Forget Alejandro Garnacho's wonder goal - Man Utd are still very much in trouble
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A 3-0 win away from home, a fifth win in six league games, capped by one of the greatest goals in recent Premier League history – things are looking up at Old Trafford, right? Not if you scratch just a little way beneath the surface. Manchester United were poor at Goodison Park.
Let’s start at the brilliant beginning, with Alejandro Garnacho’s extraordinary bicycle kick, swept in with the instep at a ludicrous angle after a furious piece of backpedalling. It looked like a Puskas Award winner from the moment it left his perfectly-angled boot. It was certainly better than Wayne Rooney’s goal against Manchester City, which always had the faintest whiff of good fortune about it given that it came off his shin – Garnacho’s goal came perfectly out of the instep. Besides, as every connoisseur knows, Rooney’s best goal was the thunderbolt volley against Newcastle United in 2005.
We’ll be seeing replays of the goal for years to come, and quite right too. It was an extraordinary piece of skill and audacity - but we won’t be seeing replays of anything else Garnacho did yesterday, because after that moment of genuine magic, the young Argentine was entirely ineffective. He touched the ball fewer times than any other player in the United startling line-up, and his pass completion rate of 56% was worse than anyone else on the field of play save for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He couldn’t get involved and did little when he did.
That isn’t entirely on Garnacho himself. Yet again, United’s forwards were routinely isolated from a midfield that dropped too deep and lacked the dynamism to get the ball forward into dangerous areas on a routine basis. Yet again, when the ball did get forward, the movement was poor and there was no sense of an overarching attacking scheme.
To say that the 3-0 scoreline flattered United is an understatement. Everton had more possession, more passes, and created far more – ending the game with 24 shots on goal compared to United’s nine. Had the home side been blessed with players who could finish a sentence, then United would have lost the lead quickly.
A top side, or even close to a top side, would not have squandered the opportunities United allowed in the first half, and would likely have been 2-1 or 3-1 up by the halfway mark. As it was, a combination of poor finishing from the Toffees and a superb performance by André Onana, who is finally looking like the world-class goalkeeper that was advertised when he signed, ensured that United retained the lead and were able to build on it. Had this been Arsenal, say, that Garnacho goal would have been buried beneath a defeat.
United are far too reliant on moments of individual exceptionalism right now. Garnacho, Onana and Anthony Martial – who gave his best performance for some time, rightly winning a penalty and scoring the third – won the game for Erik ten Hag, but the team structure was abysmal. Defenders didn’t know where to play the ball when they won it, midfielders couldn’t link up with forwards, forwards ran down blind alleys with too few options. Everton were able to win control of the ball and launch attacks far more often that they should have been able to against a Champions League team.
United are being bailed out by the fact that they have several technically exceptional players who can do things like score overhead kicks, make brilliant saves and break past defenders too quickly for them to react with anything other than a trailing leg. The difference between them and the other theoretical top four contenders is that every other side with similar means and resources has a coherent strategy. The recent 3-0 defeats to Manchester City and Newcastle emphasised the difference.
Everton are certainly better than their artificially-deflated league position, and any opprobrium aimed at United’s performance should be balanced by credit given to a side that went at the visiting side relentlessly hard and strong – but while they are considerably better than the three teams immediately surrounding them under Sean Dyche, they lack the individual touch of class that United have. Nevertheless, they played well as a team, and had a clear, effective strategy that created enough chances to win on a different afternoon.
Last season, United got it together after a rocky start and played as a unit, with players clear on their roles and with a sense of understanding between players. That has dissipated, and Dyche comfortably won the tactical battle at Goodison Park – but his players simply did not have it in them to win the match on the field. Ten Hag’s did, but they will not beat better teams playing like this. In December they face Newcastle, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, West Ham United and Aston Villa – and it would be an unwise man who bet on too many United wins unless they find the sense of unified purpose that Everton had, and United utterly lacked.