Louis Van Gaal had his fair share of opprobrium cast upon him in the wake of his side’s 3-0 away reverse to Arsenal, prior to the international break. The Manchester United boss’ deviation from his usual midfield combo of restrained passer and energetic runner, through the selection of two of the former (Carrick and Schweinsteiger) was roundly – and rightly – criticised. As was his bizarre decision to ask the German to move way out of position to press Arsenal’s deep-lying playmaker, Santi Cazorla – thus leaving acres of space in front of the left-side of United’s defence for number ten, Mesut Ozil, to exploit.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of Van Gaal’s management on that fateful Sunday, however, was his refusal to make any changes until the half-time break – when his side were already three goals down. In that second half, another familiar brickbat hurled in Van Gaal’s direction also raised its head – as Arsenal sat in and dealt uber-comfortably with United’s painfully slow build up play.
On Saturday afternoon however – at a Goodison Park in mourning at the loss of title-winning boss, Howard Kendall – all those painfully obvious problems had apparently evaporated over the preceding fortnight.
Van Gaal made four eminently sensible changes to the side that capitulated in the opening quarter of that clash with the Gunners. Restored to the side were the energetic presences of Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera – with the former fielded alongside Schweinsteiger, while the latter took the number ten position from Wayne Rooney. England’s newly-crowned all-time top scorer was asked to play as a nine, with Anthony Martial moved wide-left in place of the rested Memphis Depay.
United’s midfield looked transformed – the away side dominated that area of the field from the off with quick passing triangles and aggressive pressing and found themselves deservedly two goals to the good inside the first quarter. Schneiderlin scored the opener and ended the first half as the game’s top passer and tackler – further evidence in favour of the Frenchman’s much-vaunted energy and versatility.
United’s central dominance was also aided and abetted by an Everton side that looked uncharacteristically loose from back to front. Fielded in a 4-1-4-1 formation to begin with, with Gareth Barry holding and James McCarthy and Ross Barkley either side, Everton’s lack of compactness, coupled with an apparent man-marking policy in midfield, meant that Barry was often overwhelmed by the presence of Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and nominal marker, Herrera, in his designated area.
Barry lost Herrera for the long-range effort that Howard tipped over prior to that fatal corner. And he lost him again, moments later, for the second goal – as Herrera arrived late to put a headed finishing touch on one of many quick first-half passing sequences from the visitors.
The provider of the cross for that second goal, on the overlap, was Marcos Rojo, restored to the side in place of Ashley Young – who was badly exposed at left-back by United’s pressing omnishambles in the previous game. The Argentinian’s solid performance was buttressed by another brilliant outing from Chris Smalling – fielded, for a change, at the left of the two centre-backs to accommodate the return of Phil Jones. Jones took the place of Daley Blind, who was been consistently targeted by physically superior opposition strikers this season. Everton’s number nine, Romelu Lukaku, found only a brick wall in the shape of Jones and Smalling – their tenth competitive start as a pair, of which United have lost none.
Everton moved to a 4-4-1-1 shape at the beginning of the second half – moving Barkley into the ten position and sacrificing the ineffectual Steven Naismith for the direct running of Arouna Kone.
This prompted a strong fifteen minute spell from the hosts in which they looked likely to eke out a foothold in this game. United’s problem with number tens raised its ugly head again, with Schweinsteiger booked for accumulation for a cynical foul on Barkley, and Schneiderlin also culpable for conceding the Barkley-taken free-kick that very nearly bamboozled De Gea.
This was a mixed day for Barkley however, to say the least. His set-piece delivery was mostly appalling and his hesitancy at the back post from one of several chances that Everton created down the right flank in that early second-half purple patch cost his side what looked like a certain goal.
Still, the young midfielder also prompted Everton’s other best chance of the match – when his through ball, followed by Lennon’s byline cutback was brilliantly saved by De Gea from Lukaku.
Yet, within five minutes of that chance, United had struck on the break to wrap this one up. Wayne Rooney showed some positive signs throughout this game with the timing of his runs. And on the hour mark, Rooney took advantage of a Jagielka giveaway to get on the end of two quick passes from Schneiderlin and Herrera (in that order) to calm red nerves. Rooney had also broken the offside trap in the first-half to collect a Darmian pass and feed Martial, only to see the Frenchman’s strike diverted off its goalbound path by Brendan Galloway. On the negative side, however – marvel at his lack of pace to distance the not-very-quick Jagielka, when he again broke the trap minutes after the third.
United played keep ball for the rest of the half to see out the game – save for a couple of chances stemming from the exciting dribbling of Martial, who gave Seamus Coleman quite a bit to think about in this one.
Van Gaal has claimed that he’s is not “stupid” enough to make any significant changes to this side for United’s next encounter against CSKA Moscow, on Wednesday. United fans will be hoping that he has finally – emphasis on finally – hit upon a winning formula.