After beating Everton at Turf Moor on Wednesday night to pull his own team towards safety and compound the Toffees’ misery, Burnley manager Sean Dyche chortled: “I said [to my players] before the match, ‘these don’t know how to win a game lads!’”
Dyche wasn’t wrong. Everton had only won three Premier League matches in six months when they kicked off in Lancashire, and by full-time had suffered their eighth defeat in the 12 matches Frank Lampard had taken charge of since replacing Rafael Benitez as the club’s manager in February.
The result left the Blues a solitary point above the relegation zone, with a desperately unbalanced side that has lingering moments of quality in attack but vulnerabilities across the rest of the pitch and hopelessness spreading through the squad like mould.
The new manager ‘bounce’ had turned out to be little more than a twitch, and with fixtures against sides in the top half of the Premier League to come in the next few weeks, there appeared to be no forthcoming opponent who would gift them any hope.
Step forward, Manchester United.
Ralf Rangnick’s side started relatively well for 20 minutes or so at Goodison Park on Saturday lunchtime, creating some medium quality opportunities around the edge of the penalty area which drew smart but comfortable stops from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
The home crowd was becoming increasingly restless, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin — taking a day off from antagonizing seeingthing Evertonians with his Kate Moss fashion model act to actually play football — jeered after granting possession far too easily in the center of the park. When Allan did the same moments later, United had possession, the chance to break forward and launch a counter, and to send the crowd into the kind of levels of toxicity which have actively worked against Everton so many times already this campaign.
Instead, Nemanja Matic stood still in the center of the park and made no effort whatsoever to kick the ball, turn, or move in any way, like a FIFA character waiting for you to hit a button after your controller has just died. Aaron Wan-Bissaka allowed Richarlison far too much time and space on the ball after Anthony Gordon’s wayward pass eventually found the Brazilian, and Harry Maguire’s motionless attempt to block Gordon’s eventual shot only helped the ball into the net. Within seconds of despair, the hapless Everton were ahead, and United offered nothing in the way of quality or self-belief from then on.
United have now won only one of their past seven matches under Rangnick, and the thing which defined their latest defeat was the sheer cowardice of the footballers traipsing around Goodison Park.
Once they had gone behind, United simply allowed Everton to grow into the game, play higher up the pitch, and to liven the home crowd. When they did have possession, they were meek in their runs, indecisive in their passing, and fearful around the penalty area.
The perfect embodiment of United’s failings is the captain, Harry Maguire. Here, as always seems to be the case, things happened to and around Maguire without him seeming to have any control over them. This is an £80m footballer who seems surprised at every single thing which happens on a football pitch, and whose relentlessly downtrodden, brow-beaten energy now defines the squad and club as a whole.
Other supposed leaders on the side, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, did nothing to inspire or instruct their team in the 65 minutes of play which followed Gordon’s goal. Were United peppering the Everton goal with shots and piling on the pressure around the box in the final few moments? No. Not at all. The days when you would have bet your house on a late United winner or equalizer could not possibly feel further away.
Everton, for their part, really did not play particularly well in order to win — for the vast majority of the time this game resembled two packs of stray dogs chasing a floating carrier bag around a car park. But they took advantage of United’s spinelessness in the key moment, and Rangnick’s side have gifted them the kind of free-hit hope which could ultimately see them survive.