United travel to Merseyside today, no doubt desperately hoping that the change of calendar year brings with it some fresh impetus and energy, because the final month of 2017 has been thoroughly miserable, culminating in a, frankly, pathetic display in the 0-0 home draw with Southampton.
In a stagnant game, devoid of any excitement or energetic endeavour, the Red Devils lulled the crowd into a stupor, and in dropping another two Premier League points also relinquished their hold on 2nd place in the table, Antonio Conte’s defending Champions from West London leapfrogging a side which suddenly looks tired and lacking in creativity and urgency.
Afterwards, Jose Mourinho argued that United should have been awarded a penalty for a clear hand-ball by Maya Yoshida in the 1st half (which they should have), but the general feeling of apathetic anger from the fans at the lethargic performance from many in red shirts meant that, what otherwise might have been seen as a genuine grievance, feels more like a convenient excuse for yet another very dismal showing.
For their part, Everton were by all accounts equally poor during their visit to Bournemouth, who duly took full advantage to register a 2-1 victory over Sam Allardyce’s men, but I’m sure Sam will have impressed upon his team the importance of starting a new year with a rousing performance in front of their passionate support at Goodison Park, and United will need to show significantly more effort and application than they did on Saturday to emerge with any points.
My team selection is as follows: (4-1-4-1)
GK: David de Gea- David pulled off an excellent save to deny Saints’ Shane Long a goal on the counter-attack on Saturday, which would have made a disappointing result even worse; he looked sharp against Southampton, and as ever he will prove a hard man to beat for Wayne Rooney and company.
RB: Axel Tuanzebe- News of a 3-match ban for Ashley Young for an elbow to the stomach of Dusan Tadic as they waited for a corner delivery during the 2nd half on Saturday is a further headache Jose Mourinho could have done without. Young should know better by now, and his stupidity won’t do him or us any favours. I would bring young Axel Tuanzebe in for this game, and let him show how much he has progressed as a defender. Matteo Darmian may be the ‘safer’ option, but I would be looking to send the limited Italian back home on a one-way trip this month, so Tuanzebe gets the nod as one for the future, and perhaps the present…? I understand Antonio Valencia remains sidelined with a hamstring injury.
LB: Luke Shaw- had a decent opening half on Saturday, but faded in confidence and adventure, and along with the rest of the team seemed to run out of ideas and ‘steam’ as the game wore on. Again, I have no problem selecting Luke for this game, though his fitness may be tested by two games in such quick succession. He could do with putting in a strong performance, with persistent rumours about his United future continuing unabated.
CBs: Phil Jones & Victor Lindelof- neither man was severely troubled by Saints, and from a defensive viewpoint we looked very comfortable for nearly the entire game, yet de Gea still had a couple of smart saves to make. They will find Rooney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin a real handful this time out, too, but Jones has been our most consistent defender this season so far and if he can remain fit, he should have a decent chance of making the England squad for Russia next summer.
DM: Nemanja Matic- Matic gives you exactly what you expect: no frills defensive midfield work, sweeping up & breaking up opposition play in front of our defence; Gylfi Sigurdsson will need to be closely watched for late runs forward, and Matic is just the man to do that.
RM: Juan Mata- on the assumption that Juan didn’t pick up any knocks from the Southampton game, I’d play him on the right of a more advanced midfield four, and try to take the game to Everton further up the park, where his trickery and vision is more likely to yield dividends.
CM (A): Paul Pogba & Jesse Lingard- in an attempt to drag Pogba another 10 or 15 yards further forward, where he can pose a much more credible threat to Jordan Pickford’s goal, I’d draft him in alongside Lingard as a more attacking middle pairing; one problem we’ve had in the last few games is Paul being stifled as an influential attacking force by playing in such a deep role. Lingard was his usual energetic self against the Saints but his enthusiasm wasn’t infectious to many of his team-mates, unfortunately. They will likely face youthful exuberance in Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye.
LM: Marcus Rashford: Rashford is going through a trying time of late; brought on as a substitute for Romelu Lukaku when the Belgian striker had to go off with a head injury early in the game on Saturday, the young England forward endured a frustrating day, let down by poor decision making with his passing in the final third. I’d give him a run out on the left side of the midfield four, from where he can also get back to help Shaw if needed.
ST: Anthony Martial: the head injury to Lukaku will probably keep him side-lined for the next few weeks, and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic also undergoing treatment for a knock, United are suddenly looking rather “threadbare” in the striker’s position. Martial has looked lively when he has been introduced recently, and I’d give him a chance to stay involved in the game more from a central forward position at Everton, where hopefully his pace will give him an advantage over the likes of Michael Keane, Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka.
BENCH: Romero, Blind, Rojo, Herrera, McTominay, Darmian, Mkhitaryan.
The mood of many fans at Old Trafford, both towards some of the players and the manager himself, has soured considerably in recent weeks, since the tame defeat to Manchester City. The palpable anger and frustration at the slack, careless manner of the performance against Southampton was reminiscent of the days when the Club was managed by David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, and there is no doubt that a good performance and a win at Goodison Park would be a welcome sight after several weeks of fairly turgid, uninspiring draws, as well as the poor League Cup defeat at Bristol City.
Jose Mourinho remains, as ever, a very divisive character, and whilst I certainly remain firmly in support of the man (not least as I do not believe there is anyone with better qualities as a top-level football manager currently available to Manchester United), and in some respects have sympathy for the difficult problem he faces in trying to emerge victorious in his personal duel with Pep Guardiola (who has a virtually bottomless pit of cash to spend at City), Mourinho doesn’t help “endear himself” to many fans with his sour, unhappy, uninspiring mannerisms, nor the fact that 18 months since taking over at Old Trafford, he is still living out of an hotel room rather than finding himself a house in the Greater Manchester area. Worse than that, when compared with his Catalonian counter-part at City, it’s hard to see how he has improved any of the attacking players under his watch at United, unlike Guardiola, who seems to have had a profound impact on a number of players at the Etihad, such as Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane.
There is no doubt that a convincing display and victory at Goodison Park would help to smoothly usher in the New Year amongst Reds, but right now I’d settle for a 1-0 win and a few moments of inspiration just to get us out of the current gloomy malaise that has surrounded the Club for the last month. Everton, and Rooney in particular, will be more than eager to ‘get one over on us’ to start their year off on a high, and I expect this to be a tense, tetchy difficult game, with only a few goals to view. Allardyce has started to work his magic on the Toffees as a defensive unit, but they have yet to emerge as an attacking force. Normally I’d be happy to take a point, but we desperately need a win, for a morale boost as much as anything else.