For a team boasting a cornucopia of glittering talents Manchester United are proving oddly toothless. This was the same tale as last Saturday’s loss to Aston Villa and Wednesday’s smash-and-grab win over Villarreal – bright beginnings turning to a fade of any consistently potent force.
Everton, who impressed, surely looked at Villa’s blueprint, and decided there was nothing to fear here, a take that may have been re-affirmed when United’s team sheet showed no Cristiano Ronaldo or Paul Pogba, as Ole Gunnar Solskjær drafted in Anthony Martial and Fred as two of five changes from the Villarreal victory.
Of these two big selection calls the manager got one right, one wrong. Martial was the success, his finish before the interval breaking a 17-game scoring drought for the club. Fred was the failure: his inability to stop the excellent Demarai Gray from powering off and along the left presaging the visitor’s equaliser.
While Bruno Fernandes is also a culprit as it was his weak corner from which Everton counterattacked, when Gray found Abdoulaye Doucouré United were in a panic-mode that proved unrecoverable. Andros Townsend took over, left a worryingly sluggish Raphaël Varane behind, and beat David de Gea to his right with a pinpoint finish.
Cue a leap, twist and point at the floor à la Ronaldo before the ecstatic Everton fans. “I probably didn’t do the celebration justice and didn’t execute it properly,” said Townsend. “It’s just a mark of respect to a guy who influenced my career.”
A further scare occurred when Yerry Mina ran on to the pass of the Everton substitute Tom Davies and hit what the assistant referee deemed a fair goal before VAR chalked it off – correctly – for offside.
Davies may rue the decision to pass to the centre-back rather than shoot himself. If he had done so this would have removed any chance of Mina (or anyone else) infringing.
As Everton’s manager, Rafael Benítez, said: “Maybe if Davies shot and finished we would be talking about a different thing. But in terms of the chance – Davies saw the position of Yerry and thought it was much better. You cannot blame the player. He was in the right position at the right time and he felt Yerry was in a better position.”
United should count themselves fortunate, then. Luck was also a factor in the downing of Villarreal in the Champions League. Ronaldo’s winner was in the fifth minute of added time and there was a case for Jesse Lingard, who laid the ball back to Ronaldo, being adjudged offside as he had to be in the eyeline of the keeper, Geronimo Rulli.
Solskjær was rightly unhappy at how Gray’s break was allowed. Fred was not only culpable as Luke Shaw got drawn, Aaron Wan-Bissaka was also unable to do what he is paid to do – defend and/or break up an attack – while Varane appeared to run out of puff right when he needed some – as Townsend unloaded.
Martial’s strike was the sole moment United were as scintillating in attack as A-list forward acts in the XI – Martial, Mason Greenwood, Edinson Cavani and Fernandes – should have been throughout. The adjective here is simple: disjointed. From back to front this is not currently a team.
As against Villa Greenwood was the standout performer of the opening period but, as then, he lacked support beyond the goal the 19-year-old was a key actor in. It was his cross-field ball to Fernandes that switched emphasis, as Everton were splayed, and thus the Portuguese could pick out Martial, running in from the left, who hammered in and past Jordan Pickford, who allowed the shot to go through his arms.
It proved the only highlight for United. And, if this began as a story of Ronaldo’s exclusion and Martial’s inclusion, it ended as the same yarn of recent outings: if there is a Solskjær script that details a gameplan when his players are to advance upfield they are not reading this or heeding it.
At the end Townsend appeared to ask Ronaldo for his shirt but the latter was not impressed. Neither was Fernandes.
“We should win this game. We should create more chances,” he said. “We don’t look at the league table but we should have more points. We drop points at home and we should not do that.
“These last two games at home were not good enough in the Premier League. If we want silverware at the end of the season we have to do much better.”
Solskjær now has the international break fortnight to digest what precisely is going on, and come up with a solution.