Manchester United kick off 2018 on Monday with a trip to resurgent Everton. When the two sides met back in September, José Mourinho’s men dominated the listless visitors and ran out easy 4-0 winners. That Toffees side seemed bereft of confidence under manager Ronald Koeman, but the Dutchman has since been replaced by “Big Sam” Allardyce and the squad looks reborn under his stewardship.
Before losing at Bournemouth on Saturday (courtesy of an 88th minute deflected goal), Everton had gone seven matches unbeaten, including memorable draws against Liverpool and Chelsea. All in all, it’s been a dream start to life on Merseyside for Allardyce.
After his appointment in late November, the new boss wasted no time in sorting out Everton’s wayward defense. The club coughed up big fees last summer on center back Michael Keane and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, but only kept one clean sheet under Koeman and interim manager David Unsworth. Under Big Sam, that number has swelled to five, leaving the manager justifiably proud: “The lads have done exceptionally well to turn around a leaky defense.”
But some attention now must go towards the attack if Everton hopes to progress beyond mid-table. Ex-Manchester United legend Wayne Rooney should be available for Everton on New Year’s Day, after missing both Christmastime fixtures through illness. He came on at halftime against Bournemouth, but could not spark a struggling offense that only mustered six shots.
Speaking of goal-scoring woes, Manchester United huffed and puffed against Southampton on Saturday but found no way through a packed Saints defense. Making matters even worse, Romelu Lukaku suffered a scary injury after clashing heads with Wesley Hoedt.
Afterwards, Mourinho rued Lukaku’s misfortune: “That’s football. He was just unlucky. I think the Dutch central defender goes with him for the ball and it’s unlucky for Romelu and unlucky for Hoedt. It was nothing aggressive and, hopefully, nothing important.”
The Belgian frontman was stretchered off the pitch — replaced up top by Marcus Rashford — and now looks likely to miss several matches. His replacement won’t be Zlatan, though, as Mourinho revealed Ibra had his own setback. “Zlatan is one month out,” the manager explained. “I don’t know about Lukaku. Of course, you miss your striker and target man.”
Even before the Lukaku injury, the 48-hour turnaround for the Everton match meant Mourinho will be forced to make a few changes. Matteo Darmian has returned to training and could be an option to spell either Ashley Young or Luke Shaw at fullback. Ander Herrera or Scott McTominay could also be chosen to freshen up midfield.
Don’t count on any help from the injured trio of Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling, and Marouane Fellaini, as there’s been no update on their health and they remain doubtful for this week. With so many injuries, quite a few of Saturday’s players will be asked to shoulder another 90 minutes on New Year’s.
More than personnel changes, though, Manchester United just needs to be sharper against Everton than they were at the weekend. Numerous opportunities were squandered by mishit passes and air-mailed crosses, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan an especially guilty party. And when United players did get a shot off, it too often flew off target (3 shots on goal in 15 attempts).
Chelsea’s emphatic win over Stoke City on Saturday, coupled with United’s disappointing draw, takes the Blues into second in the Premier League table. Perhaps that will be the wakeup call that this club desperately needs.
But United would do well to forget how easily they cut through Everton in their first meeting this season, for this will be a very different opponent. The Toffees are brimming with confidence and expect to take points off any team visiting Goodison Park. If United are to make it a double over Everton, they’re going to have to earn it.
Allardyce will surely line up his side to frustrate Manchester United. Since both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford will likely be pressed into starting roles, Mourinho would be wise to utilize their creativity and pace to unlock Everton’s improving defense. Every player in a red shirt must stand and be counted — or else risk being replaced when Mourinho opens his checkbook in the January transfer window.
Hopefully Manchester United starts the new year in better form than the last one ended. Star midfielder Paul Pogba summed it up best: “We have to bounce back. We have to wake up and get back to winning.”