Considering how Manchester United were outmuscled in midfield by Everton earlier in the season and the poor form of his natural wingers, Sir Alex Ferguson could reintroduce his diamond midfield against Everton with Wayne Rooney behind two forwards. However, given that the league leaders are at home and are unbeaten in 13 league games Ferguson will probably keep faith with his customary 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape. Everton came back from 3-1 down to Aston Villa last weekend after switching to two forwards in a 4-4-2 but David Moyes is likely to start with Marouane Fellaini behind a lone striker – assuming he passes a late fitness test – from where the Belgian scored the winner against United in August. United and Everton have played out some incredible games in recent years, largely owing to the use of similar systems but with vastly opposing styles.
Ferguson has used a 4-4-1-1 formation for the large majority of his time at United, with only the occasional forays with 4-5-1/4-3-3 variations and the recent midfield diamond experiments interrupting the sequence. Moyes has been even more consistent with his tactics having used a 4-4-1-1 shape for almost all of his ten years at the club. Whereas some mirrored formations make for dull games, in this case the match-up can be particularly interesting. The system encourages wing play making for a battle on either flank, but the main area of interest is the positioning of the midfielders and the advanced midfielder. With both teams lacking a player stationed in front of the defence there can often be space between the lines for Fellaini and Wayne Rooney to exploit. Therefore the central midfielders have a decision as to who to engage – do they drop deep to defend against the deep forward but risk giving their opposing midfielders time on the ball, or do they square up to the opposing midfielders and leave space in between the lines?
With United and Everton this is compounded by both teams’ positional freedom. Moyes demands that his Everton side remain compact and positionally disciplined. The central midfield pairing will mostly look to remain in the middle of the field, while the two advanced players ahead will largely remain between the width of the penalty box to offer targets for long balls and crosses. Only Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas are given license to roam from their wide midfield positions, but they are still required to offer defensive support to their full back when possession is lost. Leighton Baines is particularly attacking from left full back, but with Seamus Coleman unavailable Phil Neville is likely to be more conservative on the other side of defence.
In contrast Ferguson allows his players far greater freedom. Both Rooney and Robin van Persie take up positions across the width of the pitch, looking to pull defenders out of position and create space for others. Although van Persie generally starts ahead of Rooney, both are capable of dropping deep and swapping positions. In midfield only Michael Carrick holds his position in the centre of the pitch as Tom Cleverley is given the freedom to support attacks out wide or further forward. On the flanks, wide midfielders are given license to take up any position in attack. United have numerous options there – Antonio Valencia prefers to remain wide, Nani and Ashley Young often play on the side of their weaker foot and look to cut inside to deliver crosses, Shinji Kagawa looks to move into central positions between the lines and Danny Welbeck offers direct running into goalscoring positions. Whoever is chosen against Everton there will be far less structure to United’s attacking play than that of the visitors.
It is always difficult to predict Ferguson’s team selection considering his penchant for rotation, especially with a Champions League fixture against Real Madrid only days away. Nevertheless Everton are an opponent he respects suggesting a strong team will be fielded. With the defence returning to normality following several absences through injury, and Rooney and van Persie forming a partnership in attack, the biggest puzzle is in midfield and specifically the wide positions. Young is injured so will not feature, but United’s other natural wide options are severely out of form and have been out of favour in recent weeks. Both Nani and Valencia were recalled against Fulham last weekend but neither impressed, so Ferguson will have to consider the benefits of Kagawa and Welbeck out wide.
Given Everton’s strength on their left it is possible Ferguson will select Valencia to provide extra defensive support to Rafael, but also to offer a natural wide threat to pin back Baines. Nevertheless as strong as they are as an attacking partnership, Baines and Pienaar also defend well together, so Ferguson may prefer to remain solid on the right and focus attacks down the left. There he may choose between Kagawa and Welbeck, neither likely to stay wide but both capable of supporting attacks, with the Japanese playmaker particularly adept at finding space in dangerous areas and combining with the forwards. Mirallas is not as solid defensively as Pienaar, and therefore Patrice Evra could have success attacking Neville to leave Kagawa free to cause Everton problems in central areas.
Moyes’ has fewer selection concerns, with both first choice wingers available in Pienaar and Mirallas. As previously mentioned Pienaar has an excellent relationship with Baines and they rarely ‘lose’ a wing battle to any opponent, so it remains to be seen if Ferguson opts to take them on or simply contain them. Mirallas may be replaced by a more conservative option if Moyes has reservations about his defensive solidity, especially given the uncertainty at right full back where Neville may return for Johnny Heitinga, who was poor in their previous league game against Aston Villa. Yet Mirallas offers pace, movement and a genuine goalscoring threat from midfield, and Everton have occasionally looked one-dimensional without him. Both Pienaar and Mirallas will move off the flanks, but neither play as narrow as Kagawa meaning that Fellaini still remains the main threat between the lines.
Wayne Rooney and Marouane Fellaini
In theory Rooney and Fellaini are key to how their teams play. Both players have the freedom to decide how advanced to position themselves and are comfortable operating between midfield and attack. At times this season Rooney and Fellaini have dropped into midfield and formed a 4-5-1 to help retain possession in the middle of the pitch, or moved alongside the striker to make a 4-4-2 and challenge the central defenders. Clearly whatever the positions they take up will need to match the team’s requirements at any point in the game.
The two players are also completely different. Fellaini began his Everton career in midfield but is incredibly strong in the air owing to his height and has become a threat in the opposition’s penalty area. He generally moves between the extremes – either centre midfield or centre forward. Rooney is more subtle and prefers to operate in between the midfield and attack, finding space in front of the opposition’s defence. He is also more comfortable moving wide, particularly to the left flank where he can cut inside onto his stronger foot. Fellaini still has the technical quality to operate between the lines, and Rooney possesses the energy and ability to play in midfield or attack, but due to their natural games it is likely the two players will perform in different ways.
Naturally this will change how their teammates approach the game. If Fellaini constantly moves between midfield and attack there is less requirement for United’s midfielders to drop deep to cover the space in front of the defence, giving them more time to pressure their direct opponents. However it also means that United’s centre backs will often both be occupied, which isn’t ideal given Fellaini’s dominance in the air. Conversely Rooney dropping between the lines may force Everton’s midfielders deeper, but it will also allow their two centre backs to watch van Persie.
The combination of mirrored 4-4-1-1 systems and the divergence in tactical instruction makes for an interesting encounter. Freedom against organisation is an age-old tactical consideration, with the argument that an organised system is better equipped to enhance the combined ability of the team, but a degree of freedom is necessary to allow the most talented individuals to express themselves. Given that Ferguson’s side is superior in quality to Moyes’ yet this fixture has often been evenly contested, either Everton’s organisation is triumphing or United’s individuals are consistently talented enough to exploit the freedom they are granted.