How Bad Luck and Bad Positioning Cost Manchester United Against Everton

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We learned last February at the OptaPro Conference that there is statistical evidence that yes—goals change games. If you concede a single goal, you are as a team statistically more likely to try to push up the pitch and shoot more often (from worse positions) than your opponents, who will take fewer yet far more dangerous shots.

This is intuitive; if you’re losing, you’ll be more desperate for a goal, whilst your opponents may be happy to sit back and defend a little more deeply. That leaves you vulnerable on the break.

Though I’m not certain, I think this tendency changes somewhat depending on when the first goal is conceded. In Manchester United’s case this past weekend, they found themselves down 1-0 to Everton at Goodison Park after only five minutes of play thanks to a standard counterattacking move following a corner. And whilst the defending may have arguably been a little better, this is an instance where luck almost certainly played a slightly outsized role.

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Here however is one instance where we can be a little critical of United’s positioning. Daley Blind found himself in the “Michael Carrick” role, commanding transitions between defense and the midfield. Yet because United have started the 20-year-old Paddy McNair in centreback, along with two attack-minded fullbacks Luke Shaw and Antonio Valencia, it might make sense for Blind to stay a little farther back when United is vulnerable on the break (as they are after this short corner).

This really isn’t his M.O., however, and he edges quite close to the 18-yard-line as Juan Mata’s cross arcs toward the box without checking who’s behind him.

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And here is where a little bit of sour luck comes in … with Gareth Barry heading clear, Blind runs back to try to win possession, just as Valencia comes forward to do the same, though Romelu Lukaku may have something to say about it. Meanwhile Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy hedge their bets by steaming into the open channels.

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But Valencia misses his header completely! Worse, the ball bounces kindly for McCarthy who has the length of the pitch to run into. United were playing a dangerous game there perhaps, and Lukaku did his part by mucking up the works, but this is some bad luck.

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Even worse for United, the only player in a relatively deep position to track the counter,the youngster Paddy McNair, sees Coleman’s cross intended for Lukaku come off his foot directly into the path of McCarthy.

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And the final bit of ill luck. McNair for some reason fails to hack the ball away from the feet of McCarthy, who managed to just maintain his balance in the box and finish. As I’ve harped on endlessly before, normal defending becomes extraordinarily difficult on the break.

Did this goal have an effect on play for the remaining 85 minutes? It’s impossible to say with absolute certainty (as are most things in football save for the results and the scoreline), yet there was an additional factor here for Louis Van Gaal’s Man United to contend with—Everton had almost nothing to play for, save for a little bit of extra merit pay from the EPL domestic TV deal should they move up the table from their current 10th place. This means they didn’t need to go out and risk scoring another at home, nor did they have to play with any sort of caution when in possession. Being a goal up early at home under these circumstances could be seen as a major advantage. From United’s perspective, though the team missed a few gilt-edged chances to equalize, it’s not exactly a Sign of Evil.

Everton’s second goal came from another marauding run from Coleman on the right, which led to a series of corners, finally headed in by John Stones from a Leighton Baines corner. Meanwhile United missed a chance to pip derby rivals City for second place.

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