Six days on from a miracle comeback against Tottenham Hotspur on Monday night courtesy of a Michael Keane thunderbolt, Everton attempt to continue their current undefeated streak, now stretching to four games. They are certainly proving no easy touch under Sean Dyche, once again displaying plenty of character to come from behind after playing around 20 minutes a man down.
With the bottom nine (!) teams that are involved in the battle to stay up all having played 29 matches - the exception being West Ham United on 28 - it’s as tight as ever, with bottom side Southampton only seven points behind Crystal Palace, in 12th spot. Everton sit at 16th, clear of the relegation zone only by virtue of possessing superior goal difference.
Everton get back into action on Saturday’s early kickoff, with a visit to Old Trafford, to face Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United.
In preparation for the Dutchman’s first campaign in the Red Devils hot seat it was all change last summer, which saw a number of big-name departures and a big wad of cash lavished on replacements such as Real Madrid’s Casemiro, Antony and Lisandro Martinez, the latter two from the new man’s old side, Ajax. All told, United’s net spend during the window amounted to an eye-watering €227m. Eventually, the highest profile of all - Cristiano Ronaldo would belatedly leave on November 22nd, but not before causing all manner of disruption, as the 36-year old spectacularly failed to deal with the prospect of no longer being the main man, under the new man.
After a sluggish beginning to the season, which saw the Mancunians lose three of their opening seven league matches, things began to pick up heading into the break for the World Cup, marred only by a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa on November 6th, which would prove to be Ronaldo’s final appearance in a red shirt. United would not lose again until facing league leaders Arsenal, in January - a stretch of ten games, of which the team won nine. The former Ajax man had imposed his style of play on the 20-time league champions, as could be seen by them putting together another undefeated streak, this time eleven matches, finding victory in nine, including the first silverware for the Dutchman in the form of a 2-0 EFL Cup final win over Newcastle United.
The good vibes came to a shuddering end on March 5th, as the Red Devils were simply blown away 7-0 at Anfield by Liverpool, a result absolutely nobody saw coming, given the contrasting fortunes of the two clubs this term. Since that setback, a couple of comfortable Europa League wins over La Liga outfit Real Betis have been outliers, as they’ve failed to convince in their other four matches. In the FA Cup, they were trailing at home to Fulham with 18 minutes to play before the Londoners imploded, conceding a penalty and losing two players (and manager, Marco Silva) to straight red cards to somehow manufacture a 3-1 defeat. A tepid goalless draw with Southampton at Old Trafford and a 2-0 mauling against Newcastle United left fans unimpressed.
Last time out, the Manchester outfit beat visitors Brentford 1-0, but did not convince. They sit in a strong position in the race for a Champions League spot, in fourth place.
Style of Play
Under their new boss, hailed as one of the more highly regarded coaches in Europe, United have stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with just a handful of deviations. They have scored 42 league goals, right in line with their xG (Expected Goals) stat of 42.4. Unusually, they have conceded 37 goals, which exactly matches their xGA (Expected Goals Allowed). A goal difference of plus five is comfortably the worst of all those teams battling it out for Champions League qualification.
Ten Hag plays a high line and a pressing game, looking to exploit the opposition during transition periods with direct passing into pacy forwards. United are the most dangerous counterattacking side in the league, with seven of their goals coming from this route.
Offensively, the Red Devils are competitive on the ball, with a 53.1% share, but are not a classic possession team. They generally like to play with a slow build-up, but will attempt to put the ball over the top into space if they see the opportunity. Only 10.7% of their passes go long; by contrast Everton go direct 15.7% of the time. The home side generate 11.3 key passes (those leading to a attempt on goal) and take 13.9 shots per 90 minutes, ranking sixth in both categories.
They are a middle-ranking side in terms of number of attempted dribbles, but are near the bottom as regards success. United retain the ball very well in general play, taking poor touches or being dispossessed less than other other side except for Manchester City. They like to play through the middle, attempting only 15 crosses per game and with 26% of their attacks coming from central areas, though 42% are from the left flank, where Marcus Rashford usually lines up.
On defence, the Old Trafford outfit rely on their generally dependable centre back pairing of Martinez and Raphael Varane, well protected by sitting midfielder Casemiro, who of course will be absent due to suspension on Saturday.
Rashford is United’s number one threat, with the forward enjoying his most productive campaign since 2019-20, when he fired 17 league goals. He’s already at 15 for the season currently, eleven of which have come since the World Cup. The former academy graduate has been lethal, outperforming his xG by 4.1 this season and leads all those in the team (with appreciable playing time) by posting an xG per 90 of 0.43. He typically lines up on the left flank of the 4-2-3-1, but last time out played centrally.
Bruno Fernandes is performing well, leading the Old Trafford side in SCA (Shot-Creating Actions) with 5.08 and 2.81 key passes per 90. The Portuguese is dangerous with his range of passing, intelligent movement and finishing qualities, though he’s scored only five league goals this term.
Martinez, despite much scepticism by many pundits about how he would stack up physically as a central defender in English football, standing at just shy of 5’9, has borne up pretty well. Aggressive and combative, the Argentine is actually winning 50.8% of his aerial duels, admittedly not as impressive as 6’3 centre back partner Varane (75%) but none too shabby nevertheless. Quick and with good instincts, he’s making 6.98 ball recoveries and making a combined 3.78 tackles and interceptions per 90. With a pass success rate of 86.8%, he is composed on the ball also.
This is as decent a time as any to be playing Manchester United. The home side are in indifferent form currently and will be playing their third match in less than six days. Although they won against Brentford on Wednesday, they hardly looked an irresistible force, scoring the game’s only goal off their sole “big chance” and could even have found themselves hauled back on level terms if Kevin Schade had done better with an excellent chance in the 67th minute. In xG terms, they were outdone by a score of 0.65 to 0.31 in the second half.
Everton have been highly competitive in recent away visits, drawing at Nottingham Forest and Chelsea. United only really look dangerous if they are allowed plenty of space to run into and it seems unlikely that the Blues will accommodate this. Otherwise, the visitors will need to keep an eye on creative fulcrum Fernandes and the on-loan Bayern Munich midfielder Marcel Sabitzer who caught the eye midweek.
The centre of the park should be interesting, given how much United are missing the influential Casemiro and the need for Everton to rejig to account for the suspended Abdoulaye Doucoure. Personally, I would slot ex-United man James Garner straight in for a first league start against his former employers. The 22-year old will be motivated, determined to impress and will bring energy, quickness and technical qualities that could help the visitors to win the midfield battle.
Otherwise, the game plan for Dyche will be the familiar one: a solid, disciplined structure, intensity and the commitment to break forward in numbers at opportune moments. Crucially, the Toffees need to cut out the individual errors that have cost them goals and points in five of the last six outings, including three penalties. Do this and Everton have every chance of returning to Merseyside with something.
Prediction: Manchester United 1-1 Everton