Everton are starting to enjoy hosting Manchester United on a glorious April afternoon when things aren’t quite going right for the Red Devils. It was five years ago that David Moyes, infamously haunted by the grim reaper sitting in the Family Enclosure, met his end as United boss following a comprehensive 2-0 defeat to Roberto Martinez’s then up-and-coming outfit.
Having recently been handed the reins of his team on a permanent basis, the occupant of the visitors’ dugout this time around was in a very different position but the outcome of the game was even more emphatic for an Everton side once again moving in the right direction.
The talk in the aftermath has been all about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, United’s limp performance and the size of the rebuilding job that lies ahead for the Norwegian. Precious little kudos have been given to an Everton team that now has four successive clean sheets against “big six” opposition in its last four home games, should really have beaten Liverpool and has impressively seen off Chelsea, Arsenal and now United. At some point, you have to look at the Toffees’ increasing strength rather than the weakness of their opponents but that’s modern football media for you.
Solskjaer’s side didn’t get a look-in because Marco Silva’s simply overpowered them and gave them no room to breathe – you can argue over whether Everton running a collective five miles more than the visitors was a lack of effort on the latter ‘s part or a psychological symptom of their destruction on the day – but United’s situation has dominated the post-match assessment. The debacle at Fulham last weekend partially explains why; Everton need to earn their way into the conversation by achieving consistency and the pressure they will put on the top six by doing so. That defeat at Craven Cottage is even more perplexing after what unfolded in the Goodison sunshine this afternoon.
How do you square this utter domination of the Red Devils with the abject display at Fulham? Indeed, looking at it more granularly, how do you reconcile the instrumental role played this afternoon by Gylfi Sigurdsson with his nearly invisible showing by the Thames last weekend? If and when Silva can find the answer, today, in combination with those last four results at an increasingly fortitudinous Goodison Park, laid down another marker for what this team could be under the Portuguese’s stewardship.
Much was made in the preamble to this fixture about how much Sigurdsson enjoys playing against Man United and he would pad those prior achievements today with a fine goal and an assist. His early role was provider from a flurry of early set-pieces as Everton began the game with exactly the kind of intensity a packed Grand Old Lady was demanding after last Saturday.
A couple of corners and a free kick from the right were repelled, however, and it was from dead-ball situations involving Lucas Digne on the left side that the Blues made their first real inroads. The Frenchman’s deep corner was hooked back into the box by Idrissa Gueye where it dropped to the feet of Richarlison in the kind of predatory position from which many of his goals have come this season. His shot was saved by David de Gea and, unfortunately, he lacked a bit of composure with the rebound that he lashed wide.
He was far more clinical just couple of minutes later, though. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, playing his now customary role of hard-graft, ceaseless running and general nuisance-making among the opposition defence, rose to meet Digne’s long throw-in and helped it on with his back and it sat up nicely at head height for Richarlison to sweep it into the roof of the net with an acrobatic swivel.
United had been hemmed into their own half for the majority of the opening 20 minutes but they briefly threatened to equalise entirely against the run of play when Marcus Rashford was put in behind Michael Keane, back in the side after sitting out against Fulham, but the England striker couldn’t keep his first-time shot down and it sailed over Jordan Pickford’s crossbar.
The visitors were starting to get a foothold in the contest when Everton hit them on the break and doubled their advantage shortly before the half-hour mark. Gueye collected the ball in front of his own defence and exchanged passes with Bernard before finding Sigurdsson driving into the United half. The Icelandic star profited from the space afforded by Nemanja Matic, looked up and then bounced a terrific 30-yard effort past De Gea’s despairing dive.
Richarlison would have one more chance in the half after Morgan Schneiderlin, the man selected to replace the suspended André Gomes, intercepted a ball out of the United defence and immediately found the Brazilian in the right-hand channel but the keeper was equal to it.
Richarlison, who looks like a candidate to be stretchered off on a weekly basis, went down writing in his usual fashion shortly before half time clutching his side and while he came out for the second half, he didn’t last five more minutes and was substituted in favour of Theo Walcott.
The impetus remained with Everton who were relentless in their pressing and intensity and Bernard’s brilliant feint opened up space for a cross that was delivered behind Calvert-Lewin before the Blues made it three 11 minutes after the interval. Sigurdsson’s shot was deflected behind, De Gea fisted the midfielder’s corner out of his area where Digne was on hand to deliver it back towards goal with interest, the ball arrowing into the net from 25 yards out.
Two minutes after that it was almost 4-0. Sigurdsson hooked a corner in from the left side this time that almost caught De Gea out as it curled towards his line but the Spaniard reacted quickly to sweep it away from under his crossbar.
It would only take another five minutes for Sigurdsson to create the fourth goal, though, as Everton caught United cold with another counter. He sent Walcott on his way with a perfectly-weighted pass and into a showdown with De Gea that the winger won by slipping the ball past him and inside the far post.
That was more or less job done by Everton even if Blues fans of a certain vintage were yearning for a fifth that would have been so beautifully evocative of the 5-0 win over the same opposition in October 1984 that was one of the catalysts for the run of results that carried Howard Kendall’s team to the title the following May.
Anthony Martial probably should have scored a consolation for the visitors with 20 minutes to go when he jinked his way past his marker but fired wide while Rashford drove another rising shot over after Digne had been dispossessed and Matic also missed with a shot of his own.
Seamus Coleman, meanwhile, popped up at the other end to take a ball down on the chest and volley goalwards but it was too close to the keeper.
After Digne had been forced off with a foot injury, Martial finally registered United’s first shot on target in the waning minutes but it was routine for Pickford who had one of his quietest afternoons of the season.
Again, in the context of this being Solskjaer’s heaviest defeat thus far as Red Devils manager, the first time United have lost three successive away games in the Premier League since 1996 and the first time since 1981 that they have lost five on the bounce on their travels, it’s inevitable that the dissection of the game would be all about them.
Everton were magnificent, however, and that shouldn’t be overlooked or forgotten, particularly by Silva’s players themselves. Schneiderlin slotted in seamlessly alongside Gueye who was once again immense; the central defensive duo had Romelu Lukaku in their pockets throughout while the fullbacks were in fine form up and own down the flanks.
That, combined with Calvert-Lewin’s work-rate, Richarlison looking more confident and assured with the ball at his feet and Bernard buzzing around for 90 minutes linking up play and zipping down the left gave Sigurdsson the platform to be the chief architect of United’s sorry demise.
Just like the Chelsea and Arsenal results before them, this brilliant victory and the performance that underpinned it should form another piece of the roadmap forward under Marco Silva. While Marcel Brands will be preoccupied with securing the additional talent that is required to take this Everton team to the next level, the manager’s biggest task now will be to get consistency out of this squad.
In many ways, Silva might prefer it if achieving results against the inferior sides rather than the top teams is his biggest challenge but getting that psychological dimension right is no mean feat. Certainly, this team has proved in recent weeks that it is capable of mixing it up with the best in the division and from that perspective they might be ruing that dreadful spell over winter, some unforgivable results at the likes of Newcastle and Fulham and the fact that there aren’t more games left in the season.
It bears repeating — if they can get their collective heads right and perform at this level on a more regular basis then the future can be very bright under the current manager.