A clean sheet went some way towards wiping the slate clean. Manchester United's memories of the 6-1 rout in the derby match the previous weekend can never be scrubbed away entirely but Sir Alex Ferguson sent out a side with a different mentality. Anyone expecting hectic entertainment at Goodison Park had not appreciated the scope the United manager has to change both the line-up's personnel and their attitude.

Many will yawn at the clean sheet and the conservative approach that delivered it but that takes no account of the inherent difficulty of meeting Everton on their own pitch. United had not won at Goodison for more than four years. On that occasion Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo were both in the line-up. Ryan Giggs was a mere 33 and Paul Scholes had probably not given a thought to retirement.

Ferguson no longer has assets of that nature and even Wayne Rooney, despite the tally of 11 goals for the club this season, does not visit quite so much terror on opponents as he did in his carefree youth. Such factors would be poignant were it not for the fact that United continue to be formidable and, if any side can track down City, it is likely to be Ferguson's.

Grimness is in the repertoire. On Saturday United were not so much compelled to defend as designed to do so. They could take that approach with complete confidence because Nemanja Vidic was fit to return to the middle of the back four. "We don't want to go without our captain," said the right-back Phil Jones. "His grit and determination rubs off on everyone else."

United had steeliness in all areas. Rather than playing just behind the centre-forward Javier Hernández, Rooney looked more like a central midfielder. By the same token Darren Fletcher sat so deep that he could have been applying for the post of centre-half. Well before the end he got the job. United understood that sheer numbers would deny an Everton side lacking penetration.

This caution might have seemed excessive in a period when these opponents do not look so flinty and, at the weekend, had to do without the injured defender Sylvain Distin. Even so, this was not a moment for whatever gusto does still exist in the ranks. Ferguson's attitude was set out on the team sheet, where a diligent type such as Park Ji-sung had a place and Anderson, so lacking in resistance to City, was not accommodated even on the bench.

The United manager is so adroit that people can underestimate the concerns he faces. It could be said, for instance, that Rio Ferdinand was demoted to the post of unused substitute but the wider issue is his capacity, at 33, to reach the levels of durability and fitness that are essential. Jonny Evans did well in his place and, though the defender had been swamped by City before being sent off, there is no cause to mistrust him against the more mundane sides.

The Everton manager, David Moyes, had a professional's appreciation for watertight United. "I think the aim of today was to get the job done," he said. "They came here and they stopped us scoring. I'm sure they will think they can play better but they have got a clean sheet and it is a good starting point for them.

"There will be spells in the season when you are not quite at your best. How do you get a win? How do you get through it? Maybe United are going through one of those spells now. It's how you come out of it. In the past United have tended to come out of it and they go on and win the league."

It was gentlemanly of Moyes to ponder the opposition when he has quite enough to think about at Everton. Leighton Baines came close to equalising when he hit the bar with a free-kick and the United goalkeeper David de Gea was in action now and again but there was nothing so sharp as the break on the left from United that culminated in Hernández turning home a low cross from Patrice Evra in the 19th minute.

Although there are topics that tend to be avoided in the interests of preserving the image of the Premier League, Moyes was briefly frank about the real differences of circumstance. "I find it hard to say and I hate myself for saying it," he admitted, "but the bit we were missing needs money to buy it. That's the thing. The outstanding scorers and creators are out of the price range of most clubs and even United have to be careful with their money by comparison with City."

Ferguson has paid high fees in his time and, while he may be outspent by the current League leaders, the manager, like Moyes, will go on making the most of the means at his disposal.