The Toffee’s head to Old Trafford on Sunday for a ‘showdown’ with the likely Champions Manchester United in a re-match of last season’s gargantuan tussle that effectively cost the Red Devil’s the title. With the exception of the 4-4, this is a fixture the Blues have invariably adopted an unsuccessful ‘what we have hold…then roll-over’ policy. This strategy has delivered minimal gains give or take a few draws since our last win here way back in 1992 when the ‘mini marvels’ showed up and spanked Fergie’s would be Champions 3-0. The games between the two Scots are usually interesting tactical jousts in that United’s ideology is generally ‘we’re better than everyone so we’ll play our own game’ whereas Moyes is a more reactive customer who will tweak to negate opposition threats.
Looking back at the 4-4 last season, United’s front players were on fire with Welbeck particularly ace; the forward bagged one goal, 2 assists, made more dribbles and also had the best pass completion (91%) of any player on the pitch which for a player operating in the final third is very decent.
In the 4-4 we struggled to deal with United’s quick movement in forward areas with Heitinga and Jagielka struggling to hold their position and avoid following United’s forwards away from our goal. Whoever starts in central defence will need to keep their shape better and thus reduce the space in behind for United to operate. Whoever is selected in United’s wing slots are always positioned in advanced wide areas so it’s implicit that we don’t lose the ball in our own half and enable them to engineer fast break situations.
United also have the addition of Van Persie this season with him and Rooney comfortable alternating between the number 9 and 10 roles. This combined with the impish trickery of Kagawa and United’s trademark pace in wide areas makes the clean sheet we kept in August against them all the more improbable.
Indeed, as the above passing dashboard shows whilst United dominated possession in the August game (692 v308 passes), they were less incisive getting the ball into the box and creating threatening chances with Jer-jelka dominant at the heart of the Blues back four. We had significantly less touches (571 v 933) but crucially had more touches in United‘s penalty box than they did ours (42 v 27) with 22% of our chances in their 6 yard box compared to United’s 0% in ours.
With the current situation regarding Heitinga, hopefully logic will prevail and Jagielka will be restored to the centre of defence with Neville probably on the right, although when fit Moyes usually prefers to select the skipper in the centre of midfield as he did in both recent fixtures against United. Personally I’d stick Heitinga on the right with Jagielka where he is best in the centre alongside Distin.
The two most recent games have highlighted that we can get at United’s defence with Fellaini in particular getting plenty of joy with a goal in each game, both from pin point deliveries from the right flank. In the Goodison match the curly haired Belgian was the fulcrum of a well-executed game-plan that involved getting the ball into him quickly from back to front. We often do ‘go longer’ against the league’s better sides…as an example in the 1-0 win vs United 17% of our passes were hit long whereas against a nice middle of the road outfit, like Fulham, just 9% of our passes went long.
If we take a look at the pass combination table from the 1-0 game (above) we can see 3 of the top 5 combinations were from defensive players (Howard, Baines & Hibbert) into Fellaini. The other two were from Fellaini to Osman/Pienaar who started the game on the flanks. This was basically our strategy; hit it long to fellaini’s head or chest and let him link play to the wide midfielders. We have also made decent gains by exploiting United’s defensive players aerially….
Above, Jelavic’s opening goal in the 4-4 comes when the delivery by Hibbert is looped deep to by-pass Ferdinand / Evans and enable the Croatian to isolate Rafael in a physical mis-match. Rafael was also at fault for Pienaar’s equaliser when he switched off and failed to track the South African’s run inside.
In the above screen shot, the cross again goes deep to by-pass Vidic and looks for Fellaini who has come round the back of Carrick. This should be a big concern for Ferguson and having been done twice by the same trick I’d be surprised if he didn’t start with Smalling at right back in place of Rafael.
This will be a really tough one for the Blues, but is by no means mission impossible. Our defensive problems – exposed ruthlessly by an average Villa side last week – will be put to the test and it’s unlikely we will keep a clean sheet. With Anichebe in fine fettle, Mirallas back in action and Fellaini on-song then we certainly have the tools to score at least one goal and I’d go for a score draw, probably 2-2 (best priced 16/1 with BetVictor).