Manchester United had to scrap for all three points at Goodison Park, and their win will feel all the better for them having done so.
There was a case for saying that those two late goals at The Etihad Stadium hadn’t really done Manchester United many favours.
Losing 6-3 rather than 6-1 may have spared some blushes, but there were potential downsides, too. The margin of defeat went from one which better represented the obvious chasm between the two teams, while offering a potential sliver of opportunity for complacency following a poor performance to sneak in. And while United ended up coming away from their Europa League trip to Nicosia with an important win, they could hardly be said to have torn the place up. After their strong comeback from a dismal start to the season, the last week had felt like a bit of a backward step.
But it doesn’t really feel like that any more, not at the end of an evening in which United had to fight to come back from an early lapse, and then hold onto a lead over a frantic last five minutes of aerial bombardment from an Everton team that wasn’t giving up their own six-game unbeaten run without a fight. And wins like this, when you’ve had to reach deep into your reserves of grit and determination, are worth a fortune. They can bond a team in ways that money simply cannot buy.
Received wisdom would have it that it helps to be able to give a full debut to one of the best defensive midfielders on the planet. Nobody has any doubts about the abilities of Casemiro, and his absence from Manchester United’s first team had come to feel increasingly perplexing with each passing game. Now here he finally was in the starting line-up, the delayed start to him stepping fully into spotlight explained away before the match by Erik ten Hag as giving him the opportunity to fully settle into the club.
Ten Hag may have been wishing that he’d extended that acclimatisation spell by another week after just five minutes. With the ball at his feet and his back to goal, Casemiro had the ball nicked from him by Amadeu Onana, leaving the Brazilian on his backside and United’s defence in sudden and quite unexpected trouble. The ball found its way to Alex Iwobi, who bent the ball into the corner to give Everton the lead. Goodison Park is always a febrile place under the floodlights, and of course it exploded. For all the pouring rain, it was a baptism of fire for Casemiro.
Everton have been defensive skinflints this season, but one good turn deserved another nine minutes later when Idrissa Gueye lost the ball in midfield. From there, and with the Everton midfield and defence wholly unprepared for this sudden loss of momentum, it was two passes to find Antony, who continued his goal-a-game streak with a diagonal shot across Jordan Pickford.
And with the bit between their teeth, Manchester United got back a little of the swagger that left the building so suddenly at Eastlands. Suddenly, they were on top. Everton’s defence has been the steel rod that has kept the team clear from the sort of panicking which blighted so much of their last season, but United’s attackers could see their whites of their eyes and for a few minutes it felt as though that particular dam being breached would be inevitable.
A touch of misfortune nearly checked that forward momentum. Anthony Martial was understood to be hurt before kick-off, with his place in the starting eleven said to be in doubt, and he only lasted 28 minutes before being replaced by Cristiano Ronaldo. We saw the worst and best of Ronaldo in those last seventeen minutes of this half. He’d only been on he pitch ten minutes when he ran needlessly offside before gesticulating his unhappiness with the pass he received, all of which may have been something and nothing had Bruno Fernandes not put the ball in the Everton net a few seconds later, only to be called back for Ronaldo’s offside.
Six minutes later came the other side of that particular coin. This time it was Alex Iwobi’s turn to be caught in possession (something of a theme of the evening, that), this time by Casemiro, who undid much of the damage that his early mistake had caused with a through-pass for Ronaldo to score his 700th career club goal. United led at half-time, an admirable fightback that you wouldn’t have imagined last year’s team getting anywhere near.
But Everton are also made of considerably sterner stuff than they were last season, and as the second half progressed they pressed the Manchester United defence back, though they were unable to create much in the way of goalscoring opportunities, and as they started to commit more players into attacking positions, the gaps left behind them became increasingly evident. When United broke, their pace caused problems for the Everton defence, although often their final ball was missing too.
And with ten minutes to play, Everton received a bit of a let off when Marcus Rashford, who’d already had a perky evening, had a goal disallowed. For all of football’s modern pretentions of tactical sophistication, sometimes route one is the quickest route. David de Gea punted the ball downfield, Ronaldo flicked the header on and Rashford out-jumped Iwobi, got to the ball a fraction before James Tarkowski, and bundled it past Pickford, only for play to be called back for a handball by Rashford in the build-up.
But for all that such a tight decision could have given their players a bit of a boost going into the closing minutes of the contest, Everton couldn’t find a way of breaking back through themselves. They pressured and they hassled, and the Manchester United defence did creak a little as the home side threw the ball into the penalty area with increasing desperation.
As the clock ticked over 90 minutes, Onana had a header skid a couple of yards wide. James Garner then brought a fine save from de Gea with a cross which may have been a shot. With thirty seconds of stoppage-time to play, Jordan Pickford turned up in the Manchester United penalty area, but he couldn’t get his head on any of them and United hung on.
It is clear that Manchester United remain a work in progress. Considering the amount of change that has been undertaken at Old Trafford over the last four or five months, this shouldn’t be surprising. But the quality is already considerably obviously and noticeably better than last season. Casemiro, for all that he was at fault for the Everton goal, had an accomplished full debut. Antony has now scored three goals in three games. Christian Eriksen gives them extra passing range.
And results like this, in matches where you have to scrap to get into the ascendency and then scrap even harder to stay there, are invaluable in building the character of a team. Casemiro’s mistake can be quickly forgotten because they ground out that win. Ronaldo’s petulant little outburst can be forgotten because he scored a few minutes later. And when Everton were pressing their hardest, through those four agonising minutes of stoppage-time, it took a collective show of character to keep them at bay which which will serve them well in the future. Manchester United remain unlikely to challenge at the very top of the Premier League this season, but there seems little question that they’re continuing to head in the right direction.