Manchester United potential still not realised as Everton do more with less

Lewis Dobbin and Charlie Whitaker were veterans of a combined total of one minute’s senior football for Everton. They were the attacking options on Rafa Benítez’s bench. Their Manchester United counterparts were Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and the lesser-spotted Donny van de Beek, whose £35m fee made him £35m costlier than Andros Townsend, who earned Everton a point.

Dobbin was Everton’s second substitute. In a sense, that rendered him their Ronaldo, even if 790 career goals separate them. The comparisons may end there, and Whitaker remained on the bench with the 37-year-old third-choice goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, making up the numbers as an ambush was expertly executed by the last men standing. Or, in the case of the relentless Townsend and Demarai Gray, the last running. Strength in depth for United could not overcome a formidable gameplan. Gray, signed for £1.7m, was the finest player on show. Austerity has been the mother of reinvention for Everton.

But if analysis by transfer fee alone can be reductive, the salient point is that Benítez has constructed a team more than the sum of its parts, some acquired on the cheap, thrust together by circumstances, working with a determination to make Evertonians proud. So did Dean Smith and David Moyes when Aston Villa and West Ham won at Old Trafford in the space of four days with what are, in essence, ambitious mid-table clubs. So, for that matter, did David Wagner when Switzerland’s Young Boys beat United. Each has been an advertisement for coaching and strategy.

All of which scarcely casts Ole Gunnar Solskjær in a good light when those teams display the traits his are increasingly lacking, when they overachieve while he underachieves. The Norwegian may feel luckless, entering the stage where players get credit for victories while he is blamed for setbacks. If that reflects United’s reliance on individual inspiration to compensate for the absence of anything more coherent, it is worth noting that his surprise selection scored. Solskjær had not taken the popular route by picking Anthony Martial; he had disappointed the majority by letting Ronaldo spend the first 55 minutes rivalling Usain Bolt for the title of the most decorated and celebrated spectator at Old Trafford. The result suggests the bold gambit of resting Ronaldo backfired.

Solskjær perhaps had too many options, Benítez too few. Yet in midfield United are in a strange state where, despite a superstar-studded forward line, they cannot seem to live with Fred or without him. They had been utterly unconvincing against Villarreal when he was dropped, with a void where a midfield was supposed to be. On his recall, Fred showed more purpose in possession and crossed when Edinson Cavani probably should have scored. And yet the abiding image of his afternoon was when the outstanding Gray outmuscled Fred to surge away and, along with Abdoulaye Doucouré, set up Townsend for his equaliser. Gray, the winger used in the middle, exploited United’s lack of a high-class defensive midfielder to counterattack with menace. Townsend has proved unexpectedly prolific – Ronaldo is not the only summer signing to have five goals already.

Potential is being realised, just not at Old Trafford. Even as he ended a seven-month drought, United’s scorer feels a case in point. “Tony Martial scores again,” sang the Stretford End. The sarcasm was as audible as the anglicised pronunciation. Again? Martial’s previous goal for United was the eighth in the 9-0 defeat of Southampton in February, helping to forge a record-equalling feat but otherwise an irrelevance.

As the United faithful had already summoned their tributes to Solskjær from their songbook, perhaps the soundtrack came from the past. Paco Alcácer, Edin Dzeko, Roberto Firmino and Dominic Calvert-Lewin had scored at Old Trafford in a No 9 shirt since Martial had. Then came the sort of finish that, even if it took a slight deflection, brought back memories of his debut goal in 2015, a speedster sweeping in from the left to provide echoes of Thierry Henry. Yet in the intervening period, the clause compelling United to pay Monaco more if he wins the Ballon d’Or has looked ever more of a curious irrelevance.

Martial has begun to look a candidate for exile. Younger, quick alternatives have overtaken him: Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Sancho. Older figures from prehistoric times, such as Ronaldo and Cavani, have left him trapped between the generations. The chances are that the footballer United’s squad voted their player of the year in 2019-20 ranks in no one’s first-choice side but he still possesses quality.

But the problem with having such options is the difficulty in selecting the right ones. Solskjær may have been vindicated by a starter, but his deluxe replacements – Ronaldo, Sancho and Pogba – could not provide a winner. Even when the manager got something right, rather more went wrong. And if that is a microcosm of his season, it bodes badly.

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