The FourFourTwo Preview: Man United vs Everton
Depleted galacticos of Manchester vs Phil Jagielka's right peg.
MAN UNITED FORM
- Man Utd 2-1 West Ham (Prem)
- Leicester 5-3 Man Utd (Prem)
- Man Utd 4-0 QPR (Prem)
- Burnley 0-0 Man Utd (Prem)
- MK Dons 4-0 Man Utd (LC)
- Krasnodar 1-1 Everton (EL)
- Liverpool 1-1 Everton (Prem)
- Swansea 3-0 Everton (LC)
- Everton 2-3 Palace (Prem)
- Everton 4-1 Wolfsburg (EL)
It's a Champions League week, which this season means just one thing: endless 'jokes' about Manchester United not being in it. Did you hear the one about the United fan who found a ticket for... argh, let's move on.
With not even the Europa League or League Cup to keep Louis van Gaal's side busy on those gloomy midweek evenings ahead, the club announced they are considering playing a few money-spinning overseas friendlies to compensate for a 10 per cent drop in revenue as a result of last season's struggles.
As an incentive to finish in the top four goes, being forced to fly to the Far East and back in 72 hours is a novel one – but Van Gaal's all for alternative motivational techniques. If you haven't yet heard the one about him dropping his kecks at Bayern Munich, it's one story that will make you laugh.
The Dutch coach is savvy enough not to speak out against his paymasters over it, but he'll know if the Red Devils are to get back on track domestically they'll need as few distractions as possible in the coming months. National duty aside, if he can keep his charges in the country, United will have a maximum of just 38 games to play in 34 weeks across the Premier League and FA Cup.
His biggest problem between now and May 24 will be giving his players sufficient game time, but he's been helped in that respect by his ever-increasing injury list, which grew even longer this week. It's barely October, but Van Gaal has already used 29 players in the league – more than any other club.
As for skipper Wayne Rooney, his recklessness against West Ham has handed poor old Juan Mata another chance to impress, with the nimble-footed Spaniard's sudden decline from key man to bench-warmer all too reminiscent of this time last year at Chelsea.
Tactically on Sunday, it should be a straight swap in Van Gaal's new 4-4-2 diamond, with Mata filling in for Rooney in the No.10 role behind a formidable front two of Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie.
Even with their former man-child Rooney suspended, such an attacking setup will no doubt concern Roberto Martinez considering Everton's recent defensive wobbles, but the club's recent form against United should give them no reason to fear their opponents.
Everton have lost just one of the last five Prem games against United (W3 D1 L1), while they have won five and lost just one of their last eight away games in the league. And then there's confidence taken from last Saturday's Merseyside derby, when Jagielka's last-gasp thunderbolt signalling wild scenes in the away end.
It's dropping points from winning positions that's cost the Toffees so far this season – they've let seven slip already, more than any other club – and it's left Martinez scratching his head over what's happened to his previously reliable backline, which was the third tighest in the league last season.
Dare we say it: could the Europa League already be proving a distraction, with defeats to Crystal Palace and Swansea following their win against Wolfsburg? Martinez, naturally, was having none of it as he took questions ahead of their trip to Russia this week to face FC Krasnodar.
"The squad is big enough and we need to develop that winning mentality in different competitions," he said, resisting the urge to slam his fist on the table. Playing in Europe never used to be this complicated, did it?
Injury-wise, it's pretty grim reading for both gaffers. United's latest casualty is Ander Herrera, the Spaniard sustaining a fractured rib against West Ham which is expected to keep him out for a month. He joins fellow midfielders Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini, Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young in the treatment room, with defenders Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling also out of action.
Then there's Rooney, whose red card against the Hammers will see him out until the Manchester derby on November 2. The one positive for Van Gaal ahead of Sunday is the probable return of Phil Jones, who has recovered quicker than expected from a hamstring injury picked up on England duty. If Jones can prove his match fitness, he'll most likely start ahead of Paddy McNair, despite the Irish teenager's impressive debut.
Absent from the Everton squad will be Kevin Mirallas, who left Anfield on a stretcher having torn his hamstring. The Belgian faces eight weeks out and will be badly missed.
James McCarthy is still getting over his leg injury, while Seamus Coleman, Steven Pienaar and Sylvain Distin all missed the trip to Russia on account of their knocks. Ross Barkley could return to training next week.
Key battle: Radamel Falcao vs John Stones
Just 21 months ago, in his first appearance of 2013, Atletico Madrid's Falcao plundered his 21st goal of the season in just his 18th game, while almost 900 miles away in Peterborough, an 18-year-old Stones was on the wrong end of a relegation dog fight with Barnsley, the Tykes losing 2-1 at London Road.
Plenty has changed for the pair since then, and on Sunday it'll be the Colombian feeling the most pressure as he bids to break his goalscoring duck. That may sound a tad harsh, but Falcao is out of sorts in front of goal as he continues to regain full match fitness, with just four goals in his last 16 competitive club games for Monaco and United either side of his knee injury that ruled him out of the World Cup.
Last time out against West Ham he displayed some neat touches, held the ball up well and provided the pass for Van Persie to score, but with Rooney on the naughty step for the whole of October, the expectation on El Tigre to start finding the net will only increase.
Standing in his way will be centre-back pairing Stones and Jagielka, and while Everton fans will no doubt be cheering on Jags to win the game single handedly after last week's heroics, Stones has been the more reliable of the two this season, making 4 key blocks at Anfield – the highest in the match.
Stones' distribution is not yet at the level of his defensive partner, but his excellent positioning and temperament could well see the 20-year-old develop into a future England captain.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Everton 2-0 United (PL, Apr 14)
- United 0-1 Everton (PL, Dec 13)
- United 2-0 Everton (PL, Feb 13)
- Everton 1-0 United (PL, Aug 12)
- United 4-4 Everton (PL, Apr 12)
Van Gaal's not the type to admit when he's messed up, but if he could go back to the summer, he surely would have signed a centre-back.
The United boss may have been unlucky with injuries, but with Evans and Jones both having a history of picking up minor niggles, it proved a gamble that backfired.
"Maybe we were at the market in August for a right-sided central defender," Van Gaal said before the West Ham game. "You never know but I don't want to discuss that."
That centre-back was believed to be Borussia Dortmund's Mats Hummels, who this week ruled himself out of such a switch in January, with his team-mate Neven Subotic the latest to be linked to a move to Old Trafford.
As for Martinez, he's been under scrutiny following the home loss to Palace and reverse at Swansea in the League Cup, so no wonder he was punching the air harder than anyone following Jagielka's goal at Anfield.
The success of last season will give Martinez the belief to stay true to his attacking principles, so reverting to a cautious setup at Old Trafford won't enter his thoughts – especially considering the incisive passing which saw his side to a 1-0 win in this fixture last season.
Facts and figures
- Only 4 players have ever scored a hat-trick in the Premier League against United and 2 of them play for Everton: Samuel Eto’o and Romelu Lukaku.
- Everton have lost 299 Premier League games, more than any other team in the competition.
- Everton have dropped more points from winning positions than any other team in the Premier League this season (7).
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Stacks of chances at both ends, but United's star-studded forward line see them to three points, just. 3-2.