The last time Everton won at Old Trafford was in 1992. Peter Beardsley, Robert Warzycha and Mo Johnston scored in a 3-0 victory against Sir Alex Ferguson’s United team, which was on the brink of turning into one of the greats.
That was 21 years ago and, for the first time in a generation, Everton have a great chance to repeat the heroics on Wednesday night.
United seem particularly vulnerable at home to teams with lesser reputations. West Brom got a famous win, Southampton were desperately unlucky to only get a point and United were unconvincing against Stoke City. United seem more adept against the bigger teams, and away from home.
There are a few problems with United’s team at the moment.
Firstly, they are lacking a bit of dynamism in midfield, but that has been the case for a couple of years.
United need to move the ball quicker, particularly if they want to get the best out of Shinji Kagawa, whose game is suited to a. being played centrally and b. the rapid circulation of possession. There is a reason why the German clubs have been trying to bring him back; he would be fantastic at Arsenal too. But at United, he is proving enigmatic.
Kagawa was excellent against Bayer Leverkusen, but in that match he was played centrally, and United were moving it about much quicker. That came down to the midfield selection: Nani and Antonio Valencia had good games, while Ryan Giggs was deployed in central midfield – and he is a master of the first-time forward pass or switch in play.
But Nani has been woefully inconsistent for the past six years, and you cannot rely on a 40-year-old Giggs who cannot play week in, week out.
So Kagawa ends up being isolated, either by slow circulation – and for all his ability, the injured Michael Carrick slows down the play – or by being played wide left.
Secondly – and this is the more important factor – United do not have a settled defence. A settled, consistent back four is vital to win Premier League titles and other trophies. When United were winning things, they had solidity defensively.
At the moment David Moyes doesn’t know his best back four. And that’s a personnel problem. At centre-back there is a lack of pace and conviction, and players are uneasy attacking defensive headers. At full-back there are positional problems which, when defending a highish line as United do, is exposing them. And the so-called lesser sides, who play without fear at Old Trafford because they know it’s a transitioning team, tend to look at getting it wide and into the air, so these issues are often highlighted against those clubs.
This is a personnel problem – there is nothing Moyes can do tactically that would solve it. Defend a deep line and you are overriding United’s attacking game; Marouane Fellaini, who is a dynamic midfielder, needs to return to form.
United need wholesale changes defensively, and a face or two in midfield, but this will be difficult for them to solve in January. It’s tough to get a good deal when clubs are reluctant to sell, and the best players are usually cup-tied in Europe. Throw into the mix uncertainty regarding United’s qualification for next season’s Champions League, and their hand is not particularly strong in the winter window. You can’t throw out the fishing line without a worm.
Moyes will obviously target being in the mix for the title come the end of the season, but what is vital is that they qualify for the Champions League so a proper rebuilding session can be undertaken in the summer. Otherwise they will be operating at a level or two below where they should be in the market. The transition cannot be allowed to become a decline.
Everton, meanwhile, are displaying the kind of football United fans wish their team were playing. It’s all very well saying that Roberto Martinez trumped Moyes in the transfer window, but strangely it can help that Everton operate outside the bull-market that the big clubs are engaged in.
Gerard Deulofeu has been a revelation, and Jose Mourinho’s constant comments about Romelu Lukaku smack of bitterness. But United simply cannot operate in the loan market – particularly not when dealing with their direct rivals – and anyway, those players are developing without the pressure you get at Old Trafford.
I really don’t want to make a prediction for the game – I’d be too scared to watch it.