Manchester United will have had a long time to stew on a humbling 3-0 loss to Arsenal before getting back to action with another testing encounter at Everton this weekend. Louis van Gaal’s team had gone into the clash at the Emirates at the start of the month on a real high. For the first time since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the club sat at the top of the Premier League table, and they had also bounced back from an opening defeat in the Champions League. But events at Arsenal brought them back to earth with a bump.
Arsenal were two goals up inside seven minutes, and three to the good after 20. Having been torn to shreds, United had no way back. Only their teen sensation Anthony Martial did himself any credit. A midfield of Michael Carrick and Bastian Schweinsteiger and Michael Carrick looked horribly one-paced, and a previously solid looking defense was picked apart. Meanwhile, Wayne Rooney again labored anonymously.
More than simply a bad day at the office that can happen to any team, it felt like the cracks which had been papered over in recent weeks being laid bare. Just days after Van Gaal talked of grand ambitions to win the Premier League and go all the way in the Champions League this season, it was an example of how much still has to be done.
Van Gaal has had much to work on during the international break. Chief among his concerns will be how to restore solidity to a defense that has been unsettled by a serious injury suffered by Luke Shaw last month. His absence has disrupted the strong start of Matteo Darmian, who has been moved back and forth between right-back and left-back, while reinforcing that neither Ashley Young nor Antonio Valencia are dependable options in a defensive role.
Perhaps, too, despite his steadfast public support of his captain, Van Gaal is starting to wonder if Rooney is still simply going through a poor run of form or whether it is time to take him out of the lineup. For much of the season he has been a liability, struggling to fulfill the needs of the team either with or without the ball.
Yet there are also plenty of reasons to be positive for Van Gaal and United. The fact is that on precious few occasions, at least in the Premier League, will they come up against a team playing as well as Arsenal did that day at the Emirates. There has been no consistently outstanding team thus far in this most unpredictable of seasons, and United sit in third place, just two points away from the summit.
There may still be major holes in the team, but that doesn’t mean they cannot enjoy success. The plight of the Netherlands in failing to qualify for Euro 2016 this week shone an even brighter light on just how impressive a job Van Gaal did in leading what is far from an outstanding group of players to third place in the 2014 World Cup.
Still, getting back to winning ways on Saturday will not be straightforward. Manchester United have lost on their last three visits to Goodison Park. Two seasons ago, Van Gaal’s predecessor, David Moyes, was sacked following a 2-0 loss to his former club. And in April, Van Gaal saw his team suffer a chastening 3-0 loss in the middle of what was a three-game losing run. The Dutchman can ill afford for United to follow the same pattern this time around if they really are to mount a serious challenge for the title.
Everton, though, are in impressive form. After taking a step back last season, Everton have made a strong start this time, losing just once in 10 matches in all competitions. Last time out a 1-1 draw in the Merseyside derby proved the final straw in the reign of Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
The international break has been good for Everton, too. Right-back Seamus Coleman made his comeback from injury and got a full game under his belt with the Republic of Ireland, while John Stones has also returned to full training and is contention to start on Saturday. Yet manager Roberto Martinez will still be without Leighton Baines, Steven Pienaar, Tom Cleverley, Muhamed Besic and Tony Hibbert.
United still have concerns over Carrick, Schweinsteiger, Rooney, Marco Rojo and Ander Herrera, but all are likely to be declared fit. Along with Shaw, Paddy McNair, who spent three nights in hospital in Helsinki after rupturing his liver while on duty for Northern Ireland, is the only other confirmed absentee.
Prediction: After the struggles against Arsenal, Van Gaal will surely make at least one change by bringing Morgan Schendierlin into the side. Certainly a more resolute midfield performance will be required with Everton’s Ross Barkley in excellent form. Another big threat will be striker Romelu Lukaku who has both the pace and physicality to cause Daley Blind huge problems. But with Martial leading the attack, United now always have an offensive threat and that could help them secure a hard-fought draw.
Predicted score: Everton 1-1 Manchester United