Lewis Dobbin and Charlie Whitaker were veterans of a one-minute senior football match for Everton. They were the attacking opportunities on Rafa Benítez’s bench. Their Manchester United colleagues were Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho, Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard and the less spotty Donny van de Beek, whose fee of £ 35m. Made him £ 35m. More expensive than Andros Townsend, who earned Everton a point.
Dobbin was Everton’s second replacement. In a way, it made him their Ronaldo, even though 790 career goals separate them. The comparisons may end there, and Whitaker stayed on the bench with 37-year-old third-choice goalkeeper Andy Lonergan making up the numbers when an ambush was expertly executed by the last men standing. Or, in the case of the relentless Townsend and Demarai Gray, the final race. Depth strength for United could not overcome a formidable game plan. Gray, signed for 1.7 million. Pound, was the finest player on show. Austerity has been the mother of reinvention for Everton.
But if the analysis by transfer fee alone can be reducing, the salient point is that Benítez has constructed a team more than the sum of its parts, some acquired on the cheap, gathered by the circumstances and worked on a determination to make Evertonians proud. So did Dean Smith and David Moyes when Aston Villa and West Ham won at Old Trafford in four days with what are essentially ambitious midfield clubs. So for that matter, David Wagner did when the Switzerland Young Boys beat United. Each has been an ad for coaching and strategy.
All this button throws Ole Gunnar Solskjær in a good light when these teams show the traits his increasingly lacking when they overperform while he underperforms. The Norwegian can feel unlucky and enter the stage, where the players get the credit for victories, while he gets the blame for setbacks. If that reflects United’s reliance on individual inspiration to compensate for the absence of something more coherent, it’s worth noting that his surprising selection scored. Solskjær had not taken the popular route by choosing Anthony Martial; he had disappointed the majority by letting Ronaldo spend the first 55 minutes competing with Usain Bolt for the title of the most decorated and famous spectator at Old Trafford. The result suggests the brave gambit of resting Ronaldo backlash.
Solskjær perhaps had too many options, Benítez too few. Still, United are in midfield in a strange state where, despite a superstar occupied front line, they do not seem to be living with Fred or without him. They had been completely convincing against Villarreal when he was dropped, with a vacuum where a midfield should be. Upon his recall, Fred showed more purpose in possession and crossed as Edinson Cavani should probably have scored. And yet it was the ensuing image of his afternoon as the unique Gray overpowered Fred to run off and along with Abdoulaye Doucouré set up Townsend for his equalizer. Gray, the winger used in the middle, took advantage of United’s lack of a high-class defensive midfielder to counter-attack with threat. Townsend has proven unexpectedly productive – Ronaldo is not the only summer signing who already has five goals.
The potential is realized, just not at Old Trafford. Although he ended a seven-month drought, United’s scoring feel sets a good example. “Tony Martial scores again,” sang Stretford End. The sarcasm was as audible as the Anglicized pronunciation. Again? Martial’s previous goal for United was the eighth in the 9-0 defeat at Southampton in February, which helped create a record-breaking feat, but otherwise an irrelevance.
When the united faithful had already summoned their tribute to Solskjær from their songbook, the soundtrack may have come from the past. Paco Alcácer, Edin Dzeko, Roberto Firmino and Dominic Calvert-Lewin had scored at Old Trafford in a No 9 jersey since Martial had. Then came the kind of finish that, although it took a slight detour, brought back memories of his debut goal in 2015, a speedster sweeping in from the left to echo Thierry Henry. But in the intervening period, the clause that forced United to pay Monaco more if he wins the Ballon d’Or has looked more and more strangely irrelevant.
Martial has started looking for an exile candidate. Younger, fast alternatives have overtaken him: Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Sancho. Older figures from prehistoric times, such as Ronaldo and Cavani, have left him trapped between generations. Chances are that footballer United’s squad named their player of the year in the 2019-20 series on no first-choice side, but he still possesses quality.
But the problem with having such options is the difficulty of choosing the right ones. Sunshine may have been justified by a starter, but his luxury replacements – Ronaldo, Sancho and Pogba – could not yield a winner. Even when the leader got something right, more went wrong. And if it’s a microcosm of his season, it’s promising.