After another crushing loss for Everton, the Toffees need a bit of magic and a bit of fire, but can a game against Manchester United be the ticket? It is hard to say, with the team struggling at Burnley, it seems difficult to envision the Blues turning it around so quickly against a top-six opponent, but this is no regular big opponent either.
Manchester United have been having a really tough - comparatively speaking - season in their own right. While Everton has struggled, the Red Devils have nearly no chance at getting back into the Champions League next season - despite adding Cristiano Ronaldo and Raphael Varane to an already loaded outfit.
Ahead of Saturday’s game, we spoke to Pauly Kwestel, writer for SB Nation’s United site, The Busby Babe:
RBM: First off, with Manchester United fighting for a top-four position on the league table next year, and with the crowded field fighting for that very same goal, what is the feeling around Old Trafford and the supporters right now?
Top four lol. Good one. If you want to talk about the top four race I’d suggest reaching out to an Arsenal or Tottenham fan (or maybe a West Ham supporter).
God everything about this season sucks. I think we can both agree on that.
RBM: With all of the massive names on this roster, why have things simply not lived up to expectations this season?
I’m not one to toot my own horn (I am) but if you go back to what I previously wrote, it’s clear we saw these exact issues coming from a mile away.
Just because you have a lot of talent doesn’t mean all those pieces fit together. Cristiano Ronaldo was never a good fit for a team that wasn’t built around a static #9 so his arrival was always going to change things. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did a terrible job integrating him into the team, often flanking him with two shoot-first wingers (rather than shot-creators) while leaving the £77m elite shot-creator they just signed on the bench.
As was just published this week, regarding Rangnick, United are now getting more shots than in previous years, with Ronaldo getting a way higher percentage of them. His 0.16 xG per shot shows us that he’s not just firing away either, he’s getting good quality chances. Of course, as soon as that happened Ronaldo went through one of the biggest dry spells of the year, which was incredibly problematic for a team that was becoming increasingly reliant on Ronaldo.
CR7 aside, as I previously stated, this team was going to be screwed because they had a massive fatal flaw. Midfield. They don’t have one. Nemanja Matic has gone from a player who could only play once a week, to a player who can only play 65-70 minutes a week. Fred needs to have a holding midfielder behind him, and Scott McTominay wouldn’t even get into the Everton team (trust me on this. I don’t care how bad you may think your midfielders are, he’s worse).
The inability to move the ball forward severely handicaps that talent of the attackers, and not being able to protect the back four just adds more pressure to an already shaky back four. David de Gea refusing to come off his line or be able to play with his feet has severely hurt the team as well.
RBM: With the reported hiring of Erik ten Hag this summer, what is the buzz regarding that appointment and what he will be able to bring to the club going forward?
With the reported hiring of Erik ten Hag this summer, what is the buzz regarding that appointment and what he will be able to bring to the club going forward?
There’s certainly a lot of buzz but with a fan base of this size there’s inevitably going to be a lot of backlash. Already were seeing people say Mauricio Pochettino would have been a better fit or people questioning if Ten Hag can handle the Premier League. Some are shouting just for attention, others for clicks (and £££), so it can be hard to tell who’s serious and who’s an idiot (spoiler alert: we’re all idiots).
On the other side there’s plenty of buzz for Ten Hag but nothing sums up United more than a couple weeks ago a very popular twitter account ran a poll for United fans who want Ten Hag, and out of thousands of responses, about 80% of them said they hadn’t watched a single Ajax match over the past few years.
Ten Hag can only bring what the club allows him to bring. Then COVID interfered with those plans. Then a year later Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo’s agents called the club and offered them their clients so the club threw the plan away for a chance to sign those guys. Back in the day they had a long term plan with Louis van Gaal but binned that the second Jose Mourinho became available.
It’s going to be a long process for Ten Hag to implement his football on this squad, many of which are not capable of playing that kind of football. He’ll only be able to bring as much as the club stays patient with him.
RBM: Is there an expectation that Ralf Rangnick can lead this team back to Europe with such stiff competition ahead of them?
Is there an expectation that Ralf Rangnick can lead this team back to Europe with such stiff competition ahead of them?
I can’t speak for everyone else but there’s no expectation of it here. If you talked to me in November I would have told you that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 100% had to go, but no replacement was going to come in and be successful with this squad. The Achilles heel of that midfield is just too big.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up on Saturday and where could Everton cause United the most problems?
Shaw left at halftime with an injury last week so I’d imagine Telles will start this week. Ronaldo comes back into the team. I could see Rashford coming in for Elanga or Elanga keeping his place. I could see Pogba getting dropped because someone has to be blamed for last Saturday and the blame usually falls on Pogba. Fred’s been the best of all our midfielders (not a surprise) and McTominay will play as the lone pivot because
1. He “looks” the part
2. Ralf keeps insisting on using a single pivot even though McTominay cannot play that position
And that is exactly where Everton can cause United the most problems. Pep Guardiola specifically picked on McTominay but frankly everyone has been doing it all season. I’ve never seen a midfielder with less spatial awareness than the Scot. If McTominay is “marking you” all you have to do to get free is casually walk away. He literally will not notice and won’t follow you.
In possession you just do what everyone else does. Push up high but sit just off the center backs (don’t press them). Force the center backs to go wide to the fullbacks (McTominay will usually help you out here by hiding in the cover shadow and not giving the CBs a passing option) and then press them on the wings. Force United to buildup through the middle with McTominay and take advantage of the fact that he literally can’t do that.
Look, I know Frank Lampard is actually bad and expecting him to capitalize on anything is foolish but here’s the funny thing. Lampard was actually the first manager last season to realize this was how to play against United in their 0-0 draw with Chelsea in October. United are pretty much impotent when you just sit off McFred and let them have the ball in the middle of the park.
United are also terrible at preventing/defending transitions so Everton should get 3-4 good chances to run right at those centerbacks (which is how they scored in the match at Old Trafford).
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game?
I know things could not possibly be going worse for Everton right now and they have a daunting run of fixtures over the next five games. That’s why it won’t be the least bit surprising when Everton score some fluky goal to go 1-0 up.
United will (probably) equalize but will they find a winner? I’m not so sure!
(And this is me being optimistic because *remembers what happened the last time United went to Goodison Park in mid-April*)
Our thanks to Pauly for his time.