Defeat to Everton exposes Manchester United's flaws
Everton 3-0 Man United
No sign of that Grim Reaper who stalked David Moyes behind the Manchester United dug-out here a year ago, but his spirit lurked within the place.
Louis van Gaal might have the aura and the points-per-game ratio to insulate against what defeat to Everton brought for Moyes: the sack, within 48 hours. But he was outdone by Roberto Martinez: out-thought and unsmarted by a game of classic counter-attacking football.
It was United's heaviest Premier League defeat under their Dutch manager and one which revealed how the golden early spring which brought six successive league wins has obscured some underlying flaws. Van Gaal does not care to discuss that type of thing.
His talk of Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg whiffing the stench of complacency before the game was self-serving, in that respect. It was fundamentally a defensive problem. There will always be a risk when as untried a defender as Paddy McNair is playing, and without a commanding partner at that.
It was certainly one of the afternoons in a breakthrough season that McNair - with Romelu Lukaku for close company - will care to forget.
The absence of Michael Carrick, who can anchor, and the presence of Danny Blind, who cannot, exacerbated the problem. United have not conceded more than one goal in the league this season with Carrick on the pitch.
Martinez denied that he had been influenced by anything he saw in United's defeat at Chelsea last week but it certainly looked that way. Everton allowed United a heap of possession (62 per cent in the first half) and territory, then struck at the vulnerable axis - McNair and Luke Shaw - on the counter-attack.
Everton's players certainly didn't bank on as much help as they were given when going ahead, because they scored almost in spite of themselves in the fifth minute. James McCarthy - a force of nature, as he has been for much of the season - gratefully accepted the chance to be the agent of the counter-attack after Gareth Barry had beaten Antonio Valencia to Juan Mata's corner. But Seamus Coleman, whom he released down the right to join in, stumbled over the ball before providing the low cross which McNair's weak challenge and Blind's indecision allowed McCarthy to reclaim before scoring through David De Gea's legs. The goalkeeper, for all his plaudits, did not enjoy his most commanding afternoon here.
There was an unedifying symmetry, from a Van Gaal perspective, in the performances of Marouane Fellaini - headless, useless and withdrawn for his own good on a Goodison return - and McCarthy, whom United would be wise to consider bidding for before launching another overseas shopping expedition.
It was put to Martinez last night that McCarthy's noticeably improved mobility might have something to do with him losing some weight, though the manager put it down to workload. "He copes better with one game a week, the stats will tell you," Martinez said. The absence of Europa League duties certainly feels like a blessing for Everton, who have won four out of five games since going out.
There were occasional modest incursions from United, making some capital out of targeting Coleman's flank and McNair displaying elegance emerging out of defence. But Everton have discovered some defensive solidity during a run which has dispelled the relegation talk which briefly involved them. If anything Coleman's flank looked the most vulnerable but there were covering tackles everywhere.
Everton seized on some more criminal defending to extend their lead. A lapse by Valencia, failing to challenge John Stones after he made a circular run at Leighton Baines' corner, allowed the 20-year-old to dispatch the header which flew in off the underside of the bar.
Van Gaal shuffled around. With the immobility of Wayne Rooney at the top of the team a part of his problems, he sent on Radamel Falcao for Fellaini at the start of the second half and Angel Di Maria appeared for Mata three minutes past the hour. And though there was a hint of a rare and spectacular combination between the signature buys of last summer, when Falcao got a little purchase on the Argentine's lofted cross, the finality of things was then established.
The third goal was the most desperate by any measure, Lukaku stopping his run on to Ross Barkley's lofted pass because he was offside, but United's defenders halting theirs too, leaving the substitute Kevin Mirallas as the only player interested and moving when the music stopped. He gratefully planted the ball in the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
EVERTON: Howard, Coleman, Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Lennon, Barkley (Naismith 88), McCarthy, Osman (Mirallas 69), Lukaku (Koné 87)
Subs not used: Robles, Besic, Garbutt, Alcaraz
Goals: McCarthy 5, Stones 35, Mirallas 74
MAN UNITED: de Gea, A Valencia, Smalling, McNair, Shaw, Blind, Mata (Di María 63), Herrera, Fellaini (Falcao 45), Young, Rooney (van Persie 88)
Subs not used: Januzaj, van Persie, Valdés, Blackett, Pereira
Bookings: Man United: Shaw, Fellaini
Man of the match: James McCarthy (pictured)
Match rating: 6/10
Referee: Andre Marriner