This time, it was all about Landon Donovan.
The buildup to Friday afternoon’s FA Cup clash was billed as a contest between America’s best and most-accomplished field players in Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It ended as a one-sided display in which the tried-and-true tactics of Everton’s 4-4-2 undid Fulham’s hybridized 4-3-3, producing a comprehensive – if at times somewhat sloppy – 2-1 victory that flattered the visitors.
The early goal
Neither side looked particularly threatening through the first 10 minutes, but all it took was a single lapse from the Toffees for Fulham to earn a penalty.
The play started with an overload on the right side of the Cottagers midfield and an over-rotation from the normally solid and composed Everton back line. Phil Neville, the Everton right back, slid centrally, leaving Donovan to cover the overlapping run of Fulham’s John Arne Riise.
This is normally Donovan’s bread and butter on defense. His instincts, acceleration and top-end speed are all world-class, and were a huge part of why the US have allowed so few crosses from the left side over the past few years. But this time, he got caught ball-watching, and Riise’s cross eventually turned into a Johnny Heitinga handball at the spot. Danny Murphy converted to make it 1-0.
Everton find their feet
The goal woke Everton up, and they did what all teams in a 4-4-2 should do when they’re facing a side that plays a 4-3-3: Overload on the wings and send in cross after cross after cross, and send them in early.
That’s the risk of the 4-3-3, especially if you’re not able to dominate the central midfield (and Fulham weren’t – Marouane Fellaini was a one-man wrecking crew in blue). Because the wingers play higher and often more narrow than in a 4-4-2, the fullbacks in a 4-3-3 have to come higher up the pitch and try to stop the early ball. That quite often leaves two forwards against two central defenders in the 18 – not perfect odds, but not bad ones, either.
The threat of the early ball is what ended up giving Donovan the space to whip in the cross for the equalizer. Neville put a ball into space for Donovan to run onto against Riise, who committed to stopping the American from curling in a right-footer on the run. So Donovan hit the breaks, took a touch and picked out Denis Stracqualursi ghosting between Fulham’s central defenders.
Just like that, it was 1-1.
Dempsey can’t get into the game
Martin Jol’s 4-3-3 was hybridized because Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz aren’t as married to the wings as you usually see out of the formation. Both were just as likely to drop into midfield to help in possession, making it a 4-1-4-1 with Andy Johnson stranded all by his lonesome.
When Dempsey did get onto the ball, it was usually deeper than he’d like, and almost always with only one target to pick out. That would normally call for small-ball buildup, but with Fellaini running rampant, Fulham were never able to put a sequence together.
Donovan, meanwhile, came into the game more and more as the half wore on. His best look came just minutes from the whistle when he ran onto a nice layoff from Tim Cahill and thundered a 25-yarder that David Stockdale had to parry away.
It tightens up
The first half was not particularly beautiful soccer, and the second half was even more cynical. Neither team was willing to commit numbers forward en masse, instead looking for deep turnovers, set pieces or counter opportunities.
Fulham got one of those early courtesy of Ruiz, who was probably the best of his team in possession but once again squandered several scoring opportunities himself.
This time, though, he made very much like Donovan in getting wide early, then cutting back and crossing to the area. Dempsey somehow found himself unmarked and – disappointingly – headed over from about 10 yards. It was the kind of chance you’d have bet good money he would bury.
That was it for Fulham, who barely managed to test Tim Howard until the final minutes when Bobby Zamora came on to provide a target off which Dempsey and Ruiz could run.
But that was too little, too late.
Fellaini gets forward
The amply coiffed Fellaini is only just recovering the form that he had back in late 2009/early 2010, when he seemed destined to become one of the best midfielders in the world, a Flemish Yaya Touré.
He looked every bit of that on Friday, and got his reward in the aftermath of a quick free kick after Donovan had split the defense and was brought down by Chris Baird. Neville took it short and quickly, giving Donovan time and space to pick Fellaini – who’d stayed up despite the quick free kick – just beyond the six-yard box.
Donovan, as he so often does, put his cross on the big man’s head, and Feillaini was clinical in looping the ball over Stockdale at the back post.
The execution on the part of both players was textbook. From the Fulham perspective, though, it was probably one of the most disappointing goals against of the season, as the whole thing could have been undone had Baird or Damian Duff simply stood over the ball and not allowed the quick free kick.
Yes, it’s gamesmanship, but that’s why it’s done.
Cahill nearly doubled the lead minutes later, rattling the crossbar. But in the end it wasn’t needed, as the 2-1 advantage stood.
And for those of you who were wondering: No, Donovan and Dempsey didn't trade shirts after the match. Maybe there is a rivalry, after all.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.