West Bromwich Albion 1 - 2 Everton
"9:30am? Is it early kick off or something?" texted Ritchie in reply to my suggestion that we set off for the trip to West Brom pretty early. I'd learnt on Twitter that, with the V Festival on, the M6 was likely to be more of a car park though Ritchie wasn't convinced. We eventually settled on leaving at 10:15am, or at least we were supposed to. I forced the issue by turning up at Ritchie's at 10am to "save him the bother of coming to pick me up". The reality was I wanted to ensure we left in good time and Ritchie saw through me no doubt.
I spared him the "I told you so" talk as we crawled through the roadwork traffic on the M6. We made reasonable time navigating through it. Checking ahead on Google maps it showed some very heavy traffic deeper down the M6. We planned to pull off the motorway onto the A34 to cut out the traffic but I ended up misdirecting the turn. Thankfully it all turned out OK, and just as we were on the tip of the heavy traffic, we pulled off, navigating towards Dudley and rejoining the motorway just in time to pull off for West Bromwich. It was one of our prouder traffic-decision-making moments, and we parked up at the cushy car park just off the ring road so we could make a quick getaway later. Arriving at the pub at 12:45pm, we were pretty satisfied with our work thus far.
The pub, the Royal Oak, though busy, offered quick service and decent food. It was a perfect resting point where we watched Manchester City make light work of next week's opponents, Stoke City, before walking on to The Hawthorns amongst singing Evertonians.
We were into the ground and at our seats quickly enough with the away fans in fine voice. Everton unchanged in their new yellow kit and attacking the Birmingham Road End at the opposite side of the ground in the first half.
Though we started reasonably enough, we were behind quickly enough... as early as the 9th minute in fact. Maarten Stekelenburg did particularly well to stop Salomon Rondon's effort on the goal after Ramiro Funes Mori allowed his fellow South American to escape his attentions too easily. From the resulting corner, however, Gareth McAuley headed in comfortably. Stekelenburg went down quite easily once the corner was played, presumably expecting to be able to con the referee into awarding a free kick but Neil Swarbrick, who officiated well I thought, wasn't fooled and West Brom were ahead.
The sequential 30 minutes were very poor indeed. We had no focal point in attack and our shape wasn't right at all. I was even saying to Ritchie on about 20 minutes that we should cut our losses with this and get Romelu Lukaku on, and thankfully it wasn't long before Ronald Koeman had seen enough and on came the Belgian on 38 minutes. By this point, all we had offered was a Gareth Barry effort which was comfortable for Foster, and though not directly involved in the goal, the change in formation that accommodated Lukaku paid dividends when, in stoppage time, Ross Barkley set up Kevin Mirallas who rolled the ball past Ben Foster for a vital pre-break equaliser.
We went into the break buoyant and our tails were noticeably up in the second half; we were right into West Brom from the off. Our retention of possession and pressing up the field was a joy to watch and the way the game was going, it wasn't really a surprise when Everton went ahead to the delight of the travelling fans. A corner kick somehow found its way to the nerveless Mason Holgate who volleyed back towards goal. I'm not entirely sure what happened but the ball seemed to kick up and was attacked at the near post by Gareth Barry who jubilantly bulleted a header into the net on his 100th Premier League appearance for Everton. Definitely a "get in" moment.
Livewire debutant Yannick Bolasie was unfortunate not to claim an assist on his debut from the substitute bench when he darted past the West Brom full back as if he wasn't there and put in a pinpoint cross which Ross Barkley powerfully headed narrowly wide.
That, or Lukaku's miss, would have sealed the game, but as is the Everton way, we were put under the microscope in the closing stages when West Brom worked us hard with set pieces, the final action of the game being an impressive Ben Foster volley from the edge of the penalty area which drifted wide.
It took a little while to leave the stadium as the players lapped up the applause from the Smethwick End but we were away soon enough and on the road back in no time. The return journey was much easier than the outward and we were back before 7:30pm.
So what have we learnt so far about Ronald Koeman? Well I like that he isn't one to wait. Under his predecessor it seemed substitutions were almost always premeditated. We would sometimes even joke as we got to about 68 minutes that the "Deulofeu sub was only two minutes away" under Roberto Martinez, and wouldn't be surprised when it then happened. Koeman's willingness to change what he doesn't like and react to situations is very refreshing, and without his bullishness, we would not have won this game.
A great result and it's great to have that positive feeling back. Actually, when did we last have it?
Stekelenburg: He made two excellent saves (though we conceded immediately from one of them) and seems a very good shot stopper. I want to see the goal again to see what he was playing at, and if I am to be critical of his play I would say his kicking isn't brilliant and his distribution can be slow and laboured. Regardless, from what I've seen so far, he's the best goalkeeper we've had for a few years now. 7
Baines: I thought he was a little off colour last week but he was certainly full of energy this time and had a busy and productive game throughout. 7
Funes Mori: The weak link at the back, I would suggest, and I imagine he will be nudged out of the team to be replaced by Ashley Williams over the coming weeks and months. Unlucky not to score with his second-half header and, though he is always a handful in the opposition penalty area, his defensive frailties remain a concern to me. 6
Jagielka: Solid enough defensively though distribution as average as ever. 7
Holgate: His defensive composure belies his 19 years. When James McCarthy made way, he was asked to get further forward from right back. Though not his natural game and though he isn't the type of full back likely to beat a man, he gave it everything and seldom put a foot wrong. A great effort. 8
McCarthy: Didn't necessarily do a lot wrong, but something had to change and, given it is not really his position out on the right, it was the obvious decision to replace him. These are untested waters for James as he's never really not been one of the first names on the teamsheet in his career. I would say he is definitely worth keeping as it's another midfield option should we lose Barry or Gueye to injury or suspension, but he must be wondering where his Everton future lies at the moment. 5
Gueye: He already seems to have hit a level for which we have come to expect. He's a great defensive midfielder who will provide nuisance value to any opposition. An excellent signing. 8
Barry: A terrific display from Gareth Barry and he's already shown in his two games so far this season that he is far from finished yet. 8
Barkley: A bit hit and miss... though Ross often is. Missed a decent opportunity to seal the game though thankfully it didn't come back to bite us. 6
Mirallas: Somehow we all seem to expect a big season from Kevin Mirallas and he has been right on the money so far. He put in quite a shift at the Hawthorns and grabbed a goal in a very strong display. Long may it continue. My Man of the Match. 8
Deulofeu: Improved massively when moved to the wing but struggled up front. 6
Lukaku (for McCarthy): Though he didn't perform near his best, his presence alone gave West Brom so much more to think about. It was pleasing to read that Koeman has stated that Lukaku will stay for another season at least. I can see him scoring a lot of goals with Bolasie in the team. 5
Bolasie (for Deulofeu): What a player he looks! I don't know how consistent he can be with his performance levels but, if he can play like he did here, he will cause many teams big problems. A fine debut. 8
Williams (for Mirallas): Settled into the back line nicely. 6
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