Everton entered the international break in buoyant mood, fresh off a 3-2 away victory over Crystal Palace, which capped off a run of six wins from nine in all competitions, putting them in a healthy mid-table position. What a difference a few days can make, however.
A ruling by an independent commission last week to deduct ten points from the Blues - due to an alleged breach of the Premier League’s Profitability and Sustainability regulations - now leaves the team in 19th spot, off the bottom only by goal difference. Understandably, fans are angered and embittered by what is almost unanimously considered to be a harsh penalty.
It is within an atmosphere of rising animosity, directed towards those who govern English football’s elite division, that the Toffees entertain Manchester United in Sunday’s early evening kickoff.
Eric ten Hag concluded his first campaign in charge of the Red Devils by guiding them to a third-placed finish, earning qualification for the UEFA Champions League, along with victory in the Carabao Cup Final. Although the team trailed the title-battling Manchester City and Arsenal by some margin, this represented significant progress from what had been a directionless 2021-22 season.
United had spent big in support of the Dutchman last season (net €220m) and the outlay continued during the summer, to the tune of €148m. A trio of talent was brought in from Serie A: Fiorentina midfielder Sofyan Ambrabat, Inter goalkeeper Andre Onana and Atalanta striker Rasmus Hojlund, along with Chelsea’s England star Mason Mount. Major outgoing players were Brazilian midfielder Fred - who departed for Fenerbahce - and long-time ‘keeper David de Gea - who is incidentally still without a club, at just 32, which is kind of surprising.
Far from kicking on from last season, the team has stumbled out of the blocks this term. After an unconvincing opening day win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Mancunians lost three of their next four in the league, conceding ten goals in the process, before shipping four in a Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich. They followed up a 3-0 Carabao Cup victory over Crystal Palace by immediately losing to the same opposition at Old Trafford four days later. A home setback to Galatasaray - with former United reject Wilfried Zaha scoring the opener for the visitors - marked another low point in a campaign rapidly spiralling out of control.
Bizarrely, since then they’ve entered into a period of strong league form: four wins set against a 3-0 crushing by crosstown rivals, City, though they’ve hardly convinced in any. They needed two goals in stoppage time to salvage a home win over Brentford, struggled to get over the line against a poor Sheffield United and required a 91st minute winner versus Fulham.
Last time out United huffed and puffed to a 1-0 result over Luton Town at Old Trafford, but in the game prior, they crumbled 4-3 on the road to FC Copenhagen, after Marcos Rashford was dismissed in the 42nd minute, a result which puts them in serious danger of falling out of the Champions League.
Style of Play
Ten Hag was brought in as the man to implement a progressive style of exciting football at the club, following a series of underwhelming incumbents. Highly respected in his homeland and considered one of the more in-demand head coaches in Europe, appointing the Dutchman was seen as something of a coup and generally greeted with approval by a large fanbase that was growing tired of underachievement in the post Alex Ferguson years.
Last season was considered by most observers to be transitional, as the former Ajax man looked to remould the team into one capable of playing in his high pressing, possession style, rather than the counterattacking approach of recent times. Consequently, United looked like a side caught between two positions for much of ten Hag’s inaugural campaign: dangerous on the break, more direct than expected, but showing an intent to exert control than had been largely absent under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Ralf Rangnick.
This term, however progress has completely stalled, if not reversed, despite the manager being handsomely backed in the transfer market. The Red Devils are one of the more direct sides in the league, ranking seventh in share of possession and ninth in passing accuracy. Despite this, they are showing little cutting edge, generating an xG (Expected Goals) of 17.5 (12th), a statistic they are underperforming by 4.5, having netted only 13 times. They’ve scored only eight goals from open play, which ranks joint 15th, alongside Everton and Burnley.
Defensively, they have appeared vulnerable, allowing an average of 14.0 attempts per game (14th) and giving up an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 18.9 (3.1 more than the Blues), though they’ve only conceded 16. A combination of a high press, forwards who are reluctant to track back and an ill-matched, stretched midfield has left them looking easy to play through. The backline has been hit by injuries, hardly resembling that of an elite side. That Harry Maguire, who was available for transfer in the summer and 35-year-old free agent Jonny Evans - sold by the club back in 2015 - have been regulars tells its own story.
Hojlund will be a late call for the match, but will lead the line if fit. The 20-year-old was a big money signing, essentially off of one decent season in Italy (nine league goals in 32 appearances), but the Dane has all the attributes to be a top all-around striker, even if he’s taking a while to find the back of the net in England. Fast, hard-working and physical, he makes intelligent runs which his teammates are often slow to recognize.
Rashford is enduring a poor time of it, after seemingly being revitalized by ten Hag last term. Coming off a 17-goal league campaign, the wide forward has scored just once so far and looks to be short of confidence.
United’s creative hub is likely to be Bruno Fernandes. The Portuguese has drawn a lot of criticism for his leadership qualities - as team captain, but in individual terms is way ahead of anyone else with 5.08 SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) per 90 minutes, presenting a threat from both open play and dead ball situations.
Goodison Park figures to be a bear pit on Sunday evening, with the fans planning to visibly and vocally display their disapproval to the Premier League, in the aftermath of the sanction that’s been imposed upon the Toffees. Sean Dyche will be happy to use the tangible atmosphere and a sense of injustice to fire his charges up for the task ahead.
On paper United are a team possessing a good manager, a number of high quality players and who will arrive in Liverpool as one of the league’s form sides. The reality is somewhat different. Structurally, they are a bit of a mess, despite recent unimpressive wins, with players utilised out of position, recalled from the wilderness, or mysteriously retaining their spot despite poor performances.
Whilst it may be a stretch to suggest the Dutchman is losing the dressing room at this stage, several players appear to be marginalised, many are inconsistent, or appear uncommitted, even confused by the style of play. Large sections of the team’s fanbase are unconvinced by the direction of travel under the head coach. Everton may lack the talent possessed by many in the visitor’s squad, but they are evidently all firmly behind Dyche and fully signed up to the style of play.
On Sunday, I expect a rousing atmosphere in the old ground to build up before kickoff and to direct its fury at the Red Devils, who will serve as an on field proxy for the Premier League authorities. This Everton side plays its best football when backed by vociferous support and that should be evident in spades at Goodison. Stranger things have happened - football being nothing if not unpredictable - but I expect United to be swept aside by a team propelled along by a wave of emotion.
Prediction: Everton 2-0 Manchester United