Just over a year on from Everton’s stunning 3-0 victory over Arsenal, Goodison Park finally witnessed a comparable afternoon as off-colour Man Utd were vanquished in near identical fashion on Sunday. In a similar tactical tweak, Roberto Martinez inverted his usual setup, instead sitting deep and attacking with pace on the counter. United, territorial dominators throughout their recent great run, walked straight into the trap. A rampaging breakaway opener from James ‘more or less the new Messi’ McCarthy and a commanding near-post header from the outstanding John Stones gave Everton control, before the far-less-sheepish Kevin Mirallas killed the game. For the first time this season, Martinez matched the standards of the landmark Arsenal win.
The stats from that glorious afternoon last April read much the same as Sunday’s win: v Arsenal: 43% of possession, 14 shots, seven on target; v Man Utd: 35% possession, nine shots, seven on target. Both times, Everton’s opponents’ attacking shape became a framework for exploitation. Whereas the first win confirmed Everton’s status as credible top four challengers, the latter served merely to pull them into the top half for the first time since Christmas – a grim reality made palatable by the victory’s similarly boisterous style. Everton were superb and Martinez got it spot on, lulling Man Utd’s expansive, advancing attack into position to open huge spaces behind, and nullifying key threat Marouane Fellaini. McCarthy, Gareth Barry and Ross Barkley bossed everything between Everton’s back four to Man Utd’s back four, and crucially, after five minutes, beyond.
McCarthy’s attacking development has been the subject of plenty of discussion of late. The first, tiny drops of progress after a tactical drought. Sunday was the best he’s been in his new role. A fifth-minute Juan Mata cross from a short corner was headed out by Barry and nodded down by Romelu Lukaku. From that point, McCarthy did exactly what you’d stand up and roar. He charged forward, spread the play to Aaron Lennon, pursued the rebounded ball, surged further, rode two shoddy challenges before slotting calmly past David De Gea. Everton had clearly set up to draw United on to them and instantly it had worked – an early goal effectively the main aim of a counter-attacking outfit.
Behind McCarthy, Barry dropped much deeper to augment already retreated centre-halves. There was occasional nuance to his passing and interceptions, but it was the much less noble art of Cattermolism that set his first-half performance apart. Barry annoyed the hell out of the returning, in-form Fellaini, charging and hassling in a manner generally reserved for sniffer dogs and smugglers. The Belgian’s glaring miss on six minutes followed by a booking five minutes later wrote the script: off at the break to be replaced by the (I can say it now) pretty rubbish Falcao.
McCarthy’s frequent surges and Barry’s defensive assistance gave Everton a concertina-esque flexibility – an extra attacking midfielder whenever required, an auxiliary centre-back when it wasn’t. In between, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera’s inadequate cover blessed Barkley with enough space to roam and build up confidence. Like McCarthy, Barkley has been bolder and more direct recently and much better for it: the combined thrust of this pacy, powerful duo exactly what’s needed to invigorate an often lifeless midfield. Backed up by Seamus Coleman, Lukaku and Lennon who runs at what is essentially an hilarious speed, Everton bound forward with such noticeably superior speed that the Premier League administering drug tests would have been a fair assessment. Barry, McCarthy, Jagielka and Stones drew nearer and Everton simply waited to spring. At the base of it all, Tim Howard claimed his fourth clean sheet in six matches sturdier and sharper than he’s been all season.
And then the motif of every managerial masterclass: the Midas touch substitution. 69 minutes seemed like nine minutes too long to keep Leon Osman on for Mirallas, but as the latter took advantage of Paddy McNair’s misjudgement to supremely finish past David De Gea five minutes later, Martinez had rendered a dubious selection a 10 out of 10 decision. Mirallas celebrated in markedly happier fashion to last week, nearly added a fourth with a brilliant mazy dribble and curled shot combination and later hinted at a stay beyond the summer – “A lot of people talk [about] my future, but I’m very happy here. I see, next season, the same shirt”. Rehabilitation to complement development and motivation: all in all Roberto Martinez’s finest afternoon for a long time.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789.