United had played very well against Basel in the midweek but needed to take it up another gear when facing Everton at home. United eventually ran out 4-0 winners, but that scoreline does not do their performance justice. They were lethargic and lifeless for a large part of the second half and could have easily let Everton grab a draw. A late collapse by Everton swung the game from a stuttering victory to a comfortable one.
Mourinho was forced to replace the injured Pogba after his injury midweek. With many different options available to him, including the experience of Michael Carrick and the tenacity of Ander Herrera, he opted for his personal favourite, the powerhouse that is Marouane Fellaini. Ashley Young had obviously impressed Mourinho against Basel, managing to get in the Premier League starting eleven at left-back ahead of Darmian. Rashford and Mata also started either side of Mkhitaryan. Everton lined up in a 3-4-3/5-4-1, with United legend Rooney starting up front. Their eleven was very workmanlike but was also very slow.
The game started perfectly for United with a Valencia opener inside 5 minutes. Matic swung the ball across to the edge of the penalty area, where the lonely Ecuadorian rifled a half-volley into the back of the net. He possessed the air of a man being controlled on FIFA, whose player had no idea how to play but had accidentally pressed the shoot button. There was no run-up, beginning from a standing start, he simply smashed the ball in, then jogged off as if nothing had happened.
For the first fifteen to twenty minutes, United completely dominated the game, pinning Everton back inside their own box. However, they didn’t inundate Pickford’s goal with multiple attempts. United may have been missing the influence of Pogba and his ability to develop chances from deep. The ball was often kept in front of the Everton defence rather than being played in behind. Here’s hoping the reporting 12-week layoff is incorrect.
Rooney then managed a half chance for the visitors, but on 26 minutes Lukaku had the chance to kill the game. Everton gave the ball away to Mata, who slotted the Belgian through only for him to skewer it wide one on one with Pickford. After this miss, Everton started to grow into the game. They began to move the ball quicker and pushed further forward but were unable to create any meaningful chances. Just prior to halftime, United managed to push Everton back again, but as has happened too often recently, failed to create any clear opportunities.
United were slow to start the second half and Everton could have scored immediately after the whistle. Rooney got into the United box, broke through a weak Bailly tackle and poked an ultimately tame shot at De Gea. This seemed to stun the reds and they never managed to get going, playing as if they’d all eaten a large lunch at halftime. As this period continued, United struggled to control the ball and Everton were able to completely control the game. Sigurddsson also went close, bundling his way into the United box, only for De Gea to stay tall and block the chance.
In United’s duller periods of the second half, Lukaku was completely uninvolved and the combination play between the three players behind the Belgian was also absent. Matic and Fellaini, whilst playing well generally, spent most of the second half sat in front of the back four making challenges, unable to find anyone with the out ball.
Whether the shape and generally negative attitude of the United team was down to the players on the field or instructions from the manager remains to be seen. If it’s a tactical move, it is an incredibly risky one. Why not try to blow the opposition away when you’re in control, rather than get ahead then drop and wait for the gaps to open up? If it’s due to the attitudes of the players and their mindset on the field, then Mourinho must be worried. This isn’t good enough.
As the second half dragged on, Mata managed to hit the post with a free kick and Lingard, on for the sluggish Rashford, then skied the ball from a Young cut back. The atmosphere in the ground began to turn. It felt like a matter of time. United’s negativity was pulling the ball closer to their own net. Matic let off a shot from 35 yards out that skimmed wide, but this felt more like an act of desperation rather than a meaningful attempt.
Then the tide turned. Herrera came on for Mata and Calvert-Lewin came on for Gueye. The change of dynamic in the midfield seemed to allow United to kick into gear, they were suddenly more urgent, looking to create rather than sitting back. Lingard and Herrera added the energy and work rate that had been missing before their arrival. The whole side moved ten yards further forward. Something was happening.
The second goal came through an Everton error due to this sudden pressing. Williams played a moronic ball at the shins of Fellaini that ricocheted to the feet of Lukaku. With the Everton defence scrambling back, the Belgian slipped in Mkhitaryan who dispatched it past Pickford. The game had been won despite it not being entirely deserved at this stage.
United’s late flurry continued with a poacher’s goal from Lukaku. His failed free kick spun out to Matic on the left-hand side of the area, whose shot deflected up across the box, shaving Lingard’s head and landing on the right foot of the Belgian forward. He wheeled away, cupping his ear to the Everton fans, something that’s always lovely to see (despite how often we’re told it’s not).
There was still time for De Gea to make another wonderful save from a long shot by Sandro. De Gea has rather quietly continued his form from last season into this. Whenever a player breaks through or gets one on one, deep down you feel like he’ll thwart them and of course, he often does. The Spaniard has come a long way from the wispy kid who couldn’t catch a cross. Now he must be considered one of the best in the world. Fergie did have a good eye for a player.
With the game all but over, Martial, on for Mkhitaryan, went for a wander with the ball down the left. He slipped past Martina and Baines, only to run into the hand of Morgan Schneiderlin. The penalty was awarded and the Frenchman comfortably slipped the ball past Pickford.
Yet another game when United won 4-0 with a late outbreak of goals. But also a game when Mourinho’s substitutions greatly affected the outcome. Lingard came on to get an assist and his movement and drive really swung the game in United’s favour. Martial also came on and got a goal in the two minutes he was on the field, while Herrera allowed the team to take control of the midfield. This is a major difference from last season. When the team is struggling, it’s much easier for Mourinho to look to the bench and see options that can actually effect change.
Thankfully there are no pictures on the scoresheet. This will go down in the annals of time as an easy 4-0 victory, but in truth, this easily could have ended in another frustrating 1-1 draw. It could be said that the plan worked perfectly. Alternatively, others would say United were lucky. The way they played at the very start and the very end of the game was brilliant, but the middle section should worry Mourinho. As it is, United have another clean sheet and scored four times in a game for the third time this season. He would have taken that at kickoff.