Hampered by injuries, suspensions, a dearth of strikers and makeshift XIs featuring young newcomers, Manchester United sit inside the top four, within a win of the top, after three consecutive 1-0 victories. A stutter? This is how thoroughbreds stutter.
That is not to say there is no cause for concern. United have scored just four league goals. And they have only two proven centre forwards, Wayne Rooney and Louis Saha, neither of whom you would wager a metatarsal on that they will have fully fit campaigns.
But as Rooney himself might say, the Big Man is almost back. In fact, he will be back on Wednesday for the Champions League match at Sporting Lisbon. So too will Owen Hargreaves, also absent for this Saturday lunchtime snooze. Gary Neville will also soon return to add guile. And if eking out wins is not what United fans would wish for – this one was sealed by a late surge into the box from Nemanja Vidic to head home Nani's corner – then idling to remain in Premiership contention is a Plan B most rivals would accept.
"It was a battle, really," Sir Alex Ferguson said. (He could have replaced "battle" with "slog" and been more accurate.) "Everton laid down the gauntlet and it was a very aggressive performance by them. They work their socks off. It looked to me like it was going to be a draw to be honest with you, but we got the lifeline with Nemanja's goal. It wasn't a great performance, but it was a decent performance."
Cristiano Ronaldo returned from a three-match ban to start as the right winger, but only nominally, as he roamed across the front line trying to support Carlos Tevez, who in turn was playing just off a lone front man, Ryan Giggs. The Portugal international had one first-half shot deflected. He was also booked in the second period for falling in the box. It was not after the sternest of tackles but neither was it too cynical.
Tevez had one weak header held, and set up Paul Scholes with a deft chip over the top, only for Scholes to blast his volley over. Michael Carrick and Vidic both shot wide. But that was it in 90 minutes: fits and starts of passing play and no end product until Vidic barged in.
"We know that we started the season badly and we lost confidence in the first three games," the Serbian centre-half said. "But now we have three wins and I think in every game we improve a little."
United's afternoon had a low point when Mikaël Silvestre was taken off after his leg had folded beneath him while trying to disposess Mikel Arteta. The Frenchman will miss the rest of the season with cruciate ligament damage.
Paul Scholes, frustrated by United's lack of cutting edge, would have had no complaints if sent off for a second yellow card for scything down Arteta just before the break, having just been booked for dissent. As it was, he stayed on, and just after the interval cleared a shot from Andy Johnson off the line.
Johnson's chance was one of only two with real punch for Everton. The other, an 88th-minute, 25-yard corker from James McFadden, a late sub, was well saved by Edwin Van der Sar. But Everton's manager, David Moyes, had good reason for saying he was "disappointed with the result but not with how we're playing".
Leighton Baines, the left-back signed from Wigan in the summer, was exceptional. A brilliant pitch-length run was cut short by Carrick's foul just outside the area. The free-kick came to nothing. An unimpeded slalom may not have.
Moments later Ronaldo was trying to take the proverbial with a blitz of stepovers when Baines, eye on the ball, stopped him in his tracks, not for the last time.
Moyes, asked about McFadden's chance in light of his midweek heroics for Scotland in Paris, laughed: "He really would have been King of Scotland [for me] if he'd scored."
"Isn't that Fergie?", someone asked.
"Oh yeah," agreed Moyes, ruefully but with respect.
Goal: Vidic (83) 0-1.
Everton (4-4-2): Wessels; Hibbert, Yobo, Lescott, Baines; Arteta, Jagielka, Neville (McFadden, 85), Osman (Pienarr, 74); Johnson, Yakubu (Anichebe, 74). Substitutes not used: Turner (gk), Carsley.
Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Vidic, Silvestre (Nani, 42 [Pique, 85]); Ronaldo, Carrick, Scholes, Evra; Tevez; Giggs (Saha, 63). Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Gibson.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Everton Neville, Pienaar. Manchester United Scholes, Ronaldo.
Man of the match: Baines.
Attendance: 39,364.Reuse content