Posted above the team jerseys in the Visitors dressing room at Old Trafford this morning were placards boasting three inspirational words: "Play With Arrogance" – instructions to his players from Roberto Martinez designed, no doubt, to perpetuate the attitude they brought with them to this fixture last season as they ended a 21-year wait for an Everton victory on Manchester United's home turf.
Perhaps, once filtered through translation, the Catalan is trying to convey something akin to self-belief or inhibition, but if it was literally arrogance he wanted from his players, he didn't really get it this afternoon... unless it was the arrogance inferred by their apparent belief that they could afford their hosts the oceans of space they occasionally did, or the gift of possession like that from Tim Howard that led to the winning goal, and still take another three points off the Red Devils.
The result was, of course, very different, with the Blues paying for only really rousing themselves out of what was a cagey and largely impotent performance until the closing stages of each half when they finally started asking serious questions of a makeshift United defence that featured a 19-year-old making only his second start. As at Anfield a week ago and, indeed, in Krasnodar on Thursday, the travelling Toffees were left to wonder why their team hadn't had a real go until they were chasing the game.
Everton could, of course, have snatched another dramatic late point were it not for the defiance of David de Gea in turning seemingly goalbound shots from Leon Osman and Bryan Oviedo behind in stunning fashion in stoppage time. Psychologically, it would have provided another boost to a disappointing start to the season but there's a danger that a third successive draw would also, again, have masked a curious lack of drive from a team that, even without the sorely-missed trio of Seamus Coleman, Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas, can still hurt opponents and score goals. They showed that again today but it was too little, too late.
And if the ignominy of a third Premier League defeat in seven games wasn't bad enough, the Blues lost another vital first-team member to injury when John Stones crumpled to the floor during those moments of injury-time drama after falling badly on his ankle and had to be stretchered off with suspected ligament damage. Like Mirallas before him, one of Martinez's few consistently effective players has been sidelined at a time when we really need him to establish some sort of momentum.
Steven Pienaar, too, suffered another relapse on his first appearance since succumbing to injury seven games ago, casting more doubts on his ability to ever be a reliable force in the Blues' team given his injury-ravaged year. And that was after Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy had both failed fitness tests on their respective soft-tissue complaints, further weakening the case for arguing that this Everton squad truly has sufficient depth to maintain a challenge on multiple fronts in the face of a succession of injuries.
Nevertheless, Martinez named a highly-capable starting XI that featured four changes from the Europa League match in Russia three days ago, with Pienaar, Muhamed Besic, Romelu Lukaku, and Steven Naismith coming in for Christian Atsu, Darron Gibson, Samuel Eto'o and Leon Osman. Louis van Gaal, meanwhile, started with Jaun Mata in place of the suspended Wayne Rooney behind the fairly daunting strike duo of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcoa. As it turned out, the Blues kept the Dutchman fairly quiet – Howard's petulant stoppage-time instigation of some handbags at 10 paces with him notwithstanding – but it was nailed on that the Colombian would score his first goal for his new club against Everton. They always do.
United started very quickly, too, pinging the ball around the final third and forcing an early save from Howard when Falcao, capitalising on the first of a number of unhindered balls into the Blues' area, powered a header straight at the American. While referee Kevin Friend threatened to lose the plot with a rash of bookings that started with an unnecessarily harsh yellow card for the impressive Besic, Daley Blind ballooned one effort and Angel di Maria saw a deflected effort sail narrowly over before Van Gaal's side took the lead after 26 minutes.
Blind was given the freedom of Old Trafford to bring the ball forward before feeding Rafael on the right flank and the Brazilian, enjoying a similar amount of unchallenged space, hoisted a deep cross into the Everton box. Phil Jagielka could only divert the ball to the feet of Mata on the other side of the area and when he laid it off to Di Maria, the Argentine swept the ball past Howard from 17 yards.
Howard then averted a disastrous second goal three minutes later with a good one-handed save from Di Maria's direct free kick following a foul by Gareth Barry.
For their part, Everton hadn't been able to establish any fluidity going forward and with Pienaar understandably looking a little rusty and his reunion with Leighton Baines down the left flank not really producing much in the way of their trademark interplay, they produced very little until the last few minutes of the first half.
First, Baines picked out Lukaku with more direct ball forward but though Belgian brought the ball down neatly, he failed to ht the target with a shot on the turn and then, on the other flank, a flash of Pienaar magic helped set the scene for the left back to bring the Blues level from penalty spot. The South African's delightful backheel into the path of Tony Hibbert ended a well-worked move down the right and the fullback drew a clumsy foul from Luke Shaw and the whistle from referee Friend.
Baines had been faultless with a dead from ball from 12 yards before today but his placement this time was poor and De Gea pushed his penalty away.
The equaliser, and with it the chance to swing the pendulum in Everton's direction, did come 10 minutes into the second half, though, with Baines the provider following a foul in a dangerous area outside United's area. The left back received a short pass back from Barry before whipping in a cross that found the head of Naismith and the Scot powered home an unstoppable header.
It was another superbly-taken goal by a player whose effort and never-say-die attitude has won over the supporters and earned him four goals from seven starts already this term.
Two minutes later, Jagielka almost steered a header into the far corner but Falcao hacked it away near his own goal line as the Blues threatened to turn the screw a little. To that end, Martinez was preparing to bring on Oviedo in place of the ineffective Aiden McGeady when Pienaar came out of a tackle hobbling in all-too-familiar fashion and signalled to the bench that his afternoon was over.
Play went on in the meantime and Howard came haring out of his area to clear a ball near the touchline but instead of belting it into the stands he inexplicably kicked it straight to a red shirt and it was worked inside where Di Maria eventually dragged a poor shot that would have fizzed well wide had it not gone straight to the feet of Falcao who could hardly miss from the centre of the goal. Comeback scuppered, Everton were a goal down again.
Once again, the cavalry in response was very slow in coming. Hibbert and McGeady were eventually replaced with 13 minutes left in favour of Osman and Tyias Browning but it wasn't until the 87th minute that De Gea was forced into another save when he got down to smother Osman's low drive. And the Spaniard outdid himself in the final three minutes of play when Naismith played Osman in beautifully but De Gea won the one-on-one duel with dive to his right before palming Oviedo's excellent half-volley over the bar.
So a four-game road trip ends disappointingly with two draws and two defeats and a real flat feeling heading into the international break. After such an impressive season in Martinez's first year in charge, the Blues are clearly struggling to find themselves this time around. At the heart of it is a general lack of attacking intensity, a problem that pre-dated Mirallas' injury but which has, unsurprisingly, been exacerbated by his absence. Everton just didn't ask enough questions of a United defence that shipped five goals to Leicester a fortnight ago.
Equally worrying is the form of Lukaku who has looked a shadow of the player who took the Premier League by storm over the past two seasons and hasn't really looked the part at all since his goal against Palace two weeks ago. Whether it's an issue of confidence, fitness or the role that he is being asked to play by his manager, it's clearly not working and the return of Barkley, alongside whom he was so impressive at times last season, cannot come soon enough.
In the meantime, Martinez needs to get back to basics with some of his players – not least one of his most experienced charges in the form of Howard – and try and restore some of that fearlessness and – in his words – "arrogance" that made them such an exciting and formidable side last season. The fact that his team sits just one place above the relegation zone is frustrating but no cause for real alarm at this stage. The same situation come the end of November would be another story.
Hibbert, Besic, Pienaar, McGeady and Naismith started for Everton who controlled the first few minutes until Di Maria's first real involvement immediately created a goal attempt, Howard needing to be alert to bat away a strong header on target. The next Utd attack saw Di maria feed Van Persie who blasted over, while Everton laboured in between to profit from a free-kick and did not get far beyond the half-way line.
Van Persie saw an early yellow for an overly aggressive challenge on Barry before 10 mins were up. Blind was the next home player to have a pop on the Everton goal, while Lukaku was trying to get some leverage over McNair, winning Everton's first corner, which was excellent but could not be powered in by a group of three Blue shirts that met it. Besic clipped Falcao from behind, nothing really, and saw yellow also. Falcao was next to lash a hurried shot wide of the Everton goal.
Everton put a little more pace in getting forward and pressed more after losing the ball. Di Maria tried his luck from distance, Naismith deflecting it slightly over, and Blind again fired well over as the half-hour approached. Pienaar was bamboozled by Rafael and then grabbed at him, earning a silly yellow card that led to the first goal, Falcao playing back Jagielka's blind clearance from Blind's good cross into Di Maria's stride and he made no mistake through a packed area. Jagielka and Baines had a long conversation with Kevin Friend over something but the goal was exactly what Evertonians had been worrying about.
More niggling fouls saw Blind booked for standing on Naismith's foot as Everton failed to get near the Man Utd area. Everton did win another corner, that was again well delivered but Lukaku was useless, not attacking a brilliant chance. He was more alert for Baines's follow-up but McNair beat him to it easily as Everton were visibly loosing any initiative as the half wore on.
Lukaku finally showed a little more life, controlling the ball, on his chest, turning and firing in the vague direction of goal, Everton's first half-attempt. It carried on this uninspiring vein until Everton were gifted a penalty as the last kick of a poor first half when Shaw was judged to have clipped Hibbert but Baines could not convert, firing low for De Gea to save well, his first ever Premier League penalty that was not converted.
Everton did little to change the pattern of play into the second half, allowing the home side to take more control of the game, with little meaningful response when the Blues did win possession. Shaw beat Hibbert but Falcao's shot was going out as it clipped off Jagielka. Valencia fouled Lukaku and it set up a classic goal, Baines swung in a superb second ball off Barry's return pass that Naismith headed in brilliantly to put Everton somewhat undeservedly back in the game.
Everton suddenly looked much more lively, Naismith trying to feed Lukaku and from the corner a superb header from Jagielka was cleared off the line by Falcao with De Gea beaten. Much better from the Blues but they then allowed themselves to be ripped apart by a Di Maria miskick that Falcao turned in with ease from a suspiciously offside-looking position.
Bryan Oviedo came on in place of Steven Pienaar who started limping. Baines tried to get Lukaku moving but his forward pass this time was too strong. A better spell of attacking ended when Oviedo got too far forward, and was flagged offside. For the final 15 mins, Browning and Osman came on for Hibbert and McGeady, while Fellaini replaced Valencia.
It seemed a long while before Everton really created another chance, Browning crossing for Naismith, winning a corner that came to Osman who fired it too close to De Gea. Van Persie could not get around Stones but upset Howard who was booked for his reaction, then Osman got clear and looked to score with a determined shot that De Gea palmed away with a vital save.
Wilson clipped Baines on the corner of the penalty area, giving Baines one last chance that Barry saw blocked by Blackett and then Oviedo saw saved miraculously by De Gea. Stones needed attention after landing awkwardly, and it looked very ominous when the stretcher came out.
More added minutes for the final corner that Lukaku headed poorly as he was pushed from behind. The whistle finally blue signalling normal service resumed at Old Trafford.
Everton complete a quartet of tough away fixtures this weekend when they make the short trip along the East Lancs Road to face a Manchester United side still looking to find its feet under their second manager since the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
The Blues will take to the field at Old Trafford less than 60 hours after stepping off the plane from Russia following their difficult Europa League encounter with Krasnodar, with Roberto Martinez needing to again leverage the depth in his squad while dealing with the absence – both potential and confirmed – to key players.
The loss of Kevin Mirallas and the lack of a clear indication of his predicted layoff aside, the news on the injury front is better than it has been recently, though, with Ross Barkley set to return to full training next week and Steven Pienaar apparently in with a good chance of being involved this weekend after his own niggly injury problems.
The South African's creativity and ability to link up play has been badly missed so far in a season where he has seen just 90 minutes of action and his availability would be a boon for the team with Mirallas sidelined.
James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, meanwhile, will undergo late fitness tests on their respective soft-tissue injuries. The former missed the trip to Russia because of a thigh complaint while the latter suffered a recurrence of the hamstring injury that he picked up in pre-season so both are doubts.
Tony Hibbert could make his fourth start in the space of 12 days if Coleman doesn't make it, with Tyias Browning, as he was against Liverpool ;ast Saturday, waiting in the wings as a potential substitute. With Darron Gibson playing the full 90 minutes in Krasnodar, Muhamed Besic could get the nod to partner Gareth Barry in central midfield, while Aiden McGeady is a likely starter in place of Mirallas on the right if Pienaar starts on the left.
Up front, Steven Naismith should return after being rested against Krasnodar while Samuel Eto'o made a goalscoring start and Romelu Lukaku, a half-time substitute at Kuban Stadium on Thursday evening, is also expected to be in the starting XI.
United, for their part, have endured a similarly erratic start to the new season under Louis van Gaal despite spending eye-watering sums of money over the last 12 months trying to buy their way back into the Champions League. It means that the Dutchman can seamlessly replace Wayne Rooney, suspended for his red card against West Ham last weekend, with £37m man, Juan Mata in the no.10 role behind a likely front two of Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao.
That should provide a stern test for an Everton defence that has kept just one clean sheet all season, although it's worth noting that the central defensive partnership of Phil Jagielka and John Stones that is now generally accepted as the Blues' best has conceded just three goals in four matches (one of them being a direct free kick by Wolfsburg's Ricardo Rodriguez).
For all their glittering attacking talent, it's at the other end where United are vulnerable, particularly with three centre halves out injured. Van Gaal has already confirmed that 19 year-old Padd McNair will start the match on Sunday and that upheaval and inexperience at the back is something that Everton can exploit if they go to Old Trafford with the right gameplan.
It's likely that Martinez will look to employ the same kind of counter-attacking strategy as he did at Liverpool, hopefully with more success than the rather impotent performance than last weekend. Part of Lukaku's brief against the reds was to prevent Alberto Moreno from getting forward too often down the opposition's left flank and he may get a similar assignment this time against Luke Shaw.
Though it prevents the Belgian from getting into the box as often as he or the fans would like, it's a formation that can work if the Blues use the ball more effectively on the break and if Lukaku gets the space and opportunity to charge at the United defence with the ball in the manner he did in the reverse fixture back in April.
A third successive draw would be a satisfactory result but this is a match that Everton can win if they go about it in the right way. And three points to end four consecutive away matches would be a massive boost to what has been an iffy start to the campaign but which nevertheless has us just four points off the top four. A win this weekend followed by another against Aston Villa and the whole complexion of the season could change very quickly.
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|MAN UNITED (4-4-2)|
|Shaw (Blackett 71')|
|Falcao (Wilson 73')|
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- Shots on target
- Shots off target
|7||West Ham United||10|
|14||West Bromwich Albion||8|