As Everton are coming off of a victory against Norwich City ending a small skid of two matches before that, they still sit in fifth position on the Premier League table with the second international break of the season forthcoming. The break is well-timed thanks to a bevy of minor nicks and injuries, yet one last opponent stands between the Toffees and some rest: Manchester United.
The Red Devils are coming off of some tough matches themselves, having narrowly beaten Villarreal in the UCL Group Stage match just days ago, they had previously lost games in the Carabao Cup, Champions League, and Premier League. They finished September with three wins and three losses across the month; they will be looking to begin October with a victory as well, and so the Blues will have to be ready to play some really serious, meaningful, and positive football if they will have any hope in grabbing three points from Ole Gunnar Solsjkaer, Ronaldo and company.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Pauly Kwestel, writer for SB Nation’s United site, The Busby Babe:
RBM: First off, there must be a really positive feeling around Old Trafford since the last-minute summer signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, alongside the mostly-positive start to the new campaign; how do you judge the feeling around the club and its supporters right now, and how do you rate United’s chances of winning the Premier League title this season?
I’m not going to lie, the feelings around Old Trafford are WEIRD right now. For the match going supporters, it’s been generally positive as United continue to grind out results. I’m sure there are many more fans like this but other than being at Old Trafford you can only judge the rest of the fan base by what you see online which has become far more toxic than the already toxic state of social media usually is. For a fanbase that hasn’t been “United” since the Louis van Gaal days, it’s more divided than ever.
Most of this has to do with the signing of Ronaldo. Not surprisingly, the signing was met with mostly wild cheers from fans who were remembering the Ronaldo of old that once graced Old Trafford. There were others who were very skeptical of the deal as from a footballing perspective, this isn’t the same Ronaldo who left Old Trafford and isn’t exactly what United need right now. His game doesn’t really fit the team and style that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been building and it was going to be interesting to see how that fit together. There was also a third group who were very opposed to signing Ronaldo due to the off the field allegations surrounding the player. The reactions have become really extreme with it looking like some fans have become anti ‘fans who don’t love Ronaldo.’ Like I said, it’s weird.
As for the team’s title chances, coming into the season I thought they had an outside chance at winning it if everything broke correctly. I think they’re comfortably one of the four best teams in the league with one very big flaw. They lack a decent holding midfielder.
Then the club signed Ronaldo and... nothing has changed. Ronaldo adds goals to a team that finished 2nd in the league in goals scored last year, but how many goals can one score when the team struggles to get the ball to the attacking players in dangerous areas? Not only that, but Ronaldo is a different kind of player to everyone else who forces you to change things up. He doesn’t press, so trying to press high isn’t going to work. He likes to move around to get on the ball, but often drops into other players’ spaces, limiting their effectiveness. He scores goals, but does his game limit the amount of chances the team creates, thus making it harder for him to score goals? United have added “guaranteed goalscorers” to the team before, and while they’ve scored goals, they haven’t always brought wins.
RBM: Ronaldo’s old Real Madrid teammate Raphael Varane was also purchased by United this summer; how has the entire team gelled together, and how has Ole Gunnar Solskjaer integrated his summer signings into the outfit thus far in the campaign?
With a hammer and nails it seems. Use enough brute force to make that piece fit even if you’re sticking a square peg in a round hole. Raphael Varane was easy. He’s a center back and just steps right in in place of Victor Lindelof.
Jadon Sancho’s season got off to a slow start thanks to his participation in England training during Euro 2020 and then was sidelined with illness. Solskjaer has so far deployed him on the left side for United, which is (allegedly) his preferred position and also where he played half his minutes for Borussia Dortmund last season (and was far more productive).
But then there’s the Ronaldo factor. I already touched on it but Ronaldo’s presence has caused an entire reshape and restructure to what this team already was. Ronaldo likes to drop into half spaces looking for the ball, the exact area of the pitch where Sancho loves to operate. With Ronaldo out there it’s essentially relegated Sancho to being a touchline winger, which he’s been pretty good at so far but that is not what Jadon Sancho is or the best way to use him.
You can flip him over to the right, but Mason Greenwood is currently there and while Paul Pogba started incredibly brightly on the left wing this season, he too hasn’t played well there since Ronaldo arrived (for much of the same reasons).
Ole is clearly catering to Ronaldo, which is causing residual effects down the team and need to be sorted out.
RBM: The Red Devils have a recent history of inconsistent play at times, recently losing to West Ham United in the Carabao Cup, the Young Boys, and now Aston Villa; what is the disconnect that is sometimes occurring between the great talent of the squad, and the consistency that great teams generally demonstrate?
A midfield. It starts and ends there. They are not, and cannot, successfully getting the ball to their attacking players in positions where they can be dangerous and there’s really no surprise there.
Nemanja Matic is a tremendous player on his day. Unfortunately his legs gave out a few years ago and ‘on his day’ can only come around if he’s only playing three times over a four week period. Fred and Scott McTominay are inconsistent at best. They provide energy and are good when having to get stuck in and defend, but they’re not great with the ball at their feet and are absolutely terrible when having to take the game to opponents as United often have to do. Pogba can do this, but he brings his own liabilities while Donny van de Beek is just not a midfielder.
This team NEEDS a midfielder who wants to get on the ball, control tempo, and move it forward. Only Paul Pogba does that, but teams have figured out that if you just pressure him right away he’ll lose the ball. When he plays next to McTominay or Fred, opposing teams will often leave them wide open forcing the ball to them - where they struggle - and keeping it away from Pogba.
United are like a Formula 1 car with a faulty engine. Most of the time the engine works just good enough that the skill of everyone else gets it over the finish line, but every so often it just conks out and it doesn’t matter how good your driver and pit crew are.
But then every summer the club just spends money on things like better tires, a better driver, and giving the car a shiny new paint job, rather than bringing in better mechanics to fix/build a better engine in the first place.
RBM: Have there been any discontented whispers with so many names to fit onto the pitch each week for the manager? How are the players all handling the remarkable talent stockpiled at United right now?
Every so often (usually international breaks) you hear rumblings about how unhappy Donny van de Beek is and complaining about his lack of playing time. The reality is, whenever van de Beek gets a chance to play, he doesn’t do anything to suggest he needs to be in the team (the one time he did, he started the next match and was promptly replaced at half time).
van de Beek should be unhappy. And he should use that unhappiness to work hard and get better. What I find funny is how mad fans get that he’s not playing as if he’s Xavi re-incarnated. I’m not saying he’s not good but let’s be honest no one watches the Dutch league so no one actually saw van de Beek at Ajax. He got exposure in Ajax’s run to the Champions League semifinal and scored goals in big games, but go back and watch those games, and he comes off as a “good player” but not a “we need to sign that guy up right now” player.
I thought it was pretty telling that Ajax sold Matthijs de Ligt and Frankie de Jong for £75m each, but were willing to part with Van de Beek for only £35m.
I did think he’d have a breakout season this year but that was as an attacking midfielder, and with Ronaldo’s arrival that has sort of thrown a wrench in there.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up on Saturday and where could Everton cause United the most problems?
As the lead tactics writer for The Busby Babe you’re asking the right person.
Unfortunately my answer is, I have no freaking clue. Ole has tried a bunch of things in the past few games and none of it has worked. If it were me, I’d go with something like this -
Pogba-Matic was the pivot that played (well) against Newcastle and while it has it’s risk (namely Matic’s extreme lack of pace) at this point everything else has failed to use this one until it proves it doesn’t work. It also drops Pogba deeper so him and Ronaldo won’t be trying to occupy the same spaces again.
I’d personally drop Ronaldo for this match for no other reason than he’s 36 and he simply can’t play every game anymore (this is something Zidane realized years ago). Over the last 30 minutes of the Villarreal match on Wednesday Ronaldo looked GASSED. You have other options - particularly ones that might bring out the best in other players - that you can afford to let Ronaldo rest for a game and if it’s 1-1 with 25 minutes left, I’m sure Everton would not be happy to see Ronaldo coming on to the pitch.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
Ugh. Ugly. For both teams.
Our thanks to Pauly for his time.