While Everton are coming off of a really positive string of play - six in a row unbeaten in the Premier League and seven across all competitions - they will be facing a stern test when they host Manchester United on Sunday. The Red Devils are still recovering from an absolute shellacking in their last match - the first Manchester Derby of the season - and they will be looking to set things right in the Premier League after taking care of business in the Europa League on Thursday.
This Blues have the stingiest defence of any Premier League team so far, and while the statisticians are continuously flummoxed at how this can be given the other math and associated variables, that often seems to matter more for the analysts and writers than for the players and coaches. Frank Lampard and company are taking three points any way they can get them, and it doesn’t matter if the analytics agree or not.
United have a lot of weapons, and after they were eclipsed by the stunning show that Manchester City tend to put on this season, they’ll be trying to vent a bit of frustration. Both bravery and caution will be the watch words of the day on Sunday for Everton, but they are certainly up for the task this year in comparison to last.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Pauly Kwestel, writer for SB Nation’s United site, The Busby Babe:
RBM: Firstly - despite the unfortunate Derby results - with the ship apparently righted with Erik ten Hag firmly in charge and backed at Manchester United, what is the feeling like around Old Trafford and the supporters right now?
It is almost impossible to ever get a true read on how supporters feel when it comes to Manchester United. There are always so many factions, and “doom and gloom” is never too far around the corner.
Right now, there are some freaking out over a 6-3 loss to Manchester City as if it’s the end of the world, while others see it for what it is, a 6-3 loss to one of the greatest sides ever assembled.
For some, the match is nothing more than an aberration. It’s still early in Ten Hag’s reign, he needs time, and eventually, he’ll get United back to the top. There are others who would be wondering if the ship really was righted at all. The four wins in a row may have flattered United, but their underlying numbers during that stretch have not been good. There were many concerns from the Manchester Derby, such as the performance of the players as well as the tactics chosen, and the lack of tactical adjustments. Even when you write off this match - as it should be - there are still many warning flags to be concerned about.
RBM: Surely the expectations are quite high, and a top four is the goal - as usual - but it feels like patience will be key to allowing for this squad and club to grow, evolve, buy and sell more players, and understand better what the expectations and strategies are under ten Hag?
No one around Manchester United will ever accept a goal that is anything less than the Champions League. Still, sometimes you have to recognize that goals and expectations don’t always align.
Patience is obviously the key, but that goes the same for any manager, not just Ten Hag. There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of rot at the club. It starts at the top with the owners; there are problems with the way the club is run, and definitely problems with the way United - and their fans - evaluate their own players. They often greatly overrate them.
Ten Hag has a big task ahead of him, with a squad that still has too many holes in it. The concern now is the financial reports that came out during the international break. United confirmed that they essentially spent two summers’ worth of transfer budget this past summer, and it’s highly unlikely you’ll see a big outlay next summer. In other words, don’t expect many more players to come through the door next summer. If that’s the case, then we can’t be saying wait until Ten Hag gets his players in because they’re already here. That’s definitely a bit of a concern.
RBM: What has changed with the squad, not only from last year to this year, but from the first several matches of the campaign to the past run of games since?
In truth, not much.
They still only have one passing midfielder. Their forwards' strengths are still their abilities when there’s space to run in behind and play on the transition, but they often struggle when that space isn’t there.
The biggest difference has been how they defend. After the first two games of this season, Erik Ten Hag got rid of any sort of playing out from the back. Not just on goal kicks, but in all scenarios. Defenders just defended, hoofing the ball away every time and letting the forwards run down to chase it. That’s led to United dropping deeper and deeper every game - so far this season, they’ve dropped deeper than they did during the Jose Mourinho era. United are now letting teams get the ball into their box almost at will. They’ve been relatively successful at defending it so far, but it opens you up to having bad luck go against you, as they saw against Real Sociedad. In the Europa League, they have tried to start playing out the back again.
There are various reasons for all this, but a big one is David de Gea’s complete inability to pass the ball through a press; furthermore, United has centre-backs whose first instincts tend to be to drop back. The pragmatism has helped them get some results, but it’s also prevented them from creating any sustained attacking play. The injury to Anthony Martial hasn’t helped in that regard either.
RBM: While the squad has changed and stayed very much the same in different respects, which new faces have made the largest impact so far in your analysis and estimation?
Christian Eriksen has been sensational, which shouldn’t be too surprising given how good a player he is. Nor should it be surprising how quickly he’s become their most important player given he’s the only midfielder with passing ability and... *looks at the rest of the transfer window*.
The concern is how quickly he’s become their most important player considering he’s 31 years old and nearly died on the pitch with a heart condition just over a year ago. He’s also going to play every minute for Denmark at the World Cup in two months. What happens if he picks up an injury or just wears down as the season progresses?
Lisandro Martinez has also been fantastic. He’s been a menace in his own box, which has kept United in matches but they’re still not using him to his fullest ability. Part of why you signed Martinez is his ability with the ball at his feet. In the rare times he’s been allowed to showcase that talent so far this season, he’s been incredible; it just hasn’t happened often enough.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up on Sunday, and where could the Red Devils trouble the Blues?
There will certainly be changes regarding the side, that’s for sure. I’m writing this on Tuesday, so I don’t know what the injury state of the defenders is after this week’s Europa clash, closer to the weekend. Luke Shaw came on at halftime of the derby and has a good chance of keeping his place. Anthony Martial should be expected to come in up top. I would expect Casemiro to get his first Premier League start, though he hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire when he has gotten chances.
How could United trouble Everton? Well, surely if all their playmakers are at their best (Antony and Sancho/Rashford) they’ll be tough to handle. But so far United haven’t settled into a consistent style, such that I could predict how they will attack Everton particularly.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s affair?
Did I hear the other day that Everton are unbeaten in their last seven games across all competitions? Did I also hear that Everton have conceded the fewest goals in the league?!?
Did Frank Lampard suddenly get good right under my nose?
*checks the numbers*
- Everton have the third worst expected goals against in the league
- Jordan Pickford leads the league in PSxG-G
Oh ok, we’re just running a little. Everton are 16th in xG differential, not good (United are 12th, so not much better); I’m, therefore, expecting a pretty even game. There’s a non-zero chance that the return of Martial gets everything to click offensively for United like it did in the preseason. If you combine that with Pickford returning to earth, United could maybe hit three.
Much much, much more likely is that this game features no more than two goals with neither side scoring more than one. Any outcome of 1-0, 0-1, or 1-1 wouldn’t surprise me.
Our thanks to Pauly for his time.