And Wayne Rooney, of all people, was the man showing them the way forward against his old club.
This encounter was imbued with a sense of sorrow from top to bottom.
The impact of the death of former Everton manager Howard Kendall on Saturday morning, aged just 69, was inescapable. Kendall guided Everton to two league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners Cup during a halcyon spell in the 1980s when they were one of Europe’s finest outfits and Everton, a club with a keen sense of its own history, are devastated.
The 90 minutes that followed caused the mood of Everton’s fans to plummet further.
Well, not quite every Everton fan.
Louis van Gaal had publicly demanded on Friday that Rooney improve his goalscoring return and he did that here, netting for the first time at Goodison Park since April 2007. But by the time he raced through on goal and thrashed past Tim Howard, Everton were already on their knees courtesy of two first-half finishes in the space of four minutes from Morgan Schneiderlin and Ander Herrera.
With CSKA Moscow next up on Wednesday night, United will be looking to harness the positives from this win and Rooney’s finish might be the start of something big for him this season.
“I think he is an example for everybody, not only for his fellow players but also for other players from other clubs,” van Gaal said.
“He is a very social human being and he has a professional attitude. I could not imagine that when I was the coach of the Dutch national before I came to United. I had heard other things but he has shown a fantastic attitude and I am very happy that he scored.
“He is always running in behind at the right moment and that is important. I was not so fast as Wayne and Wayne is not so fast as Anthony Martial but when you go at the right time then you are always faster than your opponent.” United were faster, sharper and better than their opponents all over the pitch.
Rooney started up front in the middle with Juan Mata to the right and Martial to the left, proving again that van Gaal is still keen to tweak and tinker with United’s attacking set-up.
In truth though, he could have put himself on and United would still have won this. Everton were simply dreadful. This was as awful a home performance as you can imagine and an appalling way to pay tribute to the greatest manager in their history.
A quiet start was forgotten when the unmarked Schneiderlin pounced on a deflected Marcos Rojo shot to sidefoot past Howard before Ander Herrera doubled the lead four minutes later, finishing off a fine counter attack by calmly converting Rojo’s accurate cross from the left wing.
The match already felt done and dusted there which was a shame as few venues in world football can be as raucous as Goodison Park when the home side are in need of a goal or two. Yet the ennui in the stands fed onto the pitch and vice versa. Ross Barkley, John Stones and Seamus Coleman were all desperately poor, Steven Naismith was anonymous and Everton had no way or means of getting back into it, although Lukaku could hold his head up high as his muscularity caused Phil Jones and Chris Smalling problems all afternoon.
Following the restart, Everton briefly regrouped and David de Gea denied Lukaku and Barkley well but the game was up when Rooney sped on to a Herrera pass and confirmed the win.
He did not celebrate because of the events surrounding Kendall. But he will know that if he and United keep this up, there will be plenty to smile about in the coming months.
“I can’t speak about five or six years ago, but in my time at Everton it has always been a mutual respect and understanding that he is a phenomenal footballer,” Everton manager Roberto Martinez said.
“Today was disappointing – we have not performed in that manner this season. We have high standards – I think the world of our squad and it is disappointing when we cannot show what we can do.”
Howard 6; Coleman 6, Stones 6, Jagielka 6, Galloway 6; Barry 6, McCarthy 5; Naismith 5 (Kone 45 mins, 6), Barkley 5, Lennon 6 (Deulofeu 73 mins, 6); Lukaku 7
Robles, Mirallas, Osman, Mori, Browning
De Gea 7; Darmian 7, Smalling 7,Jones 8, Rojo 7; Schneiderlin 8, Schweinsteiger 8 (Carrick 74 mins, 6); Mata 7 (Lingard 45 mins, 6), Martial 7, Herrera 7 (Fellaini 81 mins, 5); Rooney 8,
Memphis, Blind, Johnstone, Pereira