Sean Dyche is defying the odds and the pundits. The Toffees look a markedly better squad than they did in the dying days of the Frank Lampard era, and the organization of the side does peak the attention of an observer - die-hard or casual.
Everton have taken two points from the last two matches against the likes of Chelsea and Tottenham - can they take another three from a Manchester United side that, while a bit off over the second half of this strange season, have still won a trophy and could feasibly win two more before all is said and done in May.
Erik ten Hag deserves credit - but so does Dyche. In different ways, they are making their sides reflections of themselves. While they are in different stages, points, and with different financial possibilities and resources, a reformulation is in the works on Manchester and Merseyside; the only question for the Blues this Saturday is whether it will be attainable against this side - but victories take but execution and moments of brilliance to attain, and this side is learning a thing or two about that on this stretch run to May.
Ahead of Saturday’s affair, we spoke to Pauly Kwestel, writer for SB Nation’s United site, The Busby Babe:
RBM: Firstly, Manchester United continues to fight for a top-four position on the league table, along with this FA Cup and the Europa League, and have already won the EFL Cup; what is the feeling around Old Trafford and the supporters right now?
Fans are still reveling in winning a trophy, which was one of the targets set at the beginning of the year and has been achieved. The thing about winning the League Cup in February is things can go downhill afterwards, and suddenly, a successful season doesn’t seem so successful.
Most of the fans are still drinking the kool-aid and celebrating a trophy and a big win over Barcelona. The reality is the team hasn’t been playing well since January. Their form has seen them go from having a strangle-hold on third place to now being sucked into a legitimate top-four race. I still have them as favorites to finish in the top four due to the two games in hand over Tottenham and a massive points lead on everyone else.
RBM: The team has been struggling - relatively speaking - since they won their latest trophy; is it as easily explainable as Casemiro being out?
PK: It’s almost that easy.
Yes, Casemiro is a big miss and, the team is terrible without him, but they had been playing poorly with him the past few months. The truth is that it’s a combination of the lack of Casemiro and that they’re just all knackered.
Erik Ten Hag continuously picked a full-strength squad — passing up vital opportunities to rotate — in January cup matches against lower-level opposition and in the second leg of the League Cup semifinal with a 3-1 lead and it looks like United are just now paying the price. Marcus Rashford has played just about as much as he did in 2020 and 2021 - when he wore down - and Bruno Fernandes never takes a game off.
They’re just tired. Unfortunately, the thing about players wearing down is once it’s an issue, it’s too late.
RBM: What has this team become so good at so quickly when they have all of their players available to them?
PK: Don’t forget, the core of this team won 74 points two years ago. Those players are still here, plus some upgrades, and the side is without many of the player that didn’t fit the team at all and torpedoed all of last season. For this team to take as big a step forward this season as they took backward last season shouldn’t be all that surprising.
They’ve done that by playing to their strengths. This is a team that thrives when running in open space. As of Wednesday morning, they lead the league in direct attacks (67) and goals from counterattacks (8). They’ve been able to generate these scenarios with Ten Hag’s slow, slow, FAST buildup play that helps to draw defenses out and open up space behind them.
They’re a very back-and-forth team that doesn’t play in the midfield too much. They let opponents get deeper with the ball, relying on the talents of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane - two excellent 1v1 and ball-winning defenders - to keep their defense in check. This brings teams further out, creating more space behind them.
Where United have run into trouble recently has lots to do with Ten Hag seriously leveraging the individual talent of certain players and the results which invariably occur when those players drop off. Casemiro’s gotten into a lot of trouble recently because he’s tasked with doing SO MUCH, while Raphael Varane has been poor. This has hurt United defensively and hurt their ability to counterattack.
Teams have also begun to figure them out. They’re pressing United much higher up the pitch preventing United from doing their slow, slow, fast buildup, and United can’t deal with it. Over the first 21 games of the season the average line height for United’s opponents was 43.97. Over the last six matches, it’s been 46.72. Whereas United used to average about eight (8) direct attacks per matches, that number has been cut in half.
RBM: What weaknesses does ten Hag still have to work out with the singular and collective talent of his side?
PK: The back half of what I just wrote. For all the narrative that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer only relied on individual talent, Ten Hag relies on it even more. Too much of United’s system hinges on certain players just being really good. When they aren’t on their day - or not available - United have no answer.
Ten Hag needs to figure out a system that makes the team less reliant on individual players. In order to do that he’s going to need better players on his bench. It’s impossible to implement a strong system if you don’t have talent and there are several players on United’s bench that even Everton would say “no thanks” on.
RBM: Can this side continue to grow and evolve if the side has spent multiple transfer windows worth over the previous summer? If they are to spend in the summer, where do you think they will invest in for Erik ten Hag?
PK: That’s the million-dollar question, Trent.
Back in September, the club all but confirmed they used two summers' worth of budget last year but that’s not what sells papers; so naturally, they’re still linked to every big name out there. With UEFA’s new - much stricter - FFP rules how much they really have to spend is going to be entirely dependent on how well they can sell players. They’re not too good at that, and they don’t have too many players of value to move either - will probably have to dip into the academy to get a good sale.
Personally, I’d rather them have to recruit on a budget as it’ll make them be smarter than just chasing after every big name again.
As has been the case for the past four years, the biggest area they need to address is central midfield. As has been the case for the last four years they’ll probably sign some overpriced attackers and center-backs.
RBM: How many trophies does this team expect to win this year? And what about Premier League position by year’s end? Surely United must feel favorites in at least the Europa League with Arsenal out of the picture?
PK: How many do they expect to win? It’s possible they expect to win all three? How many will they win? Well, considering they already have one in the bag they should win at least two.
Other than Barcelona away United have been the favorite in every single cup match they’ve played this year, and that’ll be true with every remaining match with the exception of a potential FA Cup final against Manchester City. That’s a hell of a cup run that should mean multiple trophies, but of course, football isn’t always straightforward.
RBM: Talk to me about the prospective sale of the club? What’s the status and who do fans wish to take over the outfit?
PK: I’ve really stayed away from all the owner stuff because we truly don’t know anything. Having money and a willingness to spend it doesn’t mean someone will be a good owner. If you don’t spend that money smartly, you’re doing more harm than good. None of these guys have any track record, so who knows if they’re good or not?
United are a pretty self-sustaining club and with UEFA’s tighter FFP laws, there’s not much more Qatari ownership can add to the first team without bending some rules. At the end of the day, it’s about the people you hire to run the club. If they’re good, United makes enough money that the owner’s wallet doesn’t matter. If they’re not, no amount of money will save you.
I just want an owner who hires the right people, invests in the academy and the stadium. I’d also like them not to be using the club as a sports washing project - which is a pretty big deal! Considering the Qatari’s don’t have a good track record with human rights or running a football club well, it’s clear that the fans that want them only want them in so United could “win” the transfer window year after year.
RBM: How do you expect United to set up and where could United cause Everton the most problems?
PK: Can’t see them changing much up from Wednesday.
Expect De Gea in goal with Dalot, Varane, Martinez, and Malacia (if Shaw is injured) at the back. McTominay, Bruno, and Sabitzer in the midfield, with Rashford and Antony making up two of the front three. The last spot is the only toss-up. I can see Sancho keeping his place, perhaps Martial gets his first start since January, or maybe he goes back to Weghorst?
Marcus Rashford is always the player that can cause you problems, so you always have to be careful of him. But this team looked pretty impotent against Brentford who were sitting in a low block, which is exactly how Sean Dyche likes to play.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for the match?
PK: It’s a home game, where United’s record this season has been impeccable, so I’ll go 1-0 to United.
Our thanks as always to Pauly for his time.