Early winners: Doucoure, Benitez and excellent Everton

Date published: Saturday 2nd October 2021 3:11 - Matthew Stead

Fred, Edinson Cavani, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Bruno Fernandes

Rafael Benitez makes a team greater than the sum of its parts. At least that could be said of one manager at Old Trafford. Everton were great.


The enduring image of Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is that of a team turning so many corners they end up in a maze. They almost conceded from two at Old Trafford, spared only by Tom Davies lacking the same confidence as Andros Townsend and Yerry Mina failing to control his naive exuberance and proclivity for dancing.

It took 16 seconds for a poor Bruno Fernandes delivery to be thundered into David de Gea’s bottom right corner. Having rescued his teammates against Villarreal three days prior, the Spaniard was not afforded the same courtesy as Everton sliced through a meek defence to equalise just past the hour.

Twenty minutes later, a failure to properly clear their lines left Manchester United staring down the barrel. Ben Godfrey played Davies in as the defence filtered out, leaving Mina unmarked at the back post for a tap-in. Davies should perhaps have shot. Mina should absolutely have held his run. The failure of both to do either must not deflect from another dreadful home performance.

Everton will be frustrated, but that in itself is a sign of their progress. They last beat Manchester United in 2019, bringing about one of Solskjaer’s lowest ebbs as coach. David Moyes was manager for their most recent victory at Old Trafford and it is hardly necessary to clarify which of the two teams the Scot was in charge of at that point; it is an age ago either way.

To describe it as a deserved point is to overlook the view that Everton were probably worth all three. They carried the greater tangible threat for longer periods, following an identifiable and coherent plan instead of hoping for moments of improvised genius. The resolute defence was marshalled by Michael Keane, supported by a ferocious counter-attack that Anthony Gordon did not look out of place in and, most pertinently, backed up by an effective midfield.

Abdoulaye Doucoure was wonderful. His athleticism and anticipation gave Everton stable foundations upon which to build a promising performance. Their biggest chances in the first half came directly from his interceptions, first recycling a Fred pass to feed Salomon Rondon and then setting up his own chance by reading Edinson Cavani’s poor ball and supporting the attack. Both shots were blocked but Doucoure was running the game. He is thriving with more freedom in that midfield.

The presence of Allan behind him makes that easier, so confident Doucoure must be with the Brazilian patrolling the spaces he vacates. McFred is not on the same level either as individuals or a pair.

Doucoure only emphasised that gulf in midfield quality by providing the link for the goal, backing up the brilliant Demarai Gray and shifting his feet quickly to glide past Luke Shaw before sliding the tireless and excellent Townsend in for the finish. It was composed. It was scintillating. It was a team realising their manager’s vision.

Rafael Benitez was the key. He had no right to visit Old Trafford without Seamus Coleman, Andre Gomes, Alex Iwobi, Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin while still ensuring his side imposed themselves on more gilded hosts. While Manchester United brought on Jadon Sancho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba, he introduced only Davies and Lewis Dobbin from a callow bench that would not have looked out of place in an academy game, save for designated drivers in Asmir Begovic and Andy Lonergan.

Those three Manchester United substitutes cost just under £180m. Were Benitez still in the business of listing facts, he might point out that his entire Everton starting line-up cost £167.8m. He was manager for just £1.7m of that spend, signing three players. The Manchester United starters cost a combined £278.6m and Solskjaer bought four of them for £134m. This result and those respective performances should neither be possible nor accepted.

Yet Benitez, with 50 more wins than Solskjaer has games as a Premier League manager, has mastered the art of making a team far greater than the sum of its parts. Whether he has inherited players from his predecessors or personally identified them to fit into his philosophy, he improves and has a clear plan for them. At least one manager did.

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