At Goodison Park on Tuesday night, Everton were simply blown away by a dynamic, clued-up Brighton & Hove Albion side, pushing beleaguered boss Frank Lampard one further step closer to the brink. That the visitors, under swashbuckling young manager Roberto De Zerbi, saw fit to leave star players like Leandro Trossard and World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister on the bench, whilst giving a full debut to an 18-year-old striker rubbed home just how bad the Blues are currently.
The Red Devils appointed the highly-touted Erik ten Hag in May as their new boss, ending their ill-advised protracted interim boss experiment with Ralf Rangnick. The Dutchman, known as a no-nonsense taskmaster, then entered into a extended battle of wills with want-away star man Cristiano Ronaldo, which was only going to result in one winner - the new manager. In parallel, was an equally lengthy pursuit of Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, which ultimately proved fruitless, though Real Madrid’s Casemiro was added in August for around €70m.
Under their new man United kicked the season off disappointingly, losing to both Brighton and Brentford as the Ronaldo saga rumbled on. A home win against Liverpool got them underway and a 3-1 win over Arsenal is looking better and better as time goes on. A Europa League setback, to Real Sociedad and a wild 6-3 loss to cross-city rivals Manchester City proved stumbling blocks, but since that last setback, in early October the Red Devils have been on an impressive streak of form.
Fallen star Ronaldo finally talked himself out of his United contract in mid-November and the team has appeared much more settled since. The legendary player’s last appearance, coincidentally or not, was also the side’s most recent loss, 3-1 to Aston Villa in a very poor game on 6th November. Following that setback the Mancunians are on a winning steak of six games either side of the World Cup, their last being an easy 3-0 dismissal of Bournemouth at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
Style of Play
Erik ten Hag had built a reputation for playing exciting, attacking football in his homeland, most recently during more than four years with Ajax, taking the famous Amsterdam side to the Champions League semi-final in his first season, eventually losing to Tottenham Hotspur. The Dutchman was unable to replicate, or exceed that feat in subsequent years, however.
Under their new boss United have adopted his favoured 4-2-3-1 and place emphasis on fast passing combinations, deploying a high line backed up by (in theory, anyway) a high press. This is a team in transition and so what we have at the moment is a side capable of only some of what ten Hag ultimately wants to see.
United’s fast and direct forward line, even without the increasingly static Ronaldo, is built more for a counter-attacking game. The acquisition of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen, along with existing players like Bruno Fernandes give ten Hag the technical qualities he desires for his style of play and adding a quick, ball-playing defender in Lisandro Martínez allows him to utilise a high defensive line necessary to a high-pressing game.
This is the FA Cup early rounds, so it’s anyone’s guess what kind of lineup ten Hag will go for, though he has put out fairly strong teams in the EFL Cup so far and will surely be interested in making an attempt at all possible silverware targets in his nascent Old Trafford career.
Marcos Rashford has a hit a streak of strong form, firing home 12 goals in all competitions and is apparently revitalised from the player who trudged aimlessly through last season. The wide forward has scored in each of his last four outings, which will be a concern for a battered Blues side. He is rocking an impressive 0.45 xG (Expected Goals) per 90 minutes currently.
Bruno Fernandes appears liberated recently (no idea why!) and is looking more like the player who was such a creative force for United earlier in his time at the club. He leads the team in xGA (Expected Goals Assisted) per 90 with a 0.35 statistic.
David de Gea is a possible weak spot for the hosts, having conceded 2.1 goals (in the league) more than could be expected, considering the shots he’s faced. The Spaniard also does not command his area, use his feet well, or play as a sweeper-keeper in the way ten Hag wants.
Casemiro is a class act in midfield, proving the doubters who figured he’d struggle to adjust to the pace of the Premier League at 30 years old very wrong indeed. Composed on the ball and defensively exceptional, he’s showing more than enough required physicality and has even bagged a couple of goals for himself.
Assuming United field a side comparable to what we’ve seen them use in the Carabao Cup this season, then this will be far from an easy outing for even a full-strength Everton, things being what they are. True, they are something of a work in progress at the moment, but they have plenty of class players throughout their team. That the Blues are trying to bring squad player Anthony Elanga in on loan from the Red Devils, in order to bolster their attacking options, tells you everything about where both sides are at right now.
Lampard has pretty much ruled out Dominic Calvert-Lewin, due to fatigue, but otherwise we can expect to see as full strength a side as he can manage to put together, for what may well end up as his final outing as manager. Certainly Amadou Onana, returning from suspension will be back in the starting eleven.
Up front, we’ll see just how much of a role Ellis Simms will actually have, following his (emergency) recall from a loan at Sunderland. Realistically, Lampard may as well start him; we’ve seen what threat Neal Maupay has to offer and - unfortunately - that’s not a lot.
Regardless, I feel we’ll see a return of the 3-5-2 utilised against Man City recently, or maybe a 3-4-3 if Anthony Gordon is recovered from illness. Certainly, the Toffees cannot push up aggressively against a team with the pace in the forward line and ball-playing quality possessed by tonight’s hosts. The best approach would seem to be a low/mid block and a counterattacking game plan, as United do not appear yet to be that comfortable pressing the action and their defense is not impregnable.
Prediction: Everton 1 Manchester United 3