If the emphatic defeat to Arsenal two weeks ago was Manchester United’s relapse, their swashbuckling victory at Everton will be the perfect rehabilitation.
Louis van Gaal admitted to sleepless nights after the most embarrassing of losses at the Emirates Stadium – urging everyone, including Mike the cook, to improve - but the manner of which his side responded will give the Dutchman renewed hope of providing the first Premier League title of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
One area Van Gaal has strenuously strengthened since succeeding David Moyes last summer has been midfield. Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera scored the opening two goals, vindicating the boss' decision to invest in an area neglected by his predecessors.
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The former Netherlands manager was also justified in his decision to stick with Wayne Rooney. Having been the source of much anger from United fans two weeks ago, the former Everton striker returned to his old home to add the third midway through the second half. As victories go, this one will be most satisfying.
Goodison Park has represented a significant banana skin for the Red Devils in recent years, but from the start the visitors never looked troubled. Their passing, crisp and relentless, ensured most of the players wearing blue were the ones doing the running. For the first time this season, United believed they could be the team their manager envisages them to be.
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Schneiderlin, somewhat bafflingly overlooked for the Arsenal drubbing, was restored to the starting line-up and immediately warranted his selection. As Everton failed to deal with a United corner, the ball fell to the Frenchman who leisurely struck the ball past Tim Howard. For the first time in four years, United were ahead at the home of the Toffees.
And four minutes later that lead was to be doubled. Herrera, a player who has provided a midfield goal threat ever since his arrival from Athletic Bilbao last July, was the recipient of a sublime cross from Marcos Rojo. The Spaniard nodded past Howard to make it two goals in two against teams from Merseyside this campaign, having scored against Liverpool at Old Trafford last month.
Despite swatting United aside effortlessly last year in a comprehensive 3-0 victory, the first half saw the Blues struggle to cope with the pacey red shirts around them. Only Ross Barkley, who scored his first goal for England during the international break, went close. David de Gea was able to parry his shot to prevent the hosts from getting back into the game.
After the interval, the Toffees finally began to resemble their usual selves. First, Romelu Lukaku sliced wide from a Barkley free-kick before Phil Jones, making his first league start of the season, blocked from former Wigan Athletic striker Arouna Kone. De Gea then made a typically stunning save to deny Lukaku mere minutes later as the Everton machine begun to rumble into action.
Despite Lukaku’s growing influence, Chris Smalling remained calm. The Englishman, for years mocked for his inconsistency and failure to force his way into the teams of Ferguson and Moyes, finally looks the finished article. Whether or not United continue to maintain their form throughout the campaign will largely depend on how much the former Fulham man contributes.
Rooney’s goal in the 62nd minute added the icing to Van Gaal’s cake. The 29-year-old had gone 330 days and 17 league games without a goal away from the comforts of Old Trafford but crisply finished after more superb work from Herrera. Though a celebration was absent, it was clear from the reactions of his teammates just how much the England legend needed it.
It is not just that his goal threat has been fading with every game, but prior to the Everton mauling his general performances had been poor.
For a player who is now his country’s leading all-time goalscorer and a forward edging closer towards Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal total for the Red Devils, Van Gaal had spoken of his desire to see Rooney return to his clinical ways. It was only fitting, therefore, that his finish be greeted with a smile from his manager.
United’s day could have been even better in the closing stages. Martial showed some of the skill and talent that convinced the club to part with £36 million for his services, but his finish was saved by Howard. The Frenchman then continued to terrorise Seamus Coleman, but his pull-back could not be met by any of his teammates.
All in all, Van Gaal would have slept very soundly on Saturday. His midfield were solid and, despite Manchester City blitzing Bournemouth at the Etihad Stadium, will no doubt be confident going into the Manchester derby next weekend. It promises to be some spectacle.
Herrera was the star of the show but the performances of De Gea, Martial and Rooney were also eye-catching. The former has his critics, Van Gaal amongst them, but also has the supporters on side. The Basque star must surely start next week’s blockbuster clash.
As for Everton, Martinez need not worry. His side will no doubt rue not taking more points from Liverpool two weeks ago in a contest that ultimately proved to be Brendan Rodgers’ last game but were just simply outclassed on this occasion.
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