Manchester United gave up a silly goal and labored for the better part of the ninety minutes, before being rescued somewhat fortuitously by a goal from late substitute Mason Greenwood. Instead of capitalizing on the chance to close to gap to fourth place in the Premier League to just two points, United instead found themselves in sixth — leapfrogged by Tottenham Hotspur. Here are some things we learned from Sunday’s limp 1-1 draw against Everton.
All perspiration, no inspiration
On multiple occasions this season, United have thrived when up against quality opposition. Teams who are confident in possession play right into United’s strengths; there are few teams deadlier on the break than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Reds in full flight. But also on multiple occasions, lesser sides have laid bare United’s complete inability to pick apart teams who let them have the ball. Without Paul Pogba’s singular ability to create chances by unlocking stubborn defenses, United too often look totally devoid of ideas.
A midfield triangle of Jesse Lingard, Fred, and Scott McTominay will likely never be outworked. But “sweat equity” only counts for so much in top flight football. Lingard’s work rate should not be taken for granted, especially when Solskjaer sets up his team to press from the front. But he will never be good enough to be a number 10 at a club that means to challenge for trophies. And as harsh as it may sound, the same applies to the two players behind him. Fred and McTominay are in the middle of their best run of form both as individuals, and as a duo. They have improved considerably since last season, and deserve all the recent praise that has come their way.
We should not confuse improvement with excellence.
Lack of clean sheets is more than bad luck
In another author’s reaction to the midweek victory over AZ Alkmaar, the point was made that United are consistently better at keeping clean sheets in the Europa League than in domestic competition. An easy observation to dismiss perhaps, and a classic case of mistaking correlation for causation. David de Gea faces a much better standard of opposition in the league than Sergio Romero does in Europe’s second rate competition, obviously.
But maybe — just maybe — it isn’t as simple as it seems. For Everton’s goal, de Gea’s weak punch missed the incoming corner, and Victor Lindelöf failed to react to the ball, which bounced off of him and into the goal. De Gea was obviously fouled when coming for the ball (you were supposed to be one of us, VAR!), but the Spaniard should still have done better.
It’s not the first time in De Gea’s career that he’s been either hesitant to leave his line, or unconvincing when he does. It’s the one area of his game that he — and his succession of goalkeeping coaches — have largely failed to improve upon. A case can be made that this one particular weakness is only exacerbated by having defenders who are deficient in the air. It is certainly part of why De Gea has never replicated his best club form for Spain.
Would United’s “second choice” defenders be better for De Gea? Axel Tuanzebe and Phil Jones lack Lindelöf’s ability on the ball, but both are better than the Swede in the air. Removing Lindelöf’s passing from a team that is already short on ball-playing ability would hurt the side overall, so the idea is still a non-starter. But it does highlight the fact that United’s much heralded “new back 4” is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Robin van Greenwood
It’s not all doom and gloom. The back four may be suspect (except for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who is a miracle), the midfield may be pedestrian, and the attack may blow hot and cold, but Mason Greenwood is the real effing deal. Is it worrying that United have more money than god and still need a teenager to come off the bench to rescue a point against a team with no midfield being managed an angry cartoon character? Of course it is. But at least that teeanger happens to be really, really good at football.