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1. A 4-0 Win is Standard
The final result does not tell the whole story of this contest. That is not to say that it is a completely unrepresentative score line, there was no doubt at any point who the more potent and progressive side are. There were, however, at least two hearts in mouths moments when Everton threatened to level to score in the second half. The first being a close-range Rooney effort borne from his persistence, and the next a similar effort from a familiar United foe Gylfi Sigurdsson.
The fact is that United’s mode average score line this year is 4-0. That is impressive at any stage of the season, and it demonstrates an obvious shift in terms of attacking mentality and ruthlessness from last season. In this game Manchester United mustered more than twice as many shots as Everton, enjoyed a massive territorial advantage, and failed to convert a number of superb chances, with Lukaku guilty of the worst miss of the first half.
Everton set up in ultra-defensive mode from the first whistle, which generally caused United a great deal of frustration when trying to break sides down last season. The cause was certainly helped by Antonio Valencia’s early rocket from the edge of the box, which showed the level of confidence he is currently playing with. The last time I saw him do anything like that he was a recently signed flying right winger signed to replace Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite the chances that followed, it was starting to feel like a game where United could drop points as Everton clung on. A pleasing recurring theme so far this term has been the late goals scored. This United are a fit, strong and mature side. After Mkhitaryan coolly slotted the second, they smelt blood and relentlessly went at a deflated Everton, rounding off the score line impressively.
Post-match, Mourinho stated “The first 30-35 minutes was probably our best performance of the season”. It is hard to know with him at times what his agenda is, as the first half was certainly not the most fluid we have seen this side. The end conclusion, though, is that his team have had an almost flawless start to the campaign in terms of results, and a lot have followed a similar pattern. The Stoke game featured a couple of defensive blips, and there will be tougher tests to come, but this was another excellent result, albeit against an Everton side that was low on confidence following their poor sequence of results.
2. Everton’s Loss is United’s Gain
The general post-match consensus from both BBC and Sky Sports pundits was that Romelu Lukaku had a poor day at the office. Certainly, there was one glaring miss, and he made one or two poor decisions throughout the game. However, even on a poor day he finished the game with a goal and an assist. I have been so impressed with him this season, he is a much better player than I had appreciated.
He offers Manchester United another dimension. His sheer physicality and pace is a constant threat that keeps opposition back lines fully occupied. Zlatan Ibrahimović offered excellent qualities last season, but he did not offer pace and a counter attacking threat.
Lukaku will continue to improve as he gets used to his new stage, and the quality of players surrounding him. He is such an elite player in terms of his physical attributes, the rough edges of his game are a small price to pay for his undeniable qualities. Of course, he could be more clinical – he has taken more shots in the Premier League than anyone bar Harry Kane – but he has transformed
United as an attacking unit. He can create and score goals from very little, is good with both feet, can bully defenders and provide an outlet for his team mates.
In contrast, Everton had an obvious Romelu Lukaku-shaped hole in their team. The way they were set up, seeking to hit United on their break, they needed a physical presence like his to lead their line. Having Lukaku in a red shirt was a key factor in the margin of victory achieved.
3. United’s Loss is Everton’s Loss
The main thrust of media interest in this game was the return of Wayne Rooney to Old Trafford. Rooney was praised as having a superb game by BBC pundit Danny Murphy, who was of the opinion that the lack of success he enjoyed upon his return was due to his isolation up front and the fact that the lone striker role is not his best position.
Truth be told, I find it hard to believe that any halfway sensible United fan could have watched Rooney and felt anything other than relief that he is gone. I am glad he got a warm reception, and in his time at United he was, of course, a phenomenal player and in my opinion will indeed be regarded as a legend at Old Trafford for years to come. He does still possess quality, and came close to scoring as earlier referenced, but he will never return to anything approaching his best level. There were a couple of occasions in the game that Phil Jones and Eric Bailly bullied him, and exposed him for the older veteran that he now is. He does not have the pace or explosiveness that in truth deserted him as much as three to four years ago, and his well-documented personal issues have also been a relief to see played out away from the club.
To see Henrikh Mkhytarian in that number 10 berth for United just offers so much more. He is in his prime, scoring goals and racking up assists, and offers pace coupled with genuine guile. It was nice to see the crowd graciously welcome Rooney upon his return, but it was much more satisfying to see him scuff his efforts wide wearing the colours of Everton.
4. Fellaini is a Fixture
I have been as strong a critic of Marouane Fellaini as anyone since he joined the club, but it is clear he is a Mourinho favourite. In the absence of Paul Pogba, he was selected ahead of Herrera to partner the excellent Nemanja Matic in the United engine room. Despite my sustained complaints, I can’t argue with his selection.
My opinion has always been that he is not the level of player United need if they want to get back to competing at the top end of domestic and European competitions, and the United fan base have had what could best be described as a love rate relationship with the crazy-haired Belgian. I have to finally admit that I am starting to appreciate him.
I suppose it’s a bit like buying a new car, and your eye is understandably drawn to the expensive, sleek sexy sports car. But sitting alongside the sports car is a big, bulky, awkward looking Nissan Qashqai in a daft colour. Sometimes, depending on circumstances, you might decide that you have to go for substance over style, and maybe the awkward vehicle serves your needs better than the luxury model. Fellaini is effective, he defended well, proving effective in tackles and interceptions, was tidy in possession, and always offers a threat when he approached the opposition penalty area. (Suffice to say I own a Nissan Qashqai when I wanted an Audi A5).
5. Substitutions were key
Once again Mourinho got it right with his changes. It has been another recurring theme, tying in with ending games strongly, that the substitutions made by United have made a significant impact. There is strength off the bench, and against Everton Mourinho had the luxury of introducing players of the quality of Ander Herrera, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial. Herrera helped to establish more dominance in midfield, and Lingard posed problems for Everton with his fresh legs and work rate, and should have been awarded a penalty for a foul by Ashley Williams.
Martial has been electric coming off the bench and claimed another goal from what was effectively a cameo appearance, converting the spot kick that he earned. In my opinion, he is United’s most talented attacking player, and when introduced late on against tired opposition legs, he has been superb at exploiting any space and time afforded to him.
Mourinho is effecting games, he has instilled a mentality and he has built momentum. This was simply the latest test which they have ultimately passed in an emphatic manner, but there were plenty of positive signs and evidence of continued improvement. Everton may well struggle more than most predicted prior to the season starting, but it cannot be debated that this is an excellent result against a team who have traditionally caused United problems.