Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Loftus Road between QPR and Everton was a typically good Premier League game. It was fast, frenetic, passionate and was dotted with moments of individual quality. Tactically the game was also interesting, separated into three phases during which the nature of the game changed.
Many column inches have been devoted to the importance of Marouane Fellaini this year, with the giant Belgian in excellent form prior to his injury. The switch in his position and improved performances has undoubtedly added an extra dimension to the Toffees’ play this year. However, as I’ve stated previously I do not think he has been the most important factor in Everton’s excellent start.
The Baines-Pienaar axis on the left-hand side has proven to be not only Everton’s most dangerous outlet but the most effective combination in the league. They produce more chances per game than any other pairing and Everton’s play has often been characterised by Pienaar cutting inside and Baines overlapping outside him, with a more solid and defensive right-hand side used to balance the team.
The injury to Fellaini was a blow to David Moyes and required an adjustment; however the reshuffle to the starting line-up to a 4-5-1 with Pienaar moved centrally seemed a strange one. The value of partnerships in football can never be underestimated and by breaking up the left-sided combination it merely exaggerated the effect of Fellaini’s unavailability.
For the first 30 minutes, the Everton players seemed unable to adjust to the new system and QPR took full advantage, producing their best spell of football this season. The opening goal itself had little to do with the tactical shape, as Junior Hoilett’s strike came from a quick break after defending a corner, but QPR were dominant and deserved their lead over the first third of the game.
Armand Traore and Adel Taarabt were a constant threat down the left, and with Victor Anichebe looking a little lost in an unusual position, Phil Neville was being dragged across to cover. This left additional space for the excellent Esteban Granero to dictate the game from the middle and the away side struggled to cope. Around the half hour mark, Moyes reverted to his usual system with Kevin Mirallas joining the previously isolated Nikica Jelavić while Pienaar moved outside to his preferred position on the left. Instantly Everton seemed more comfortable and began to influence the game in a way they hadn’t done previously. Baines and Pienaar began to assert themselves on the game, with the full-back now able to get into much more advanced positions. Anichebe dropped a little deeper to provide Seamus Coleman with some protection and Neville was able to get closer to Granero. It was the typical Everton system we have become used to seeing.
The equalising goal came a few minutes after this switch and the Toffees enjoyed their best spell of the game until Pienaar was dismissed harshly on 60 minutes for his second booking. QPR were still producing some good stuff, buoyed by their start to the game, but they were significantly less threatening than they had been before Everton’s switch.
Pienaar’s sending off changed the game to the expected pattern of 11 versus 10 and for the last third of the game QPR were again in the ascendency. Mirallas shifted back to where he started on the left and Everton dropped deeper as a team. QPR heavily dominated possession with Granero able to use his intelligence to utilise the extra space once again. Despite this advantage, they were unable to find the winning goal and, disappointingly for Mark Hughes, finished with no more than a point.
There was a visible vulnerability about QPR going into this game and had Everton really pushed them from the start then the match may have been played out differently. However, Moyes’ tactical adjustment handed the initiative to Hughes’ side, filling them with confidence, and they were unlucky not to record their first victory of the season.