It felt like chaos theory at times - a night when the constituent parts of Manchester United were thrown together in random patterns in the hope that it would all turn out alright.
It just about did. The side’s 20-game unbeaten run was preserved at the death with a Zlatan Ibrahimovic penalty for an Ashley Williams handball which left you wondering, not for the first time of late, where the method to what Jose Mourinho is bringing and spending actually resides. Everton justifiably left the pitch with heads in hands.
Mourinho had been presented with an injustice to rail against – the offside decision which chalked off Ibrahimovic’s headed goal on 72 minutes when Williams had played the Swede on. But the side created very little and, in the teeth of a commanding defensive display piloted by the Welsh international and Phil Jagielka, simply offered insufficient ammunition to aid their chase for the one of the Champions League places they so cherish. Liverpool and Manchester City can now open out what is starting to look like a chasm between them and fifth-placed United if they both win on Wednesday night.
All the attention was claimed by the self-proclaimed ‘lion’ - Ibrahimovic, back from suspension on a night when Wayne Rooney vanished even further into the periphery of Manchester United, not even in the squad to face his old side. (‘Pain in both ankles’ was the bulletin, though it was of no significance.)
But Mourinho’s side had the look and feel of predictability and bluntness about it, with nothing liquid in the approach play. No sense, with a utility player like Ander Herrera at No 10, that there was a pass in the team to unlock the game. The lion waited and the lion was fed and the lion did not always intuit when to release Marcus Rashford outside him.
Everton, still stinging from an Anfield defeat to crown all others on Saturday, were the ones with the greater balance and menace. Solidity was restored with the experience of Gareth Barry - back in front of a defence minus 22-year-old Matty Pennington, who suffered on Saturday – and Ross Barkley was restored. The Englishman’s touch and pace and intuition put his afternoon across Stanley Park into sharp perspective. With the pressure off he soared.
United’s lack of edge became a problem rather than an inconvenience when Everton went ahead. There was a freak quality about the goal – captain Jagielka reaching, back to goal, for a ball which Kevin Mirallas’ corner had sent towards the back post and hooking it behind Marcos Rojo, who had lost eye contact with it, and through David de Gea’s legs into the net. But it allowed Everton to get men behind the ball and forced United to find a creative element to seize the game.
The first half certainly required two big challenges from the central defensive bulwarks – Williams reacting to block out a Zlatan shot and Jagielka taking the ball from Rashford’s boot in the dying minutes. But United’s first half efforts were mainly long range and speculative, including Daley Blind’s free-kick, which Joel Robles leapt to touch wide on the half hour. Herrera, following up, clattered the ball against the crossbar from an acute angle.
Mourinho made immediate repairs, bringing Paul Pogba into the equation for the second half, though it did not look like a line-up with method to it. Herrera was shifted to the rearguard - initially to left back and eventually right back to accommodate Pogba. Henrikh Mkhitaryan materialised just beyond the hour mark, along with Luke Shaw, torched by Mourinho on Saturday, restored by him 48 hours later. Shaw – who has started one Premier League game since last October – immediately scuffed a cross. There was nothing in his 25 miniutes to suggest that Mourinho’s austerity with him has inspired. It is hard to imagine his mind was anything but scrambled.
United did make some more inroads amid the melee, though the set-piece route was needed again. An Ashley Young free kick from the United left was headed by Pogba onto the Everton bar. It was when Ibrahimovic stopped to head Herrera’s 72nd-minute cross from the right into the net that he was unfairly adjudged offside. A few scraps fell to Marouane Fellaini, one from a Zlatan knockdown, but he hauled them either high or wide.
It became a disorganised onslaught and Everton just tried to hold on as it wore on with an occasional break at pace. The best of Eric Bailly was needed to block Lukaku on one such occasion.
The penalty at the death was marginal. Williams was adjudged to have handled when he headed Shaw’s shot onto his hand. At worst, he could be accused of allowing his hand to hang there. Mourinho knew he had got out of jail.
Manchester United (3-4-3): De Gea; Young (Shaw 65), Bailly, Rojo, Blind (Pogba 45); Fellaini, Carrick (Mkhitaryan 65); Lingard, Herrera, Rashford; Ibrahimovic.
Subs not used: Romero, Fosu-Mensah, Darmian, Martial.
Everton (4-2-3-1): Robles; Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Baines; Gueye, Barry; Barkley (Calvert-Lewin 80), Davies, Mirallas (Pennington 67); Lukaku.
Subs not used: Stekelenburg, Lookman, Kenny, Williams, Valencia.
Referee: N Swarbrick (Lancashire)