As 90 minutes goes, this was probably the most Everton game of football that you are ever likely to see.
From striker’s breaking scoring ducks to the goalkeeping master-class at the other end of the pitch, not to mention accruing a long term injury and crucial errors from experienced players, this was as Everton as it gets.
Let’s begin by sifting through the first half detritus.
With United struggling for defensive cohesion the thought pre match was that we would be on ‘the front foot’ for this one, however that was not the case. Instead we played a low defensive block to invite United on to us, with the strategy seemingly to then try to exploit the space in behind when gaps arose.
The first 10 minutes we controlled well, to the tune 60% of possession, but it was United who looked the more threatening in this period. Two early crosses from Shaw down our right side caused problems in our box and whilst United weren’t exactly opening us up with great skill or ingenuity they were trying to force the issue more directly with long shots and crosses.
Part of the Martinez ideology is that crosses are in essence an imprecise art, so such percentage play or ‘putting it in the mixer’ is discouraged, as we looked for shorter and more precise passing moves to open United up. Our approach was incredibly one-dimensional in the first half, though, so much so that we caused virtually no threat to United. What was most obvious was the gap from our backline to Lukaku with the Belgian cutting an increasingly isolated and frustrated figure in a similar way Anichebe annually did in these fixtures under Moyes.
Anaemic in the final third, our defence rarely pushed up from the low block and the aforementioned gap enabled United the chance to dominate proceedings 20 yards from our goal. Their opener was a good example, as Blind was able to run from his own half and into our final third without so much as a challenge. After Rafael then pumps the ball into our box Mata is able to pick out Di Maria to cushion a nice finish inside Howard’s left hand post. Tracking the goal back to when possession was first turned over, Pienaar – who looked way off the pace throughout – takes a poor touch and then concedes a free kick by volleying Rafael.
The goal didn’t impact our gameplan much, with Lukaku continuing to be cut adrift with the exception of one superb long pass from Baines down United’s left channel which the Belgian made a hash of.
In general our record buy didn’t seem to be right mentally for me. As early as the second minute you could see him appear rather manic with his finger to his lips, presumably following provocation from McNair who was stood next to him. Then prior to the end of the first half off the ball you could see Barry and Naismith remonstrating with him on United’s 18 yard line, a worrying trend which continued in the second period when Lukaku reacted petulantly to Graeme Jones’ request for him to track back.
On the stroke of half time we had the chance to level after the most fluid move of the game. Following some slick one touch passing between Baines and Pienaar down the left, Barry switches play to Besic whose beautiful flick entices Shaw enough to upend Hibbert in the United box. When Baines missed the subsequent spot kick you had the feeling this wasn’t going to be our day.
Level pegging at half time probably would have been undeserved with United out shooting us 9-1, committing more men forward and generally carrying more of a threat in the final third.
With United having edged in front Martinez now had no option but to come out and have a go, and that’s precisely what he did.
Naismith, who in the first half was constantly behind the ball when United had it, was given more freedom to stay up-field meaning that when we regained possession we had more options in the final third.
United’s composure on the ball was poor and they continually struggled to control the game by being able to keep possession – something which enabled us to make decent gains in their half.
In the 56th minute Lukaku’s toil finally yielded some reward as he won a free kick following a challenge by Valencia, one of six fouls committed by the clumsy Ecuadorian. From the resulting set play Baines played a nice one two with Barry and from the resulting centre Naismith despatched ‘with aplomb’ for 1-1.
The story of our season so far is that one step forward is swiftly followed by two steps back and within 7 minutes of drawing level we again found ourselves behind. We posed the question a month or so ago during our defensive post-mortem piece as to whether Howard was being unlucky or if he’s just been plain shite. Whether that question is up for debate any longer was put to bed shortly after.
After a rare second half United attack and with Pienaar on the floor injured, Howard chose not to kick the ball either into the Utd half or into row z, instead playing it back to United inside our half. Ten seconds later and with our defence all over the place the ball was nestled in our goal after Falcao expertly converted Di Maria’s miscued shot past the hapless American. The only defence you could serve up for Howard was that Stones was also massively at fault, playing Falcao onside and also ball watching which allowed the Columbian the space behind him.
Martinez response was to withdraw the injured Pienaar, ineffectual McGeady and the tanked Tony Hibbert with Oviedo, Browning and Osman, meaning Samuel Eto’o strangely remained on the bench as we chased a goal.
The substitutions did make the desired impact, however, and the final fifteen minutes were to be our most productive in terms of final third outputs with our shot-count more than doubled in this period.
Such is the way things are going for us at the moment, though, that opposition keeper David De Gea was having a day of days in the United goal. Despite some decent shots by Oviedo and Osman (twice) the Spaniard wasn’t to be denied, making some blockbuster stops and deservedly taking the man of the match award.
Being as passive as we were in the first half was the games real disappointment from a toffee perspective. Yes we started and finished the second half better, but we only really went for the throat when we were chasing from a goal down. Whether the result would have been different if we’d been more proactive to forcefully win it in the first half who knows, but against a side who are not too cohesive at the back it was a strangely passive approach.
The result leave us 17th and five points behind one of our direct rivals, and with United still some way from hitting top gear it means there is an uphill battle on if we are to threaten the top places. Getting into a winning run in the next batch of fixtures against predominantly basement dweller opponents would now seem essential if we are to make a decent fist of things in the league this season.