Everton have been dealt a difficult - and likely unfair - hand by the Premier League over this last international break, with a historic ten-point deduction being handed down in a heavy-handed showing of force by the EPL as the spectre of an independent football regulator looms and other clubs look to have torn many of the league’s rules to shreds.
Yet for the Blues, the only thing of consequence at this time is to head out and fight for three points each time they take the pitch. With Manchester United coming to town, frustration and ambition can be taken out on a side that looks as confused as ever so many years after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Cracks are showing in the club, and support for Dutch boss Erik Ten Hag also seems to be waning, but Everton will still have to come out with real fight against a team that has a good amount of talent, if not a unified direction.
The Toffees have been in good form, losing only once since the end of September, while finding goals in ways that supporters haven’t witnessed for some time. Dycheball at Goodison has become more fun to watch, and the team’s defensive understanding has also improved; it remains to be seen if this side can pull itself out of the relegation zone predicament it now finds itself in, but Sunday against United is the first test.
RBM: First off, with Manchester United fighting and scrapping to remain viable for Europe next year, what is the energy like around the training grounds and Old Trafford?
Quite bad! We’ve got one player fully banished from the first team squad, reports swirling about Raphael Varane being on the outs after being dropped for Jonny freaking Evans, and all the while Antony is still there.
United are (laughably) the form team in the league right now, which provides room for optimism. As does the return of Luke Shaw. The form is mostly due to a soft schedule - December is about to be a much bigger test. As for Shaw, he’s likely going to be played as a center-back - which, while he’s fine there, is such a waste of Luke Shaw and limits how effective he can be.
As has been the case ever since 2016, the fan base is pretty split on the state of affairs. Many are starting to question Erik Ten Hag, given he’s not that charismatic, there doesn’t seem to be a clear identity on the pitch, and his man-management isn’t the greatest. Others still have unwavering support in the man and are clinging to the belief that all the injuries have made performing impossible. With players set to return, United should get back on track.
RBM: You had mentioned last year when we last spoke that you kind of saw this regression coming; would you explain your reasoning then and what Ten Hag can do to fix it?
Throughout the season last year, United seemed to just be getting by, which only became more pronounced after the League Cup final. They were built on how many cracks Casemiro could single-handedly cover. The underlying numbers all said the same thing - United were not as good as their record. They were sixth in expected goal difference, probably the most accurate metric in telling how good teams are.
United overachieved to finish third, which probably wasn’t so surprising. The average age of the starting XI for the last six Premier League winners was 26.47. The average age of United’s squad last year was 26.6 - in other words the squad that was built was basically already at their peak. If you didn’t do anything to the squad, you would expect them to get a little worse or stay the same. If they stayed the same, you still would have expected regression due to overachieving.
How does Ten Hag fix it is tough. The injuries haven’t helped, but I do think they’ve also been overblown. He doesn’t seem to fully know how to get the most out of the current squad. His starting XI’s recently seem to be more based on players' individual abilities, without thinking about whether those individuals mesh together to bring out the best of each other. You spent £55m on Mason Mount this summer; perhaps start by playing him? (UPDATE: Mount is now out for a month. Lol).
RBM: Is Erik ten Hag already running out of gas as it relates to this project, or is he still the man for the job in the eyes of the supporters and club?
Depends on who you ask! Also depends on what the project is?
For what Ten Hag is spoken about, his action have been pretty much completely the opposite. He’s spoken about a five-year plan and all that long-term jazz - but he’s built a squad that’s much more ‘win-now.’
He was given full control of transfers his first summer, and that’s been a disaster. Every player we’ve gone after has either played for him before, played in Holland, or played against him. That’s a major red flag, but of course that’s the case. He’s a coach; when the hell would he have had time to scout other players with all the responsibilities modern-day coaches have?
Perhaps he’s still the right coach for the job, but he’s certainly not the right man to be building the team.
RBM: Let’s talk about Sir Jim Ratcliffe; what do fans think of him and his new role in the club? Is this the start of the end for the Glazer family in Manchester?
Like everything else with this club - it depends on who you ask!
Some fans were flag-waving Qatari supporters - undoubtedly influenced by the large YouTube/Twitter accounts that were paid to support them - and they don’t like Sir Jim.
For everyone else, we’re cautiously optimistic. Reports are he’s going to run the football side of things, which is great news. It doesn’t guarantee success because he could be bad at it too, but at least it’s someone different and gives us hope that things will get better. And hopefully, this is the beginning of the end for the Glazers.
RBM: What will the winter window hold for this club? What do you think they need, and who is likely leaving, and who is rumored to be of interest?
I can’t imagine them doing anything this winter. This team didn’t have money to fill out their squad at the end of the summer. They pulled out of the Marc Cucurella deal over the extra million they’d have to pay him in January, and for that reason, I wouldn’t be shocked if Reguilon left. I don’t see teams really coming hard for guys like Varane or Casemiro in January; those are just reports designed to get clicks.
Also, given all the turmoil with the takeover, etc, it’s most likely no one is going to be making any big decisions in January. Even if Sir Jim has taken over by then, if he was smart, he wouldn’t be trying to make an immediate splash; he would take the time to assess things and form a long-term plan.
Personally, there’s really nothing available in January, and there’s not much to gain this season. I would be focused more on the long term than spending millions to gain another 3-5 points in the table.
RBM: What are the ambitions of this side going forward?
This particular side? That’s tough.
It’s a really poorly constructed side that’s essentially hit their ceiling. This team is still far off the likes of Manchester City and even Arsenal, with far too many players who are right at or just past their peak. With every window that goes by and new players brought in, more and more key players will need to be moved on.
What do you do in the meantime? They’re not good enough to win the Champions League? If you keep spending tons of money just to qualify for the Champions League you’ll never be able to actually build a title contender. This is going to be the first job of the new regime - to decide how they want to go about the next few years and who is going to be a part of that.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up on Sunday, and where could Everton cause United the most problems?
A couple of fresh injuries make it difficult to predict a usually predictable Erik Ten Hag. Shaw will be back, I think he’ll line at center back rather than left back. Christian Eriksen’s injury means maybe Mason Mount comes in - except Mount is now injured too? Probably Sofyan Amrabat. With Rasmus Hojlund out, it could be Rashford up top or Anthony Martial - the former allows “golden boy” Antony to get back into the team.
Everton are very intriguing. They’ve been a new-age Dyche squad this year, playing much higher up the pitch and a bit more aggressive defensively. They tried this at Old Trafford last season, and it didn’t work very much, but they’re much better at it now. If they approach this match the way they did the Merseyside Derby, I think they’ll have a lot of success.
Under Erik Ten Hag, United have faced “deep” defensive lines (defined as the bottom 10th percentile for average line height) 25 times - they’ve won 21 of those games. They’ve faced “high” defensive lines (anything above the 10th percentile) 24 times - they’ve only won nine of those games. Don’t sit in a deep block - but also don’t fully press United either. If you sit off that first line and just sit on the receivers in midfield, United have no idea what to do. United are vulnerable on set pieces, and Everton are good at them so...there you go.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
I’d say 1-1, but United don’t draw games. I think I said 2-1 to Everton both times last year, and United won both matches, so if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Everton 2-1 Man Utd
Our thanks to Pauly for his time.