Fullback ambition crucial to encounter
Picture the scene: August 2010, the sun beats down on five Evertonians sat in a field in Herefordshire, the Big Chill festival unfolding around them. Inevitably the conversation turns to football and predictions for the season ahead. All five agree that the squad for the season 2010/11 is the strongest we’ve had since the 1980s and without the ‘distraction’ of European football, a top 4 finish is a realistic goal. The horrendous injuries to key players that hamstrung recent campaigns were thankfully behind us, and Moyes’ policy of adding two or three young, talented players season after season appeared to be bearing fruit. The cider was particularly strong that summer.
Fast forward to April 2011 and a sober look back at the season reveals that optimism to be wildly misplaced as we have struggled to find any real form despite playing some decent football at times. The main problem has been up front, with ex-Leeds man Beckford undoubtedly struggling with the two-division leap; whilst Saha has had his usual intimate relationship with the treatment table! Add to this Moyes’ inexplicable decision to loan out Yakubu and James Vaughan and our forward line has been woefully under resourced. And yet we prepare for Saturday’s match at Old Trafford in our best form of the season, riding high on the back of some good wins over Newcastle, Fulham, Wolves and Blackburn. But this fixture is the one I really dread every season, and will inevitably watch most of the game through my fingers; the last Everton win at Old Trafford was a 3-0 victory in August 1992.
I fully expect Moyes to pick a side that is strong defensively and line up in a 4-4-1-1 formation, with the two central midfielders sitting very deep and Osman playing in front of them, supporting Beckford wherever possible. The most important selections for Moyes will be those on either flank in an attempt to deal with the pace and threat of Nani and Valencia. If fit, Seamus Coleman who started his career as a pacey right back, will play right midfield to provide Tony Hibbert with some support. On the left, the young Frenchman Magaye Gueye has been impressive in that position since his recent first team debut against Villa, but his inexperience may count against him. It seems Moyes will select Bilyaletdinov, who has been incredibly disappointing since his £10million transfer two years ago – but in behind him we have Baines, an outstanding left back whose omission from the PFA team of the year is a mystery to me. His handling of Nani/ Valencia (another bizarre omission) could be the key to Everton getting anything from the game. Baines’ threat going forward – including his delivery from set pieces – will provide Everton with their best chance of breaking down an excellent Man United defence (see chalkboard comparison with Evra below).
In the absence of key players such as Arteta and Fellaini (with Cahill expected to only the make the bench), Everton have regained some of the energy and fortitude, in the form of Neville and Heitinga, that has been absent for large parts of the season. This has enabled Leon Osman a freedom to roam across the midfield and link the attack. To me he has always looked like a player without a position – not enough pace to play out wide and not strong enough for central midfield – but his recent performances have proved me wrong, and he is in the form of his life. I expect him to sit in front of Neville and Rodwell then, the latter perhaps starting in place of the injured Hetinga in central midfield and Moyes will no doubt ask him to sit deeper than he has for most of the season – a role that I think suits him better; there is no doubting Rodwell’s talent, but for me he needs to start exerting his authority on games more. If the rumours about a possible transfer to United in the summer are true, Saturday’s game will take on additional importance to him: An audition in front of 75 thousand critics.
Prediction: 2-0 to United as they march towards a well-deserved 19th league title.
Probable starting line-ups
Fergie’s team face a resurgent Everton side hot on the heals of their more illustrious Merseyside rivals. If it wasn’t for such an insipid start and mid-season injuries, Everton could well be challenging for those four Champions League places; Moyes’ talent as ever shining through despite rumours of boardroom unrest. Fergie will be stressing the importance of a concentrated performance as his side remain 6 points clear with only a handful of games to spare in the league.
There are selection dilemmas across the park given the trip to Germany on Tuesday evening, with Fergie likely to rest a few key men ahead of the Champions League semi-final.
With this in mind, Kuszczak could return to the side after performing well in the last home game versus Fulham. Smalling, Rafael and Fabio will all be staking their claim for a starting birth, though Fergie is unlikely to make more than one or two changes to his back four. In midfield, the temptation will be to rest Carrick, but his positional discipline may well be required to stifle the movement of Osman and Coleman – Everton’s stand-out performers of late. Gibson and Anderson will be competing for a starting birth alongside the England man, though the Brazilian’s fitness level may well count against him. Gibson has performed with a quiet competence in his recent outings versus West Ham and Fulham, and his inclusion may allow Anderson and Giggs much needed recuperation time ahead of Schalke.
United are likely to play the 4-2-3-1 system which has been used with success latterly, meaning that Rooney is asked to adopt the ‘number 10’ role, and dropping deeper than would be expected in order to stifle opposition attacks from deep. With Park, Giggs and Hernandez all likely to start in Germany, recalls for Valencia and Berbatov are on the cards, with Nani perhaps starting on the left and instructed to run at Hibbert, coming inside at every opportunity. It was noticeable versus Newcastle how narrow the band of four midfield players was, with Nani and Giggs tucking in when without the ball; if Berbatov is fit to start, his selection in recent games has automatically seen Rooney adopt the deeper role linking the midfield and attack – meaning that Valencia and Nani (or Park) are given greater freedom to vary their attacking play, and a more central approach and thus a greater reliance on fullback ambition.
Evra v Baines: Evra prefers to be involved earlier and cut inside; Baines seeks to cross from high and wide (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
Evra who has had a mixed season by his standards, has continued to provide support for the narrow sitting Nani and Giggs in recent games, and it is his direct running and strength in the opposition final third which could be key tomorrow, and indeed in the coming games (see chalkboard). Rafael should give O’Shea a well-earned rest after the latter has looked tired in his last two outings, and his attacking capabilities could be a real asset; both he and Valencia will seek to pin Baines and Bilyaletdinov back into defensive positions and restrict the potential for both to link with on-form Osman who likes to drift to that side. The young Brazilian will have to show maturity when without the ball and be alert to the threat of Baines from wide crossing posiitons; his ability to find players hitting the ball this season has been second to none (highest cross completion ratio in the league, and at one point seemed to have a radar-like link with Cahill) and Rafael will no doubt want to show him inside and work with the central midfield players to nullify his approach.
Referee: Peter Walton – A referee who has got better with age, though must have wanted the ground to swallow him up in the recent Everton- Birmingham game; he forgot his yellow card and instead held his hand in the air to caution. Also failed to awarded Blackpool a penalty at Bloomfield Road as Rafael challenged Varney carelessly in the penalty area.
Prediction: I too think we may see a 2-0 scoreline, with goals from Berbatov and Rooney.
Do you agree with Sleepy Nik’s team selection?
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