Everton desperately need a really positive performance as the second part of this very disjointed 2022-23 campaign begins to collect steam. A last-second loss to Wolves, a wonderful draw against the Premier League champs Manchester City, followed by an absolute drubbing on this most recent Tuesday versus Brighton, has left supporters flummoxed as to what to expect from this bunch—and their boss too.
I have said just recently that a low ceiling and high floor are what can be expected from this side week to week, match to match, which certainly means that those Red Devils of Manchester are in greater danger than they might know. That being said, Everton could just as well lose 4-0 as win 2-1, given the nature of this unit as currently conceived; a positive winter window could change that going forward, but not today.
Erik ten Hag, meanwhile, has his bunch playing some of the best football witnessed over there in quite a few bosses and, therefore, years. Fergie isn’t walking through the door, but they have a coach who will lay down the law and demand the best from his players; it also helps that the side has wonderful players like Marcus Rashford—who is having a Rennaissance year under his new boss—and Casemiro—who can seemingly do no wrong, wherever he finds himself playing and with whatever shirt he has on.
Frank Lampard and the Blues have a difficult task, but as was seen across the season thus far, no result is quite out of reach for this side, and a point or three would really elevate the mood amongst supporters and pundits alike.
Ahead of Friday’s FA Cup third-round affair, 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 right now, along with this FA Cup and the Europa League, what is the feeling around Old Trafford and the supporters right now?
We’re in a title race baby! (Please don’t mention the fact that we’ve beaten the 15th, 18th and 19th place teams since the World Cup with City and Arsenal looming. We’re creeping into a title race).
In all honesty I think this quote I saw today sums it up best, “if Pep Guardiola says we’re in a title race, that means we’re most certainly not in a title race.”
RBM: How has Erik ten Hag changed this team so drastically in such a short period of time after years of middling results?
People will want to tell you it’s because of systems and structures and all that stuff, but it’s really pretty simple actually. It’s Casemiro.
If you look at the numbers this season, there’s a clear “before Casemiro” and “since Casemiro” divide. When he’s on the pitch United’s expected goals against per 90 drops by 0.8 and their actual goals against by 0.9.
The man is simply a cheat code in how much he cleans up in midfield, allowing Christian Eriksen to push higher and United to press as a front five. His ability to play first time passes forward means when United recover the ball they’re going on the attack QUICK.
Turns out replacing an average at best player at the most important position on the pitch with an elite player makes a huge difference. Erik Ten Hag has done some really good things, but none of this is possible without Casemiro.
The one area where ten Hag deserves a lot of credit is Marcus Rashford. Rashford was always going to rebound after last season - and while he’s producing at roughly the same rate he has his whole career (0.67 npG+A per 90) - it’s the way he’s scoring that’s standing out. No longer is he just someone running in behind defenses, he’s now making good runs off the ball, getting into better shooting positions, receiving passes in traffic in the box, and using his teammates more. He’s (finally) becoming an all around forward, and it’s fantastic to see.
RBM: We have to speak about Cristiano Ronaldo of course; how toxic was it at the end from the United perspective, and what has his absence since brought to the squad?
To me, it wasn’t any more toxic at the end than it was at the beginning. If anything, it was less toxic at the end because he finally showed his true colors. I loved watching Ronaldo during his first United stint, but my feelings on him changed after the 2008 season when I realized he didn’t care about Manchester United in the slightest. He only cared about Ronaldo. I appreciated the goals he scored in the 2008-09 season but by then it was different, and while I was upset we were losing a good player when he left, I wasn’t too upset to see him go.
All these years later it’s the same attitude, but without any of the talent. At least this season people finally opened their eyes to it. I think him leaving is a breath of fresh air to the squad as well. This is a guy who spent a year making snarky comments about all his teammates last year. That couldn’t have been fun. But more importantly, they can now just go and play.
For 14 games this year Ronaldo was always the story, he’s starting, he’s on the bench, he’s not at the ground, whatever it was. Now he’s gone and to ensure there won’t be any questions about whether or not they miss him they went out and won their first three games and finally started scoring goals. He can enjoy
South AfricaSaudi Arabia.
RBM: Will United spend to support ten Hag this winter other than Jack Butland, or will they be waiting for summer?
Definitely not this winter, and it’s not looking good for the summer either to be frank. For two years there have been consistent financial reports showing United were getting very close to running out of money. Then, the most recent ones that came out showed how bleak the situation truly is. Back in September the club essentially confirmed they used two seasons of transfer budget this past summer, so it’s hard to see anything big happening (they’ll still be linked to every single player ever because clicks).
Of course all this could change with a sale of the club - which the Glazers are actively trying to do - but who knows how close they actually are to making that happen.
RBM: Where does the FA Cup rank for United this year in terms of desirability?
Umm did you not remember we’re in a title race here?!?
But actually, outside of a league title I don’t think the fans really care? Any trophy will be welcomed and celebrated. 10-15 years ago that sentence would have been mocked but that’s the reality of where the club is right now. I think the Europa League is probably the most attainable because you don’t have to go through City’s recent dominance of the domestic cups but any will do.
Personally I’d love to win the FA Cup so we can catch Arsenal and eventually overtake them for the record that used to be ours.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up on Friday and where could United cause Everton the most problems?
One thing about Erik ten Hag - and this could maybe cause him problems in the Premier League - is that he does not like to rotate his squad all that much. Given that United have a League Cup match against Charlton midweek, I think you’d see more of the rotation there.
Expect the usual characters to take their normal places. Rashford, Anthony Martial, Bruno Fernandes, Casemiro, Christian Eriksen. RW is a bit of a question considering Antony missed the last game, and ten Hag has rotated the defense over the past week but that was more due to availability. I’d expect Diogo Dalot and Lisandro Martinez to come back into the team, probably with Varane, and then Maguire and Lindelof to play against Charlton.
They’ll cause Everton problems up front. The attack has been buzzing since Martial returned to the team - they’ve had an xG of 2.0 or higher in each of their last four matches while Everton have conceded 2.0 or more xG in three of their last five, as their goals allowed has started regressing towards the mean after a hot start to the season.
Oh and not only is that Rashford guy in scintillating form, but his numbers shoot up when he’s playing alongside Martial.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Friday’s FA Cup third round match?
United have turned themselves from a team over performing on very average underlying numbers into a team performing with Champions League level underlying numbers while Everton have lost seven of their last 10 games (and the underlyings look even worse).
I just can’t see United losing this match, but then again, ever since Trent started asking me to answer some questions for Royal Blue Mersey, I’ve never gotten a match prediction right.
Our thanks as always to Pauly for his time.