Manchester United didn’t even need four minutes. Or at least Antonio Valencia didn’t.
On what was supposed to be Wayne Rooney’s day in Manchester, Valencia stood still and alone, outside the right corner of Everton’s penalty box. Then he saw Nemanja Matic’s cross skipping across Old Trafford’s plush green grass and into his path. He stepped up. And he won the Super Sunday clash between United and Everton before it had even kicked into gear:
He also changed it. Everton had come to Old Trafford with a plan to defend for its life. It packed five defenders and two defensive midfielders into a rearranged 5-4-1. It prepared to bunker in. So much for that.
But the ensuing 80 minutes were almost as unsettling or off-putting as Valencia’s goal. United, the Premier League’s leader entering the weekend, should have coasted; it didn’t. Not until the 84th minute, when Henrikh Mkhitaryan doubled United’s lead.
And the 90th minute, when Romelu Lukaku sealed United’s victory.
And the 92nd, when Anthony Martial confirmed the final scoreline, 4-0.
But 4-0 was deceiving. Maybe United tried to coast, but Everton simply wasn’t having it. The Toffees had been booed off fields twice in a week, and hadn’t scored a goal since an August Europa League qualifier. They still haven’t. But if nothing else, they salvaged pride from a game that could have exacerbated their gloom.
The afternoon was destined to be about Rooney, and it almost was. In the first half, the United legend came a few feet away from marking his return to Old Trafford with a goal. In the second half, a David De Gea leg was the impediment. Gylfi Sigurdsson was also denied by De Gea from close range.
United overflowed with energy at the outset. It wasn’t just the goal. The Red Devils’ pressure left Everton pinned back and Rooney isolated up top. But after 10 minutes of one-way traffic, pre-arranged road signs were discarded. Everton charged against the grain. It controlled the ball. It established its presence.
In some sense, that was by United’s design. Jose Mourinho’s team is often at its most dangerous as its opponents appear to grow into games. And that was the case Sunday, at least sporadically. Had United been clinical on the break earlier, the narrative would be a lot different.
That is the risk of playing on the counter. When it works, it is emblematic of Mourinho’s brilliance. When it doesn’t, it is emblematic of his flaws. When it works, United shows its title credentials. When it doesn’t, it appears as if United has relaxed, and has given up control of a game.
That’s what happened Sunday, because for much of the match, Lukaku and his running mates weren’t firing. Lukaku failed to capitalize on Everton mistakes, and Everton almost capitalized on United’s forgiving attack. The first 15 minutes of the second half presented the Toffees with several opportunities to wake up Old Trafford and spark the game into life. De Gea, the Premier League’s best goalkeeper, spared United embarrassment.
And in the end, it was Everton who was punished for an inability to convert in front of goal. The Toffees gave United far too many chances. And when it rained, it poured. Lukaku set up Mkhitaryan on the break. Then Lukaku got his goal against his former club. He celebrated unreservedly, then pumped up the Old Trafford crowd as Martial converted the fourth from the penalty spot.
This is what United will do to opponents. Mourinho’s men are lethal. They are ruthless.
But just as the narrative would have been different had United converted some of its earlier chances, the narrative could have been very, very different had Everton cashed in on one of its. United left the door open. But it could only remain open for so long. And eventually, it was slammed shut.
– – – – – – –
Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.