Everton inflicted a second successive defeat on Manchester United, with goals from James McCarthy, John Stones and Kevin Mirallas giving them an emphatic 3-0 victory at Goodison Park.

A week on from their distant hopes of a Premier League title challenge being ended by Chelsea, Louis van Gaal’s side were undone by another team happy to sit back and frustrate while striking decisively on the counter attack. McCarthy finished off a swift break in just the fifth minute before Stones headed in his first Everton goal 10 minutes before the interval to leave United facing a mountain that they never looked capable of climbing. When Mirallas raced clear with 16 minutes remaining, as the United defense stopped waiting for an offside flag, the result was put beyond any doubt.

The victory takes Everton into the top half of the Premier League table and continues their revival after the end of their Europa League excursions. It has been a struggling campaign for the Merseysiders, but they showed enough to hint that they could back up manager Roberto Martinez’s pre-match confidence over their ability to overcome their financial disadvantage to mix it with England’s best next season.

It was the type of performance that had been missing through much of the season. Happy to cede possession, Everton were superbly disciplined and organized and always dangerous on the break. For the second match running, one of Manchester United’s chief weapons in their upswing in form, Marouane Fellaini, was neutralized. On his first return to the club that sold him to Old Trafford last summer, the Belgian was left frustrated and impotent by the attentions of Gareth Barry,  just as he had been by Kurt Zouma. This time he did not even make it out for the second half.

The defeat was United’s third in a row at Goodison Park. And it comes just over a year on from their last visit when they left with a 2-0 defeat that confirmed their exile from the Champions League and cost David Moyes his job. The consequences aren’t nearly as serious this time around, but United are not yet completely safe in the top four, seven points ahead of Liverpool, who have a game in hand. And third place, which brings an automatic position in next season’s Champions League group stage, is now slipping away.

Most concerning for Van Gaal will be the way his side has dropped off after injuries stripped them of key players. Daley Blind was back on Sunday, but Michael Carrick, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo were again missing. And the assurance provided, especially by Carrick, was sorely missing, both with and without the ball.

As the sun blazed through at a packed Goodison Park, the match began with a Manchester United team aiming to move back above neighbors Manchester City in the table in firm control. But a little over four minutes in their plans and hopes were undone. From a United corner, Everton pounced quickly and incisively on the break. McCarthy led the attack and got back on the ball when Ross Barkley’s cross fell to him on the edge of the box. From there United should have intervened, but Blind backed out of the challenge, leaving it instead to young defender Paddy McNair, who lacked strength and conviction in his attempts to stop the Everton midfielder. McCarthy burst through and beat David de Gea to give Everton a lead they were never to relinquish.

United’s best chance at a response came almost immediately when seizing on an Everton giveaway, but Fellaini shot wildly over the crossbar. It was not to be Fellaini’s day. Booked minutes later, he was watched closely by Barry throughout, as indeed were all of United’s midfielders by their Everton counterparts. With United unable to make any headway through their deep-lying opponents, another former Everton man, Wayne Rooney, was left isolated and easily shackled up front.

Before the break the visitors’ task was made all the tougher. From Leighton Baines’ out-swinging corner, Stones easily lost the attentions of Antonio Valencia with his run to the near post and the young defender produced a fine header that Ashley Young was powerless to stop on the line. For Stones, it was some way to mark his 50th appearance for Everton in all competitions.

Van Gaal reacted at the interval, bringing on Radamel Falcao for Fellaini and going with a 4-4-2 formation with the aim of getting more width into his team’s play. But while there was an initial improvement and Rooney was denied by Howard off a corner, Everton continued to look comfortable. At the same time, the hosts remained a threat against an uncertain United defense. And Mirallas’ introduction added directness to take advantage and ensure Everton’s best home run against Manchester United since 1987.

Barkley’s through ball was intended for an offside Lukaku, but as the big striker left it, his fellow Belgian was left free to race onto it. United’s defense, and particularly Valencia, had simply switched off waiting for the play to be waved to a halt, while Mirallas shot effortlessly past De Gea.