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Opposition Scouting: Everton in shambles ahead of Wayne Rooney’s return to Old Trafford

Pick any of the following words to describe Everton’s last three performances: abject, lifeless, embarrassing, shambolic.

The Toffees head to Old Trafford on Sunday on the back of some of the most dreadful performances in recent memory – a 2-0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and twin 3-0 losses to Tottenham at home and Serie A side Atalanta FC in a road Europa League fixture. Arguably, those score lines could have been even more lopsided if not for strong goalkeeping and the opponents easing off the pressure late.

For Everton fans, these woes overshadow a compelling storyline for this match: Wayne Rooney’s return to Old Trafford and Romelu Lukaku’s first time playing against his former club. Instead, the focus will be on avoiding humiliation against a Red Devils squad that looks like it will contend for the Premier League title.

Granted, Ronald Koeman will have seen and perhaps be encouraged that Stoke City managed a draw against United last week, but the two goals scored by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting equals Everton’s total from the first four Premier League fixtures. In fact, the Toffees have mustered only a single shot on target combined in their games against Chelsea and Spurs.

Koeman will be under intense pressure to generate a reaction out of his players. So far, he has struggled to find an effective formation that caters to his players’ strengths. A lack of pace and width in the attacking half has been evident, making simple possession a challenge.

Despite impressive signings in the summer transfer window that prompted now-fanciful talk of a top-six finish, failing to acquire a scoring threat to replace Lukaku is the most glaring omission.

Former Barcelona man Sandro, who netted 14 goals for Malaga last year, has struggled to adapt to English football. Rooney has shown life in his 31-year-old legs, but he can’t be expected to beat younger, faster defenders to the ball. The Toffees’ most exciting player — by a longshot — has been youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who scored the game-winner for England in the U20 World Cup Final this summer. Expect to see him in the Starting XI on Sunday after being a reserve in the last two Premier League games.

That lack of a true No. 9 has made life difficult for record signing Gylfi Sigurdsson, who nonetheless delivered a goal-of-the-year contender with a stunning 50-yard looping strike against Hadjuk Split in the Europa League playoff round. New signee Dominic Calvert-Lewin, like Sandro, has gotten off to a slow start. And Belgian national Kevin Mirallas has found himself in the doghouse after complaints over the lack of playing time. Long-term injuries to Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Ross Barkley, and Seamus Coleman have deprived Everton of other scoring threats. Things have gotten so desperate on Merseyside that Koeman has even reintroduced out-of-favour Oumar Niasse back into the first team.

All that uncertainty and negativity has eclipsed the promising signs at the club: impressive goalkeeping by England national Jordan Pickford, steady play from former United centre-back Michael Keane, and determined workmanship from holding midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye, who always seems to be around the ball.

Everton’s best performance this season came against Manchester City in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad, but that was aided by a questionable red card to Kyle Walker late in the first half. Ironically, even though they were ahead 1-0, the Toffees seemed to crawl into a defensive shell, inviting 10-man City to attack, which eventually led to a Daniel Sterling equalizer eight minutes from time. In the end, Everton were lucky to walk away with a result.

The Manager

High hopes greeted Ronald Koeman in his second season on Merseyside following last season’s seventh-place finish. Having remade the team he inherited from Roberto Martinez, thanks to the deep pockets of co-owner Farhad Moshiri, he is now struggling to find the right combination of players and is up against a fan base rapidly losing confidence that he is the right man to help Everton break through to the top six and lift trophies. Questions are being asked whether Koeman is trying to shoehorn players into a formation and system they are not built for. The former Barcelona defender may point to a difficult run of fixtures to start the season – a fair point with City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and United in their first five games – but fans want to see results or at least competitive contest against the top sides.

Ones to Watch

The previously aforementioned Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been the spark behind Everton’s best performances. He set up Rooney’s goals against Stoke and City and his blazing quickness will create problems for most Prem back lines. The 20-year-old signed from Sheffield United for £1.5 million in 2016, which looks to be a steal. He has not featured in the starting XI in two of Everton’s last three dismal showings, but he almost has to get the nod against United.

Another youngster who raised eyebrows last year but has not seen as much time on the pitch early this season is midfielder Tom Davies, the 19-year-old Everton Academy graduate who produced a dazzling end-to-end break and finish against City last year. His hustle and pace would be a welcome addition at Old Trafford.

Predicted Starting XI

Match Prediction

Even the most die-hard and glass-half-full Everton fans would be hard-pressed to predict a positive result at Old Trafford after the last three games have shown little ability to compete with teams of United’s quality. Rooney will want to make a statement in front of Jose Mourinho, showing that he can still compete, and Lukaku will also hope to show Everton what they let go. In the end, United just have too much firepower for the Merseysiders. I’ll say Everton 1-4 Manchester United.

Written by Alan Brody

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