balls and cut-backs, Everton’s attacking was more technical and intricate than simply thumping it to the big man – but it generally came after a long ball.

Everton spent long spells without the ball as Scholes and Cleverley dictated the tempo – United had 69% possession – but Moyes will have been relatively content with this, especially as Rooney wasn’t looking very sharp. Everton’s defensive organisation within their own third is as good as any other side in the league.

For all Carrick’s problems against Fellaini in open play, it was a set-piece that won the game for Everton. This problem could have been remedied – it was obvious before the goal that Carrick was struggling from corners, and Vidic (who was marking Phil Jagielka) could have switched with him. Carrick was beaten by Daniele De Rossi at the near post from a corner situation on international duty for England in midweek, and the same thing happened here. It was more of a great header than it was poor marking, but Vidic was the logical man to have against Fellaini.

However, it’s worth pointing out that the closest Everton got to a goal elsewhere – when Osman met Fellaini’s knock-down and struck the bar – was when Vidic was challenging in the air with Fellaini. Vidic was still the logical man to be picking up Fellaini at corners, but here Fellaini was simply too good for all of United’s defenders.


Manchester United had a weakness in the air, and Everton exploited it through a direct, simple approach. But it wasn’t just Fellaini’s sheer dominance, it was the role of Jelavic in occupying United’s best centre-back, and the movement of Pienaar off the flank to further trouble United down that side.

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