Manchester United blew the chance to go top of the Premier League as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Everton at Old Trafford on Saturday. Andros Townsend's second-half strike on the counter earned Rafa Benitez his first points away to the Red Devils since May 2013, the shared points taking both sides level with Liverpool at the top of the table having played a game more.
A point was no less than Everton deserved for an impressive display that came in spite of the absence of first choice forwards Dominic Calvert Lewin and Richarlison.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might have opted to leave the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba on the bench after their dramatic win over Villarreal in the Champions League on Wednesday but it seemed he had the firepower to win the game with fringe players when Anthony Martial scored his first club goal since February just before the interval.
However United rarely looked like hammering home their advantage and were pegged back in the 65th minute as Demarai Gray and Abdoulaye Doucoure charged up the pitch to tee up Townsend, who has now had a hand in eight goals (five scored, three assisted) in nine games across all competitions. It now means United have gone nine home league games without a clean sheet, their longest run in more than 50 years.
The visitors thought they had won the day when Yerry Mina converted substitute Tom Davies' pass across the face of goal after United had failed to clear a corner but on another day of late drama at Old Trafford there was to be no match winning moment at the death by Cristiano Ronaldo and company, a tame late shot from Sancho easily saved by Pickford.
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A first half to typify United
The first 45 minutes of this game were so utterly predictable from so early on it felt like the only facet up for debate was who would score United's goal against the run of play. This was everything that makes Solskjaer's side such a bedeviling, divisive side. For most of the half they lacked any semblance of progression through the middle of the field and no eye for a final pass with Pogba, Ronaldo and Sancho consigned to the bench after their exertions to take the Red Devils past Villarreal midweek.
Without the ball United looked disorganized and all too vulnerable to relatively simple attacking moves. Neither Aaron Wan-Bissaka nor Luke Shaw were able to defend the flanks on their own with precious little support for them and Everton looked to be a menace on crosses. A Doucoure shot from just inside the area was well blocked whilst it took a crucial intervention from Shaw to deny Salomon Rondon and Townsend when youngster Anthony Gordon had beaten Victor Lindelof down the left.
The hosts might have had all the ball but they struggled to do enough with it against two disciplined lines of defense, losing the shot battle in the first half five to seven and seeing the best chances fall to an undermanned Everton. A Michael Keane header flew wide of the far post and Gray's driving run through what ought to have been United's midfield before driving low. David de Gea saved well down to his right.
But still United had the moments from superstar players that could change the face of a contest. Midway through the half Bruno Fernandes found himself in the half space down the left channel. Edinson Cavani made a smart move to find space in the box, his header only needed to be a few more inches to the left and Jordan Pickford was beaten.
The goal, when it did come, was a sign of what this team can be when the individual talents work as a collective. Mason Greenwood drew defenders to him before fizzing a quick pass to Fernandes, who of course killed the ball dead. The Everton defense had been dragged to one flank by the danger posed by these two, opening up a channel for Martial to cut infield from the left. His shot was not the best but a deflection off Ben Godfrey took it over Pickford to give the Red Devils a lead they probably did not merit.
Everton's wing wonders
Few Everton supporters could have foreseen a performance like this from their summer reclamation projects before the season had begun. With finances tight at Goodison Park, Townsend (a free signing after his Crystal Palace contract expired) and Gray (£1 million from Bayer Leverkusen) were plug-and-play options for a lack of wing depth, the best Benitez could do with the money. Yet here they were, the former scoring his fifth goal in seven games, a powerful low drive made for him by the direct running of Gray down the left.
The pair had been thorns in the United side throughout. Gray's free role off Rondon freed him to drift from flank to flank and he found particular joy with Townsend on the right side, overloading on Shaw who had precious little support from Martial. Without the ball these two never stopped working, chasing lost causes when Everton cleared the ball from defense and making the United defense work for every yard they advanced up the pitch.
Gordon's sixth start in the Premier League brought impressive flashes, particularly midway through the first half when a fizzing low cross after beating Lindelof forced excellent defending from Shaw. Like everyone else in the team the 20-year-old worked himself to the ground to plug gaps without the ball. This was classic Benitez football, quick on the break with a target man par excellence in Rondon who was more than happy to service the wingers. Lose the ball and they took a mere to moment to transition into exceptionally tight defensive banks.