Sir Alex Ferguson promised a response from Manchester United after their derby disarray last Sunday, although, disappointingly, it was Everton who failed to find one in this tame encounter.

The United manager also suggested it would be a hard game – but it was not. Unusually in the recent history of this fixture, Everton went a goal down and could not come up with a reply. There was no fightback, no stirring of supporters' passions to set the old ground rocking, just a quiet acceptance of the fact that, even playing within themselves, United were strong enough to take the three points.

Everton do not normally lose all of their feistiness when Tim Cahill is not playing but, with Louis Saha having one of his less impressive games against his former club, the home side looked too toothless to trouble United. David Moyes has done amazingly well over the years to produce competitive sides with the most meagre of resources, but either the midweek battle against Chelsea had taken too much out of his players or the law of diminishing returns is catching up with Everton.

Moyes could only look on enviously at the riches at Ferguson's disposal when the United manager sent on Nani, then Dimitar Berbatov and, finally, Antonio Valencia to increase his attacking options. If he could take a sliver of pride from the fact none of those substitutions made much difference, it was only a sliver. While Everton usually save one of their best performances of the season for United, this time they never really got going.

"United were resilient, we couldn't break them down," Moyes said, in a fair summary of the game. "I don't think we would have been flattered by a draw. United created very few chances, but we just lacked that bit of quality in the final third of the pitch.

"We've had a tough run of matches and, although we have lost the last two, I don't think I can criticise the lads after going toe to toe with Chelsea and then United. I've got to praise them for the way they worked, I felt we could have got something out of both games, and we can take confidence from that."

Ferguson's players were barely recognisable as their old selves, either, although quality in the final third of the pitch is something that rarely deserts them. Wayne Rooney played so deep in midfield he spent the majority of the game in his own half and, once ahead, United did not stir themselves to look for more. They did not quite sit back and concentrate on protecting a single-goal advantage – that would have been too far out of character – but they played with a conservatism that was untypical, as if chastened by the results of over-committing themselves last week. Ferguson confirmed as much afterwards, when he accepted that United had been allowing opponents too many chances of late and withdrawing Rooney to reinforce midfield was one way of doing something about it.

With Rio Ferdinand dropped to the bench after the defeat by Manchester City and Javier Hernández operating as a lone striker, United broke the deadlock after 19 minutes without needing to raise their tempo. Everton were allowing them to pass the ball around more or less as they wished and when Danny Welbeck rolled a pass out to Patrice Evra, on the left, his centre went over Rooney's head, but was deftly tucked away with a left-foot volley by Hernández, unchallenged at the far post.

It was all a little too easy for United, who slackened off their attacking efforts for the rest of the first half and allowed Everton to get forward more, safe in the knowledge that the home side lacked any real goal threat.

Leon Osman might have done better than shoot straight at David de Gea when a decent chance came his way from Marouane Fellaini's knockdown, while Saha again aimed at the goalkeeper with the last kick of the first half, although, significantly, the only time United were worried was from a set piece. Leighton Baines struck De Gea's bar with a free-kick from a couple of yards outside the area, with the goalkeeper a mere spectator.

Everton were slightly better in the second half, which Jack Rodwell opened by bringing an athletic save from De Gea, even if the diving goalkeeper suffered the indignity of keeping the ball out with his face instead of his hands. Tim Howard was also required to make a save at the other end when Hernández's splendid crossfield pass found Welbeck in full stride.

Apart from Tom Cleverley pulling up injured before the end, a fate that also befell one of the referee Mark Halsey's assistants, the game was incident and excitement free. An anodyne afternoon, which is not what anyone had been expecting.

"The most pleasing aspect for me was winning 1-0," said Ferguson, completing a strange day at the office.

"We defended well in the second half and David de Gea didn't really have that much to do. Everton put in a lot of crosses, but we managed to get them away and still managed to create the game's best chances. Maybe we rode our luck a little bit when Everton hit the crossbar; we were possibly fortunate there because it was a fantastic free-kick."