It’s official – Manchester United has made the leap from chronically depressing to mind-bogglingly frustrating. In what feels like a cruel joke, José Mourinho’s side is now, in many ways, the antithesis of Louis van Gaal’s uninspiring outfit, but for the rather large caveat of being unable to find the net. That will have to change with the Reds at Everton this weekend.
After an indifferent start to the season, Mourinho’s side has begun to play the attractive brand of football fans have pined for, but have still failed to convert dominance into regular positive results. It is a reversal of the scenario many expected when Mourinho walked through the door at Old Trafford.
Indeed, it was almost taken for granted that Mourinho would have United winning games again, but there were simmering fears that the former Chelsea manager would do it without following the ‘United way.’ It is undoubtedly satisfying that the team is playing with more than a hint of fluency and verve even it inconsistent results are still a major concern.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]I think the destination is for us to be champions. That might not be this year. Maybe next year or in two years’ time, maybe when I am not here and somebody else comes but, if we follow this direction, the destination is for us to be champions.[/blockquote]
United’s comfortable win at Swansea City was followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Arsenal in a game the home side controlled for long periods. A thumping win over Feyenoord in the Europa League couldn’t inspire similar domestic form as West Ham United claimed a point at Old Trafford two days later. Predictably, United ruthlessly swept the Hammers aside in the EFL Cup on Wednesday. Less predictable, however, is how Mourinho’s men will fare on Sunday at Goodison Park.
It is a fixture that United must win, lest the side be cut hopelessly adrift from the top four. Yet, only twice since 2008 have the Reds left the blue half of Merseyside with a victory. Van Gaal had mixed fortunes on his two visits to Everton, losing and winning 3-0 respectively. David Moyes was finally put out of his misery after slumping to a miserable defeat on his only return trip to Goodison as United boss.
Although recent performances represent a marked improvement in terms of entertainment, it is at notoriously tricky venues such as Everton where United must produce if the Portuguese’s side is to be taken seriously once again. The Toffees sit only one point behind United, and it is perhaps appropriate that two sides producing such indifferent results find themselves in close proximity in the league table.
Mourinho feels that his side’s league standing is not reflective of the undoubted potential within the squad. Wednesday’s cup tie against West Ham offered a tantalising glimpse of a potential future. The outcast Anthony Martial returned to the starting line-up with two goals, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan added to the bewilderment surrounding his exile with another classy showing.
There has been a sense for some time that Mourinho’s side is on the brink of a turnaround. It is indisputable that the side is far more cohesive and entertaining than under Van Gaal. Yet, similar sentiments were aired after the 4-0 demolition of Feyenoord, and United simply must avoid dropping yet more points against Ronald Koeman’s men.
The Toffees are without a win in three, and succumbed to a first minute Charlie Austin goal in the team’s last outing at Southampton. Koeman’s side has struggled on the road, but is unbeaten at home in the league this season, albeit with three of the last four fixtures at Goodison ending in a draw.
United’s makeshift backline hasn’t yet been given a stern examination, and Romelu Lukaku is certain to test whether Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo’s auspicious few weeks at centre half has been a temporary anomaly. Most predicted disaster when the two were thrown together with Chris Smalling and Eric Bailly injured, but Jones in particular has taken his chance to impress.
Everton can boast a wealth of talent in the front-line, but it is difficult to predict which version of the team will turn up on any given day. Aaron Lennon and Yannick Bolasie are notoriously inconsistent, and the former Crystal Palace winger, in particular, has yet to make a sustained impact since his move from London.
Koeman’s side shipped five goals at Chelsea in November, and the backline against Southampton last week had a combined age of 125. The vulnerability of Everton’s defence will surely play a part in Mourinho’s team selection.
It would have been ludicrous to suggest just a few weeks back that United will rue Wayne Rooney’s suspension, but it is true on current form. The United captain has looked re-invigorated after his red wine fuelled misdemeanour on England duty, and may even have started on Sunday following a purposeful showing against West Ham in midweek.
Luke Shaw may miss out through injury, after he limped off during Wednesday’s cup-tie, with Daley Blind likely to slot in at left-back. There is also a case for the Dutchman to occupy a slot at the heart of the defence. In previous encounters, Blind has marshalled Lukaku exceptionally well and Mourinho may be tempted to re-assign Blind to this role. It would be harsh on the rejuvenated Rojo though as the Argentinian has played well since coming back into the side.
Paul Pogba is available after suspension, although this creates a dilemma of sorts. Mourinho’s front three of Martial, Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked especially potent in midweek, and this may mean that Juan Mata misses out, despite the Spaniard being United’s best player so far this season.
Mata could feature as part of a midfield trio, but Mourinho’s pragmatic tendencies mean the selection of a more defensive-minded partner for Ander Herrera and Pogba is likely. Michael Carrick has rarely completed a midweek-Sunday double-header, but may retain his place through necessity. Marouane Fellaini is short of match practice, and Morgan Schneiderlin has been left out in the cold this season.
Everton subs: Robles, Funes-Mori, Barry, Cleverley, Valencia, Mirallas, Deulofeu
United subs:Romero, Young, Darmian, Fellaini, Lingard, Mata, Rashford
Mourinho chose to shuffle his pack after United’s 4-1 win over Feyenoord, and was stung when the Reds failed to beat West Ham in the league a few days later. Mata does not deserve relegation to the bench, but the manager may be reluctant to alter a combination that dismantled Slaven Bilic’s team in the EFL Cup.
Martial and Mkhitaryan add pace, which is a potential nightmare for the ageing Toffees defence. Mkhitaryan has firmly grasped his opportunity to impress, despite the enormous pressure to perform, and will surely dispelling any unfounded rumours regarding his mental fortitude. Martial’s encouraging showing has also been acknowledged by his manager.
“He is working harder than before, to be honest,” said Mourinho. “Obviously when you score twice I think maybe it helps happiness to be back, confidence levels to be back.”
Martial is a wonderful talent who has looked out of sorts this campaign, but has thus far been denied the chance to play himself back into form. Sunday’s fixture against a shaky Everton defence may just be the perfect opportunity to do so.
Michael Oliver (Referee)
G Beswick, S Bennett (Assistants)
P Tierney (Fourth official)
Everton 1-2 United