It was a glorious piece of Jose Mourinho dickery before kick-off, rubbing Ronald Koeman’s nose into the dirt. “We’re up against a team that has spent over £140m so obviously they want to secure a top four position,” was the Portuguese’s deliberate jab. If you take the time to point out that Mourinho spent more than on Manchester United’s squad last summer only to finish sixth, he has already won.
Everton did not merit such a drubbing at Old Trafford. After Antonio Valencia’s early strike they responded and held their own until Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s clinching goal, but then a woeful collapse then followed. It is not the first time that Mourinho’s team have added gloss to a victory this season, but that will hardly dilute the feelings of frustration among the travelling supporters.
Those supporters spent the game lambasting Romelu Lukaku, who earned the last laugh with his assist, goal and subsequent celebration. Pouring scorn on a recently departed player is the established behaviour of the football fan, but Lukaku can feel a little hard done to given his record at Goodison. He is an elite striker who wanted a club that matched his Champions League ambitions. Everton promised him that they could meet those ambitions, before subsequently disproving that claim.
Without Lukaku, they are further still from realising the Champions League dream. As Mourinho pointed out, the proceeds of Lukaku’s transfer (and plenty more) were spent on reinventing Everton’s attack this summer, but they look worryingly disjointed and unfamiliar with one another. When you face Manchester City, Tottenham, Manchester United and Chelsea in the first six weeks of the season, the last thing you need is a complete lack of understanding between component parts of the machine.
Everton were included in the first half of our transfer window winners and losers on September 1, but even that came with an added caveat: ‘Can Sandro Ramirez and Nikola Vlasic together make one prolific striker?’ The initial answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Vlasic has played ten Premier League minutes and is presumably too raw to merit more faith than that, while Sandro at 22 looks an awful lot like Wayne Rooney at 31. Both can hold the ball up, but neither – either individually or in partnership – have enough guile or pace to truly trouble the organised defence of an elite club. Like Tottenham and Chelsea, United found it embarrassingly easy to keep Everton at arm’s length.
The attack may be misfiring, but do not be fooled into thinking that Everton’s defence is in working order. “I am worried about our aggression on the pitch and how we defend,” Koeman said after a pathetic Europa League defeat on Thursday. “I see a difference in how teams make it difficult for our strikers and how much space we give their strikers, how we let them turn, not following your man, not defending your man tight, not being aggressive.” If such public criticism is intended to provoke a response, the manager is still waiting.
If Koeman is to be judged on his ability to bridge the gap between Everton and the best teams in the Premier League, that gap is widening. Koeman’s side may have gained a point at the Etihad in August, but since then have looked dismal in their toughest assignments. A 2-0 defeat to Chelsea, 3-0 against Tottenham and Atalanta, 4-0 against Manchester United. Including the City draw, they managed just six shots on target in the four league games. This is a team still under construction that are being dismantled on a weekly basis.
Koeman’s biggest concern will not be that Everton are in danger of any serious trouble, for cohesion will surely come with time, but that this season already risks becoming a write-off before the clocks go back. Farhad Moshiri’s billions mean that there is no option to for wait and see, merely press on in pursuit of an unrealistic top-four dream. In that pursuit, under-performing managers quickly become dispensable.