Manchester United’s academy graduates were challenged to lead them on the 63rd anniversary of the Munich air disaster and Scott McTominay rose to it, literally. Others didn’t.
McTominay connected from Luke Shaw’s free-kick and perhaps he should choreograph United’s own defending from set-pieces, for they were undone by another dead-ball delivery for the umpteenth time.
Before any corner or free-kick United have to defend, without fail the goalkeeping coach, Richard Hartis, emerges into the technical area and, whatever the message is, it falls on deaf ears. What he usually hollers is an instruction heard atr a Sunday league game. That was the standard of United’s defending when Dominic Calvert-Lewin poached deep into added time.
With City due at their Anfield graveyard on Sunday, this was an opportunity for United to exert pressure yet their weaknesses were as glaring as their strengths. David de Gea’s feeble palms sparked an unlikely Everton fightback and United’s defence, dominant before the pause, was suddenly porous. In this surreal season, 2-0 became 2-2 in three minutes.
De Gea lacked authority at the final free-kick and too often Harry Maguire seeks a reprieve from officials. United have a potential upgrade in goal with Dean Henderson on the bench but must wait until the summer to address their soft centre on another night the unreliable Eric Bailly was absent through injury.
Axel Tuanzebe, sent on to tighten things up, loosened it. He conceded the vital free-kick and was booked on another nightmare night 11 days on from the Sheffield United humbling. Marcus Rashford was profligate and reckless with his decision-making again.
Home offers little comfort for United. Everton’s excellent away record was dismissed in one of United’s most complete first halves of the season yet were back to square one within seven minutes of the restart, failing to heed Calvert-Lewin’s late first-half warning shot. Both halves ended with Calvert-Lewin breathing down on De Gea and United have sieved more goals than any of the top 10 in the Premier League.
Any manner of victory following the Southampton shellacking was bound to represent regression, though this was another needlessly gritty, narrow success. In hindsight, the haste with which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned to Fred to replace the prone Paul Pogba was misguided. It was the conservative choice and the Brazilian failed to harry James Rodriguez for his equaliser despite emerging for an individual half-time warm-up session.
Rodriguez was so anonymous for 45 minutes one of the handful of Old Trafford stewards exerted themselves more. De Gea’s pivotal parry and the introduction of Fred suddenly galvanised the Colombian and Everton’s marquee player helped secure them a point.
The anxious appeals and frantic denouement were symptomatic of United’s general inability to win convincingly at home often enough. All four of their Premier League defeats this season have come at Old Trafford and this was effectively a loss.
United cannot savour the goals from two of Solskjaer’s most influential signings. The easy narrative was to liken Bruno Fernandes’s dipping drive to Eric Cantona’s chip at the same end 24 years earlier against Sunderland when the techniques were totally different.
Fernandes larruped the ball with the perfection of Beckham, the trajectory of his goal comparable with the United great’s strike in a 2003 FA Cup tie against Portsmouth. Only that was from a free-kick and Fernandes manipulated his from open play. Neither he nor Edinson Cavani will remember their strikes as fondly as they should have.
If McTominay brought steel then Mason Greenwood was the silk in his standout performance of a slow second season. The 19-year-old academy-bred forward left Lucas Digne with twisted blood in a week that must make United wonder whether they have got it right on the right wing after getting it wrong for so many years.
Ed Woodward returned to Old Trafford for a matchday for the first time since the 6-1 trouncing by Tottenham four months ago, though a more surprising presence was that of Mark Hughes, once worshipped in the stadium as a player before his antagonistic attitude in the away dugout burned those bridges. United could do with Hughes in both boxes.
Pogba’s tendency to dwell on the ball vexed Solskjaer enough for him to holler the midfielder’s name after a wasteful pass and urge him to pass more promptly. Maguire advised him to slow down when Pogba succumbed to a muscular injury in the 38th minute that forced his withdrawal. While Fred was removing his tracksuit, the under-used Donny van de Beek was warming up and that is about as close as he got to the pitch.
Mike Phelan demanded quicker passing and Luke Shaw and Rashford were warned against wandering deeper than usual whereas Greenwood left Digne on his backside. Greenwood was in such a groove he brushed off a rebuke from Fernandes.
United targeted Everton’s right-hand side in the reverse fixture three months ago and at Old Trafford it was down the left. Ironically, Rashford – not Greenwood – switched flanks and was the provider with a crossing technique usually reserved for his free-kicks. Cavani masterfully pulled off Michael Keane for his third goal in three against Everton. Keane, considered by United in 2017, showed why they passed on him and plumped for Victor Lindelof, dominant against Richarlison.
He and Maguire were anything but in the next 45 minutes. “Are you taking the p–s?” Maguire demanded of the linesman, amazed an Everton breakaway was not halted by the award of a free-kick. United kept looking to the officials for help. They needed it.