Manchester United threw away two more points in a fiercely contested 1-1 draw with Everton at Goodison Park.
Once again United’s dominance was not rewarded with all three points after a rash Marouane Fellaini challenge handed Everton a late equaliser from the penalty spot. United have now drawn three consecutive Premier League matches, failing to win four of their last five.
Jose Mourinho finally handed Henrikh Mkhitaryan his second Premier League start after fine work in the cup competitions, while Martial was also selected after scoring two goals against West Ham during the week. Juan Mata dropped to the bench and Wayne Rooney missed out through suspension, while the back four remained unchanged from last week’s league match against the Hammers.
Unlike the frustration of Manchester United’s recent league draws, this wasn’t a vintage attacking performance, but it was vintage Mourinho. Away from home at one of the toughest grounds in the Premier League, United were resolute, disciplined and clinical. They had more of the ball than Everton, scored an excellent goal in the first half, defended well for 85 minutes and threatened on the counter-attack throughout the second half as the hosts chased their equaliser. Were it not for Fellaini’s ridiculous challenge, United would have come away from Goodison with three valuable points. Comfortable for the most part, the only threat to United’s goal was swatted away by the brilliance of David De Gea midway through the second half.
The first half was a pretty turgid affair. United were resilient defensively but awful in transition, rarely threatening the Everton goal in the opening 45 minutes. In fact, there was not one shot on goal for either team until Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s opening goal in the 42nd minute. United’s lack of quality was technical rather than tactical, as Ibrahimovic was ineffective as a target man and failed to bring others into play on the counter-attack. Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were selected for their pace on the counter, but were largely anonymous before the break.
United’s plan was simple and the combinations were there to exploit if they could get the execution right. Once the ball was played into Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Martial and Mkhitaryan were charged with getting forward in support of the Swede and running beyond him. Unfortunately for United, Ibrahimovic only completed 63% of his passes in that period and rarely found a teammate in advanced positions. As a result, many of their attacking efforts were wasted and United could not establish a period of possession inside the Everton half, let alone create opportunities to score.
Going into the second half with a one goal lead, United were far more efficient in possession of the football. Their best spell came in the first 15 minutes of the half, culminating in a wonderful chance to score when Ander Herrera hit the bar with a left-footed shot.
There was no tactical change at half-time, but United’s execution was far better. In that short period after the break, Ibrahimovic completed 89% of his passes and allowed United to advance further up the pitch.
What followed was the execution of the fairly predictable game plan, but it was a joy to watch. United attacked with speed on the flanks and transitioned smoothly from defence to attack time after time. Their best work came down the left-hand side, as Pogba, Martial and Ibrahimovic linked up impressively. One the other side, Mkhitaryan’s perseverance and intelligence created openings too, including the move that led to Herrera’s chance.
In the final half hour, Mourinho reverted to type and his team sat a little deeper to protect their precious advantage. Understandable given United’s recent results, but it made for a nervous watch for anyone wearing red. As a result of their newly established defensive stance, Everton assumed greater control of the ball and United’s passing became more erratic and less reliable.
By examining United’s use of the ball in the final half an hour, it is evident how quickly their attacking threat diminished. Unable to play the ball out through midfield, they resorted to more long balls forward to Ibrahimovic, which simply did not stick with their lone forward. As a result the ball came back at them more frequently and applied even more pressure on David De Gea’s goal.
Fortunately for Mourinho’s side, Everton’s desperation to create anything of note led to them attempting far more long passes than would be advisable in this situation. The graphic above shows how many of these longer passes were cut out by United, as well as how rarely Everton were able to penetrate the United penalty area in that final thirty minutes.
Which moves us swiftly on to Everton’s equaliser.
The introduction of Marouane Fellaini was a decision steeped in understandable logic. Everton were pumping the ball forward with increasing regularity and Fellaini would add height and aerial prowess to a United side that was just trying to get over the line. In reality, he was not needed and should not have been introduced. United’s back four was coping admirably with Everton’s aerial bombardment and they were never under any real pressure from Ronald Koeman’s side.
Throughout the 90 minutes, Manchester United’s four defenders won 75% of their aerial duels. They were so comfortable with this particular threat that only one of those duels even occurred inside the penalty area. Jones and Rojo controlled the defensive third well and prevented Everton from reaching their own box on multiple occasions. As the pressure increased in that final thirty minutes, the back four made five additional headed clearances as they looked to protect a much needed clean sheet.
Jose Mourinho cut a disconsolate figure at full-time. He recognised and repeated his belief that Manchester United were showing excellent form and refused to acknowledge that his side was in any kind of trouble. It is almost with disbelief that United supporters look at the league table and see their team so far off the pace. Much of their anger will be directed towards Marouane Fellaini’s stupidity; Gary Neville described his challenge as ‘pathetic’ and ‘garbage’, but the prevailing emotion is one of frustration. This is a team that is functioning well on so many different levels. In the last month they have shown great ability going forward, today they showed their capacity to defend expertly too. The performances this season should have yielded ten or twelve more points already, yet here we are. Football can be a cruel game sometimes.