Everton v Man Utd: One big game, five big questions

Ian Watson

In this bizarre Premier League season 11th-place Everton welcome Manchester United to Goodison Park on Sunday knowing that a win will catapult them into the race for a Champions League place. Just five points separate fifth-placed United from Everton, while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side could end the weekend only one point above Burnley in tenth.

And so this is a six-pointer and just another game, is both significant and not. The league is too chaotic to assume these head-to-heads will define which clubs are in Europe next year, but nevertheless anything but a win for the Toffees will probably put to bed their hopes of hearing the Champions League music at Goodison Park next year.

Here are five tactical questions ahead of Everton v Man Utd…

1) Will Ancelotti’s organised 4-4-2 outwit improvisational Man Utd?
Unlike Man Utd under Solskjaer, Everton are playing with a positional discipline and tactical focus that reflects well on the work undertaken by their new manager. The performance at Arsenal, though flawed, had the hallmarks of a project moving in the right direction; Everton’s 4-4-2 shows diligent compression between the lines and sits riskily in a mid-block, pressing only when the ball enters central midfield.

By contrast United remain largely improvisational in their approach, albeit looking organised in a deeper unit when playing fellow Big Six clubs. This match, then, could expose the flakiness of Solskjaer’s side as Everton snap into tackles and outfox the visitors thanks to their more detailed planning.

Carlo Ancelotti should be able to suffocate the United midfield, his rigidly organised formation forcing United into sideways passing and the sort of timid possession that generally defines matches against more tactically astute managers.


2) Or can United’s runners down the left mimic Arsenal’s success?
But that’s not to say Everton are without flaws, or will easily shut down United’s attacks. Their 3-2 defeat at Arsenal last weekend was an end-to-end contest defined by their own defensive weaknesses, and unfortunately for Ancelotti’s men their main area of concern correlates exactly with United’s key strength.

Arsenal consistently managed to slip through balls in behind the Everton defence, exposing the dangers of a high defensive line, with Mesut Ozil and Dani Ceballos feeding runners down the left channel. Djibril Sidibe was consistently caught flat-footed or out of position by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Bukayo Saka, a situation that could easily develop again when Anthony Martial and Daniel James make runs down that flank.

United naturally attack the left wing while Bruno Fernandes has been playing plenty of through balls into that channel since arriving in January. United’s opener against Watford last weekend – three simple vertical passes into the left wing and direct dribbling into the box – is just the sort of move that got Arsenal into goalscoring positions against Everton.


3) Will Richarlison & Calvert-Lewin get the better of Wan-Bissaka?
Assuming Man Utd hold most of the ball, Everton’s main attacking threat will come on the counter via Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the strike partnership that’s flourishing under Ancelotti. These two are linking brilliantly, whether it’s Richarlison drifting out to the left and crossing for Calvert-Lewin or Calvert-Lewin winning knock-downs for Richarlison.

They will run the channels with energy and skill, as usual, but on Sunday face the daunting prospect of breaking beyond Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire. Between them, these two United defenders have helped their side concede just one goal in their last six matches in all competitions. Richarlison’s foot race with Wan-Bissaka on Everton’s left will certainly be closely fought.

Consequently Everton’s success on the break might be dependent on just how often Alex Iwobi can break down the right. Ancelotti had been playing a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3, with Theo Walcott moving forward when Everton break and Richarlison shifting out to the left, but Iwobo didn’t fill Walcott’s boots at Arsenal, instead drifting into central midfield – mimicking Gylfi Sigurdsson’s movement off the left.

Iwobi, and Everton, need to be bold to get the better of United’s back four.


4) Can Fernandes & Fred outmuscle a timid Everton midfield?
The biggest problem facing Ancelotti is how to reinvigorate a timid central midfield. Fabian Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin both lack guile, lack the confidence to receive the ball in congested areas or break lines with their passing. Instead, both midfielders will probably go missing against Man Utd, dropping too deep and playing simple passes back to the defenders.

Ancelotti may plump for Andre Gomes, who impressed in a short cameo at the Emirates, but it’s unlikely he will be deemed fit enough to start against United. Another way to fix this issue is play Tom Davies, although Ancelotti has wisely decided not to trust the 21-year-old in big games. Davies is often guilty of pressing sporadically, moving too far from his base position and disrupting the organisation of the team shape as a result. This would be particularly problematic against Bruno Fernandes and Fred, who created United’s opener against Watford last weekend by exposing Will Hughes playing in a very Davies-like manner.

Hughes got carried away with the press, and while attempting to shut down the United centre-backs left Etienne Capoue all alone in the middle. Fernandes carved Watford open, as he will do at Goodison Park unless Everton’s midfield is extremely disciplined.

5) How will Man Utd deal with Everton’s set-pieces?
Assuming the Everton midfield is flat, then, and that Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin can’t get the better of Wan-Bissaka and Maguire, the hosts’ best chance of success is likely to be set-pieces – of which they will win plenty, thanks to their pace up front and Ancelotti’s willingness to play direct when the occasion calls for it.

Everton have played more key passes from corners (1.4 per match) and free-kicks (0.7 per match) than any other Premier League side this season, leading the way by quite a distance, and although they rank somewhere in the middle for goals scored from set-pieces (nine) the numbers are improving under Ancelotti. Yerry Mina’s double at Watford was a case in point.

United are generally very good at defending dead balls, but nonetheless there are some intriguing battles to look out for at Everton corners, with Mina versus Maguire a particularly tasty-looking head to head.

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