The dust cart came before the Lord Mayor’s show for a change on Saturday as the first edition of the weekend clash between two great North West cities was as poor in quality as expected.
Everton and Manchester United are in very similar predicaments. Over a billion pounds has been spent on players between them over the last five years, with their respective moneymen wishing they had kept their receipts.
While Manchester City’s meeting with Liverpool sat on the apex of footballing greatness, Saturday’s encounter at Goodison Park took place somewhere in the doldrums, won by the team who simply worked harder.
For the losers, it represented their lowest point, since their last low point. Directionless and detached, United are meandering towards their worst season finish since 1991, on course for an even lower points total than David Moyes’s year at Old Trafford.
But it could have been all so very different, had the club appointed the man so perfect to revitalise a talented but unmotivated group of players.
Antonio Conte was available, would have cost nothing, and had he been given a choice between United and Tottenham, there surely would have been only one winner. The club, however, felt Conte “did not fit” their long-term strategy. Even if it is never in Conte’s remit to stick around for a decade, he would certainly have placed United in a better league position than they are in now.
As an alternative, United essentially wrote off this season by appointing an interim who excelled in other roles rather than that of a manager, having not even coached a team since 2018-19, and, as a result, they are now staring at the prospect of missing out on next season’s Champions League at Conte-led Tottenham’s expense.
The bewilderment does not end there. Ralf Rangnick was hired with a view to him taking a consultancy role alongside the current director of football, John Murtough, next season. Instead, sources have told i that the German will only work “a few days a month” next term, and has no say in who the next manager will be.
That means United possess one of the most transformative sporting directors in the modern era at the club, but will not use his knowledge, instead having former midfielder Darren Fletcher, new to the role this year, assist Murtough. Only at United.
The rotting carcass of what is left of this once great club was clear for all to see at Goodison. As crestfallen David de Gea pointed out after the match, Everton had played a brutal relegation clash at Burnley, which they agonisingly lost, three days before, while United had the week off following their previous nadir. But the Toffees worked much harder, showed infinitely more desire and did everything they could to win.
Given that their bosses had already given up on their season by November with their appointment of a man ill-equipped for the burning inferno he was walking into, United’s players have been unable to rouse themselves for the challenge.
Everton, a team supposedly lacking the stomach for the fight, completed 44 more sprints that United players in the match, and covered six more kilometres collectively.
It wasn’t pretty, but given where Everton are and after Burnley, they had an excuse. But for a star-studded United not to even try, when the top four is still very possible, epitomises just where these rudderless giants are heading.
While Spurs are clicking into gear at the right time, Conte is working his magic in turning Harry Kane into Diego Maradona and pegging teams back with his flying full-backs, United cannot even break down a team in their most vulnerable moment.
Everton defended well, but did not exactly have to put their bodies on the line. Seventy per cent effort got them home. Rangnick said before the match he is willing to give the new manager any guidance he needs, but Erik ten Hag or whoever the club’s next victim is maybe best not to seek the German’s council, as the feedback won’t be overly encouraging.
Ten Hag must ask himself if he really wants to inherit this mess
By Daniel Storey, i chief football writer
As bad as it gets. Manchester United may have only lost 1-0, but do not let the fine margin of defeat fool you. United were playing the division’s crisis club, who had conceded nine goals in their previous three games and are still staring down the barrel of relegation. And Everton didn’t even play brilliantly. If United had played like that against a supposed title challenger – at least according to pre-season expectations – they would have been thumped.
Ralf Rangnick has failed; that we can now say with some certainty. The circumstances of his remit were very odd: a long-term builder appointed for a short-term project with vague promises of being part of the rebuild that now seem to have evaporated. But at the very least we expected him to organise the team and re-enthuse some of the players. It speaks badly of them that they look just as disorganised as they did under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (albeit in a very different way), but it is damning of him too.
The lack of joined-up thinking – and therefore joined-up football – is astounding, really. In David Winner’s book on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, he speaks to former Netherlands international and ex-Manchester United player Arnold Muhren about how members of a team become at one with each other on the pitch.
“It’s a thinking game,” Muhren says. “It’s not running around everywhere and just working hard. That’s how to play football: with your brains and not your feet. You don’t have to be a chess player, but you must think ahead. Before I had the ball I knew exactly what I would do with it. I always knew two or three moves ahead. Before I get the ball I can already see someone moving in front of me, so when the ball arrives I don’t have to think about it.”
Watching Manchester United (particularly on Saturday but also at various points under Rangnick and Solskjaer), that quote jumps to mind because it is entirely absent in their play. Watch Saturday’s game back. Every time a player in red gets the ball, they take an extra second to plan their next pass. Nothing seems automatic; no style or process appears ingrained within them.
Add in the culture of the club, in which so many promising or proven players (Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Paul Pogba and even Cristiano Ronaldo) seem to lose the spark that suggested their great potential or excellence, and you have a mess.
That mess matters. Failing to finish in the top four (they are six points behind Tottenham) would hurt United financially, but their form between now and the end of the season could make a lasting difference beyond May.
Erik ten Hag has to decide whether he wants this job, or whether United are likely to swallow him up and tarnish his own reputation. If he watched Saturday’s game against Everton, you wouldn’t blame him for shutting the laptop screen and taking the phone off the hook.