All tactics have their origin stories, and April 2012’s meeting between Manchester United and Everton was the birth of perhaps the most infamous playstyle in recent memory.
The hit-and-hope to Marouane Fellaini.
Retaining the Premier League title was in United’s hands towards the end of the 2011/12 season. 35 games in and Sir Alex Ferguson’s men held a three-point advantage over cross-town rivals Manchester City, who they would meet on matchday 36. They knew they could win the title at the Etihad that day, but to do so, they’d have to get past Everton first.
Tricky customers at the time, Everton were sat in seventh in the Premier League table and were unbeaten in their last five games – a run which included draws with both Stoke and Norwich – but they weren’t expected to cause too many problems. Their European push had only really started a few weeks earlier.
However, right from the off, United struggled to deal with Nikica Jelavic. A sentence like that sounds pretty crazy these days, but in April 2012, it made a whole lot of sense. The Croatian had just bagged 14 goals in 22 games for Rangers, and after a mid-season switch to Everton, was already on four goals. He was a Fantasy Football king.
His movement was too much for United, and Jelavic got his reward in the 33rd minute as he sent a header looping over a young, error-prone David de Gea and into the back of the net. Game on.
Fergie wanted a response from his men, and that’s exactly what he got. Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck looked like prime Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke as they both scored to put United 2-1 up after half-time, after which a delicious chip from Nani added to the lead.
That Jelavic header looked like an anomaly as United ripped through Everton’s defence with devastating ease, but David Moyes’ men just wouldn’t lie down, and with his best attempt at predicting the future, Fellaini connected with a cross at Old Trafford to half the deficit.
Again, it was just a bump in the road. Welbeck and Rooney channelled their inner Brazil 1970 to put United 4-2 up in the 69th minute, and the Red Devils looked to be one step closer to the title. With 82 minutes on the clock, that lead was intact.
Then all hell broke loose.
Making a nuisance of himself in the box yet again, Fellaini caused chaos and helped the ball finds its way to the boot of Jelavic, who thundered his way to six goals in the season with a great volley. They couldn’t, could they?
As it turns out, they absolutely could.
Three minutes later, it was Steven Pienaar sprinting down the Old Trafford touchline with his shirt over his head, having just poked home the unlikeliest of equalisers, with an assist from the inevitable, unstoppable Fellaini. It’s surprising it took United over a year to actually sign him after this.
“It was a throwaway, an absolute giveaway,” Ferguson said after the game (via Goal). “We just needed to see the game out, and it’s a travesty because some of our football was fantastic.
“The goals we scored were great. To give away four goals at Old Trafford in a home game that’s so important…I just can’t believe it.”
The boss admitted that United had given the initiative to City, and he wasn’t wrong. When these two sides met the following week, a Vincent Kompany header had Roberto Mancini’s men ahead on goal difference, and they didn’t let that slip.