Everton play their third match in six days this weekend, then - Premier League scheduling being what it is - enjoy an eleven-day break before they face Leicester City. The Toffees somehow appear incapable of gaining points on the road, so with five games left at Goodison Park this season, they probably are going to need to win at the very least three of them to escape relegation. On paper, Saturday’s game against Manchester United is probably the second toughest home match left to play, but all is not already lost and a win will give an embattled squad a welcome morale boost ahead of the short break. Here, we take a look at what they face in Ralf Rangnick’s outfit.
After leading United to back-to-back Champions League qualification (finishing 3rd and 2nd), Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was summarily dismissed as manager in November and a few weeks later Rangnick was appointed as interim until the end of the season. The German is an important figure in the development of modern football methods, but has operated primarily as a director of football over the past decade and it’s fair to say things haven’t exactly gone smoothly for him at the Old Trafford club.
Initially, he looked a stabilising influence as the team won three of their first four league games under the new man, but he’s only secured five victories since and consequently failed to make a concerted push for the top four. Coming into this weekend, the Red Devils have won only once in six matches across all competitions, a run which saw them well beaten by rivals Manchester City at the Etihad and dumped out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid.
Style of Play
Rangnick is considered the creator of Gegenpressing and is a vital contributor to German football methods that have become prevalent across Europe, most notably being a formative influence upon the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Julian Nagelsmann. Upon arriving at United he instituted his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation, which is good at blocking off the centre of the pitch and emphasises counter-pressing opponents high up. However, the players available did not really suit this aggressive system - notably star striker Cristiano Ronaldo - and Rangnick has subsequently deviated from this style. Since mid-January he has reverted back to the 4-2-3-1 favoured by Solskjaer, with Ronaldo as the spearhead and focal point for attacking play.
The high press has been largely abandoned, at least in any coherent sense and the team dynamic has become increasingly one of fashioning chances for their superstar striker, which they’ve managed to pull off pretty well. When it works, as it did in their last win against Tottenham Hotspur, then the Portuguese legend applies the finish in typically clinical fashion, but if the forward isn’t firing then the team can struggle to find the back of the net. Defensively, the weight of responsibility falls on midfielders such as Fred and Scott McTominay, as most of United’s attacking players do not contribute consistently.
Goalkeeper David de Gea is enjoying one of his strongest seasons for the Mancunian outfit and has saved 7.5 more shots on target than expected, having conceded 41 league goals compared to a PSxG (post-shot expected goals) of 48.5. The Spaniard is an elite shot-stopper on this kind of form, though other areas of his game, such as control of his area and stopping crosses are not strong.
Ronaldo has been a mixed bag for United, adding an iconic presence and world-class finishing instincts, but also a player that, at 37 years of age, lacks the ability to easily adapt to a new system. His lack of willingness, or capacity, to press from the front has caused an abrupt shift in Rangnick’s desired approach and the style of play has been altered drastically to try and service the star man. Nevertheless, the legendary forward is still a marvelous goal scorer and has hit 18 in all competitions for the Red Devils since re-joining the side in September. He retains his finishing ability, clever movement, astonishing heading ability, a fair bit of pace, a winning mentality and is still in amazing physical shape.
Under Rangnick, United have largely shown an inability to put together a solid 90 minutes on any consistent basis. Often the team can start a game well, only to lose momentum and become quite turgid as it proceeds. No doubt this is due to the structural issues that have dogged them for much of the season. Although Everton will be cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd at Goodison Park and will be far happier playing at home, after three consecutive road games, they may be best served trying to draw the sting from the visitors early by adopting a conservative approach and look to open things up as the match develops.
The Blues have squandered two chances to add a couple of points to their tally over the past week, but draws at home will not really help their cause of Premier League survival that much. A point would hardly be disastrous, but the team really have to try and go for the win if they are able to do so.