Vince Lombardi once said "winning is a habit," and thanks to Radamel Falcao's first goal wearing Manchester United's colors, the Red Devils can now say they're getting into that healthy routine once again.
Louis van Gaal's men overcame Everton 2-1 at Old Trafford on Sunday, which marked United's third consecutive home win, as well as some payback for last year's struggles against the Toffees.
Much has changed at Old Trafford since Everton's last visit ten months ago. For starters, Manchester United was then managed by former Everton boss David Moyes, whose nightmarish stint in Manchester would last only ten months. Van Gaal steers the United ship now, and he has implemented a different tactical formation. Moyes' fanatical 4-4-2 was as rigid as a sheet of the sturdiest steel, while van Gaal now employs a more fluid 4-3-3, which is sometimes more like a 4-1-2-1-2, given the midfield diamond that the Dutch manager loves so much.
It's not just Manchester United's shape that has changed, but the faces on the field. Only three starters wearing the red strip played in both home games against Everton: goalkeeper David de Gea, right fullback Rafael da Silva and right winger Antonio Valencia. In fact, the rebuilding process that started once Moyes left can be best exemplified by the fact that five of Manchester United's starters last December are no longer with the club.
Last year Everton's disciplined approach resulted in their first win at Old Trafford in 21 years – a huge accomplishment for new Toffees boss Roberto Martínez, and one that would indicate the kind of season the Blues would enjoy. After all, it is Everton who is partaking in a European club competition this year, finishing the season in 5th place to Manchester United's 7th.
However, having to play other European clubs in the middle of the week can be a tricky affair. Everton's fifth-place finish last season merited entry in the Europa League, Europe's second-best club competition behind the UEFA Champions League. Crucially, Europa League games take place on Thursdays instead of the Champions League's Tuesdays and Wednesdays. This past week, Everton found themselves playing Thursday night in faraway Russia.
That small detail could perhaps explain Everton's flat start to the game on Sunday morning in Manchester. The Toffees lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with some interesting tweaks designed to bother the home team. The tricky Steven Pienaar made his comeback from injury and was deployed on the left side of Everton's advanced midfield trio, and the ever-dangerous Romelu Lukaku was tasked with giving 19-year-old United central defender Paddy McNair all that he could handle. The teenager made his senior debut just last month for United, coping admirably with West Ham's dangerous front line. However, Lukaku represents a different class of striker, one that was worth a transfer fee of almost $45 million just this past summer.
Roberto Martínez seemed to think it was best to try and contain United's most dangerous player, Argentine Ángel Di María (himself signed for $95 million this past August), and thus lined up the cautious Tony Hibbert behind Aiden McGeady as a tag team of sorts to try and slow the former Real Madrid star.
It didn't work, as Di María was a constant threat throughout a phenomenal first half for the Red Devils:
Angel Di Maria half by numbers: 1 goal 4 shots 88% pass accuracy 3 chances created 8 crosses. pic.twitter.com/ttuQOSqfCc— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 5, 2014
It was the man nicknamed Fideo (or "Noodle") who put United ahead 26 minutes into the match, after Juan Mata set him up beautifully on the edge of the box following a desperate half-clearance by Blues central defender Phil Jagielka. As soon as Mata took control of Jagielka's cross, Di María made a smart run anticipating the inevitable assist, and drilled a right-footed shot past U.S. Men's National Team hero Tim Howard.
For the fourth straight game, Manchester United looked dominant and dangerous in the opening 45 minutes, enjoying a 6 percent edge in possession, producing 8 more shots and 8 more scoring chances, and completing 5 percent more of their passes than the Toffees.
However, if it weren't for David de Gea's unexpected heroics in the last minute of the half, United would've headed to the locker room without a lead.
As halftime approached, Manchester United's recurring issue this season – subpar defending – reared its ugly head once more. Luke Shaw lost Hibbert when the seldom-adventurous fullback made a run into the box following an entry pass to Pienaar. Following a pretty backheel by the latter, Hibbert looked in prime position to either take a good shot on goal or set someone up, given that Shaw had stopped tracking him, and United left central defender Marcos Rojo had moved to contain Pienaar. Shaw lunged desperately in a clumsy attempt to recover from his lapse, but all he could do was concede a penalty kick that seemed a lavish reward for Everton's poor first half display.
Up came left fullback Leighton Baines, a man who had scored all 14 of his previous penalty kicks in the Premier League. The man so frequently linked with a move to Manchester United in previous years stood to level the match at one goal apiece, only to see David de Gea, a goalkeeper not exactly known for stopping penalty kicks, ruin that 100 percent success rate from the spot.
One would think that the missed penalty kick would strike a blow in the Toffees morale in the second half, but that was hardly the case. Martínez ordered his advanced midfield trio of Pienaar, Naismith and McGeady to push up the field and press the United back four and their midfield anchor, Daley Blind. The Dutchman was left mostly untroubled by any Blue shirts in the first half, finding it easy to distribute the ball seamlessly for United's attack. That small tweak resulted in better chances for Everton, culminating in Steven Naismith's 55th minute equalizer.
A clever set play out of a seemingly harmless free kick allowed Leighton Baines to curl in one of his famous left-footed crosses, which once again caught Luke Shaw napping as Naismith blew by him for a clean header.
If Manchester United's first halves have been mostly excellent in recent weeks, their second halves have been more or less the polar opposites. As Everton drew level, much uncertainty hung over Old Trafford once again. However, only six minutes later one of United's new recruits would provide much needed relief.
As Ángel Di María lined up to take a speculative left-footed shot from well outside the box, Radamel Falcao made a smart run clearing the way for the inevitable shot, but also giving himself a clear path towards goal in case a rebound would come his way. As it happened, Di María's shot ended up being more like a perfectly timed assist, one that the Colombian striker would poach right in front of a helpless Tim Howard.
The lead was restored, and it seemed as if United wouldn't struggle to the finish line. However, substitutions by both managers ended up producing a nervy finish that almost saw Everton claim a point in the dying minutes of the match.
In the 73rd minute, Falcao was taken off in favor of young James Wilson. On the surface the substitution seemed odd, given how active and dangerous Falcao had been – and how ineffective his striking partner Robin van Persie's performance had seemed in contrast. However, it seems van Gaal is taking every possible precaution with the Colombian forward, as he suffered a serious knee injury earlier in the year.
Once the danger of Falcao's runs was removed, Everton found it easier to press forward. And this was exacerbated when van Gaal replaced Antonio Valencia for former Everton star Marouane Fellaini in the 79th minute. The Ecuadorian winger had put in a supremely efficient performance replacing the injured Ander Herrera on the right side of the midfield diamond. Valencia is a traditional winger by trade, and the new position had him tucked inside more, along with the constant responsibility to cover for fullback Rafael da Silva's runs down the right flank.
After Fellaini's arrival, United's shape seemed to disintegrate. Everton kept pressing forward, and they were getting closer and closer to an equalizer. Pivotal for this Everton surge was Leon Osman coming in for the ineffective McGeady. In the last ten minutes of the game, it was Osman who drove two very good efforts towards the United goal, only to see de Gea stave them off.
High drama was reached in the final minute of the game. Everton was given a free kick just outside of the left side of the box, and after Baines drilled in his cross, Gareth Barry seemed to have a clear shot on goal from six yards out. This is when 20-year-old Tyler Blackett (who had come in earlier for the injured and ineffective Luke Shaw) threw his body into Barry's shot, blocking it with his backside. The rebound found its way towards the man who had scored last year's game-winner for Everton, Bryan Oviedo, and his fantastic first-time shot seemed destined to break United's heart. However, David de Gea produced a simply sublime save, flying across goal with incredible speed and seemingly with Superman's X-ray vision, given that many players obstructed his view of the shot. Moments later, the match was over, and every person wearing a United shirt could once again breathe easily.
Most relieved had to be Louis van Gaal, since United had won consecutive matches for the first time during his reign. Winning is once again becoming a habit at Old Trafford, even if it has to come with significant dramatic flair. As an added bonus, United sit now in fourth place in the standings.
As for Everton, the Toffees find themselves just two points clear of the relegation zone, and can claim the dubious distinction of having the worst defense in the English Premier League.
So many things can change in ten months.