Before we start breaking down Manchester United, let’s give credit where it’s due. Everton were very good on Monday. Ever since (in the middle of last season) David Moyes shifted Marouane Fellaini into a supporting striker/attacking midfielder’s role, the Toffees have been one of the league’s better teams. That Monday’s performance fits firmly in that trend gives us reason to believe Everton will compete for a Europa League spot.
Other than Fellaini’s performance, the most encouraging sign for the Toffees may have actually been their bench. John Heitenga, Seamus Coleman, and Victor Anichebe provide valuable depth, whereas in previous seasons they were counted on to play bigger roles. Ross Barkley was being touted for a breakthrough last season. Now, Everton’s squad is strong enough to ensure his apprenticeship won’t be accelerated. Add in Steven Naismith, the former Rangers midfielder who made his debut on Monday, and the just-signed Kevin Mirallas and Moyes, used to entering seasons with a threadbare squads, has a relative embarrassment of riches.
Everton’s no longer in survival mode. They’re consolidating. Like Fulham (mentioned yesterday), they’ve probably been underestimated in the lead up to the season.
Still, Everton don’t have Manchester United’s talent. It’s not even close. After the offseason acquisitions of Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie (along with Nemanja Vidic and Tom Cleverley’s returns to health), the Red Devils have as much quality and depth as anybody in the world. Against a team of Everton’s resources, they should be expected to win, and while it’s far from a shock when they don’t, losing in Liverpool still raises eyebrows. Why was Manchester United shown out of Goodison without a point?
The obvious answer is Michael Carrick. He was beaten by Fellaini on the game’s only goal, the Everton target man leaping over the makeshift central defender on a second half corner. Carrick could have done better (he didn’t even get off the ground), but if you go into a match matching Michael Carrick against a team’s biggest threat on set pieces, you’ve got a bigger problem than that one-on-one matchup. You’ve given the other team an easy way to win the match.
Why was Carrick marking Fellaini? Why wasn’t Nemanja Vidic given the assignment? It was a obvious moment on non-genius from Alex Ferguson.
Another obvious problem: Wayne Rooney had a terrible night. Apparently Manchester United’s star is saving his first touch for the second week, because it completely abandoned him on Monday. He didn’t create any meaningful chances, be they for himself or others, a problem magnified by Ferguson putting Rooney in the middle of attack while pushing Danny Welbeck wide left (and leaving Robin van Persie on the bench for an hour). If Wayne Rooney’s going to continue to be the focal point of this team (which he will), he’s not only going to have to be better than he was on Monday, he’s going to have to be more consistent than he was last year, when nights like Monday’s were too frequent. While he was still one of the league’s best players, his inconsistency was one reason United failed to retain their title.
Then there’s the midfield. Oh, United’s midfield, the immense, rusted chink in the Devils’ armor, the weakness that keeps them from being considered one of the world’s best teams.
It’s more than a mere torn in their side. The void is a missing rib, an absence a titan’s too embarrassed to concede exists. Yet every time he extends his arm, reaches for some enticement he used to snare with ease, United winces and recoils, reaching with reflex from his one good side, hoping to soothe the weakness his ambition continues to expose.
For United to have such an inexplicable void while the world’s game continues to shift to more midfield dominant tactics calls into question every proclamation of genius Alex Ferguson’s ever received. To try to buck the trend is one thing, but to continue bucking in the face of diminished results is stubbornness. How can a genius continue to ignore the obvious?
On Monday, one United midfielder was rendered irrelevant by the other. Despite superficially spectacular numbers, Tom Cleverley had one of his least influential games in red, the 23-year-old clearly not used to playing beside Paul Scholes. At the beginning of last season, when Cleverley broke into United’s senior team, Scholes was retired. When Scholes returned mid-season, Cleverley was injured.
The two have never meaningful played with each other, and their first chance to do so hinted they may be too similar, Cleverley left uncertain what to do as Scholes’ movements mirrored his intent (while Kagawa dropped back into the space he’s otherwise occupy). The attack constantly deferred to the veteran Scholes, with Cleverley’s creativity left to survive on crumbs. Without consistent contributions from both midfielders, United were never able to convert their large possession advantage into meaningful threats.
Not surprisingly, the numbers tell a different story. That’s what happens when one team’s allowed to dominate the ball to the extent United did on Monday (Everton were out-passed 276 to 646). Cleverley completed 85 passes at a 92 percent clip, but his distribution failed to generate a chance. Rooney had two of United’s four shots on goal but none after the 27th minute.