Everton 1 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur
When Ronald Koeman gave the frank assessment that his squad was 70% of where it needed to be in terms of fitness for the start of the season, some pondered whether the Dutchman was employing some mind games ahead of today’s game against Tottenham Hotspur.
In any case, his opposite number Mauricio Pochettino claimed not to have been tuned into the Koeman’s pre-match press conference but it’s clear that Everton’s new manager is a refreshingly straight talker – he meant exactly what he said. The yardstick was always going to be relative to what he perceived to be the ideal level he wanted his new charges to be and the evidence that the Blues aren’t ready for the way he wants them to play was stark in the second half of this 1-1 draw.
You suspect that had he had another two weeks — and a couple more signings — behind him, Everton might have won this game; as it was, despite missing two key players in the form of Romelu Lukaku and Seamus Coleman through injury, they preserved a valuable point against a team that finished third last season and was at full strength today.
Those two absentees required a degree of improvisation from Koeman, with Gerard Deulofeu deployed as the furthest man forward, ably supported by Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley, while James McCarthy was handed a wing-back role to the right of a central trio of Ramiro Funes Mori, Phil Jagielka and debutant Mason Holgate.
It was a system that seemed to serve the Blues well as they carried out a clearly apparent strategy of pressing from the front and permitting the visitors to have the ball until they got to Everton’s defensive third. At that point, blue shirts would collapse the spaces, choke off attacks by Pochettino’s side and spring onto the counter-attack
And for all but five minutes of the first period, they were operating in that mode to both defend a one-goal and attempt to add to it thanks to Barkley’s wickedly-struck free kick. Mirallas had been chopped down by Victor Wanyama not far from the Spurs penalty area and Barkley whipped in the kind of set-piece delivery that give goalkeepers nightmares. Unsure if an Everton player would get a decisive touch in front of goal, Hugo Lloris was forced to hesitate, allowing the ball to bounce past his despairing dive and into the far corner.
With less than five minutes on the clock, it represented a terrific start for the home side and they’d almost doubled their advantage before a quarter of an hour had elapsed when, first, a great ball from Gareth Barry found Deulofeu but he scuffed his shot somewhat and it was easily saved. Then, another Barkley free kick from another foul on Mirallas by Wanyama picked out Jagielka on the edge of the box and Lloris had to palm his looping header over the crossbar.
Despite the slight apprehension in the air before kick-off at the lack of transfer activity and those injury concerns — Coleman in particular is a blow as he will be out for what Koeman termed as “several weeks” — Everton were well on top in the first 45 minutes and Pochettino’s much-vaunted outfit were restricted to just a Christian Eriksen shot that was comfortably gathered by Maarten Stekelenburg in the 27th minute.
Again, much was owed to the strict adherence to a defensive shape, a fevered desire to win the ball in the middle of the park and at the centre of it all was another player making his official Goodison Park bow, Idrissa Gueye, who had one of the most exciting debuts in memory.
Early comparisons with one of last season’s standout stars at Leicester, N’Golo Kanté, based on last weekend’s friendly with Espanyol were well-founded — the Senegalese midfielder was a revelation in front of the back four and an easy pick for man of the match with his uncanny ability to repeatedly shut the door on Spurs.
Of course, as was a constant theme last season under Martinez, the fear was that without turning their attacking superiority into more goals, Everton could rue not taking their chances before the half-time interval. The two best fell to Mirallas and Deulofeu respectively, although neither were easy, particularly the one that fell to Mirallas after the Spaniard had played him in superbly but, faced with an almost impossible angle, his shot was blocked behind for a corner.
Deulofeu’s, which came as a result of impressive anticipation of an ill-advised Jan Vertonghen backpass, was better but Michel Vorm, on only six minutes earlier for Lloris who sustained a hamstring injury, closed the angle smartly, gave the Everton forward very little to aim at, and saved with his legs.
Though the Blues would initially continue in the ascendancy early in the second period and great work by Barkley put Deulofeu in again before an excellent covering tackle by Eric Dier denied him, the match pivoted around the hour mark when Spurs equalised and, physically, Everton seemed to hit a wall.
An old Achilles heel from the past few seasons reared its head in the 59th minute when Kyle Walker swept a cross in from the right and Holgate couldn’t prevent Erik Lamela from stealing in front of him to steer a header past Stekelenburg.
It was a harsh moment for the young defender who had, a couple of examples of nervy distribution aside, looked very assured on his senior debut up to that point. It’s also a moment he will undoubtedly learn from over time.
Koeman turned to his bench a few minutes later but the feeling that there was little there that could improve on starting XI was validated as neither of Arouna Kone — a waste when he replaced the exhausted Deulofeu and offered nothing by way of an attacking outlet — or Aaron Lennon — industrious but, again, largely ineffective in an attacking sense after he came on for Mirallas — made much of an impression.
Instead, the momentum shifted irrevocably in Tottenham’s direction and but for Stekelenburg, who made two outstanding saves, the Londoners might have won. First the Dutchman made a point-blank stop to deny Vincent Janssen a goal on his Premier League debut in the 80th minute and then surpassed that with a quite brilliant reaction to swat Lamela’s deflected shot over his bar three minutes later.
Those twin interventions arguably preserved a point and gave Everton their fourth opening-day draw in succession. While important, the enormous psychological boost of avoiding defeat could prove to be more important than the point in the long run — an injury-hide side shorn of their top goalscorer and running at 70% capacity managed to hold off one of the teams likely to be challenging in the top four this season through a combination of discipline, tenacity and sheer hard work, a far cry from a few months ago when Goodison was enveloped in despair.
Of course, there were some frustrating aspects like some of the decision-making at times by the forward three and Barkley’s relative anonymity will give Koeman something to work on with the England international in the coming weeks. But with the manager still looking to land more signings that could take his team to another level by the end of the window and so much evidence of the style of play he wants to bed in at Goodison, things are looking very promising for the season.
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