There have been more times over the past few years than most Evertonians would care to remember where they just sat with their head in their hands thinking this just isn’t working. On occasions under David Moyes and, arguably, even more so over the past couple of years under Roberto Martinez, there was almost tangible despair as the minutes ticked by but no action was forthcoming from the touchline or the dugout to address what seemed so obvious from the stands.
Sometimes, of course, there simply were no game-altering options on the bench — in itself a criticism, perhaps, of a failure on the part of the manager to address certain creative needs — but often there seemed to be wilful refusal to change things up. The football equivalent of banging your head against a brick wall.
How refreshing then for an Everton manager to not only have options on the bench but to also have the courage to make significant changes regardless of the stage of the match. If Blues fans needed evidence of Ronald Koeman’s decisiveness, it came seven minutes before half-time of today’s game at The Hawthorns when he withdrew James McCarthy, threw on Romelu Lukaku, abandoned a three-man central defensive formation and, paved the way for a pulsating come-from-behind victory over West Brom.
Make no mistake, what had come before those vital alterations had been dreadfully ineffective from the Everton. With Lukaku held back on the bench because of a lack of match sharpness, Gerard Deulofeu had been tasked with leading the line in a central role, one that soon proved to well beyond him against Tony Pulis’s famously robust back line. The Spaniard had neither the physique nor the desire to use what weight he has to ruffle the likes of Jonas Olsson and Gareth McAuley and it meant Koeman’s side had almost no presence going forward.
By contrast, his opposite “number” at the other end, Salomon Rondon, the quintessential “big attacking unit” threatened a difficult afternoon in store for the Everton defence when he easily rolled Ramiro Funes Mori in the penalty in on the eighth minute to chest down, fire goal-wards and force the first of two excellent saves on the day from Maarten Stekelenburg.
And when the Dutch keeper ended up prone as the resulting corner was swung to the back post, impeded perhaps by the combination of Leighton Baines and Saido Berahino in front of him, McAuley rose largely unchallenged to head home a typical Pulis set-piece goal.
Everton’s response wasn’t encouraging. Operating in a narrow attacking unit, too much of their effort was foundering against the “West Brom wall” that frustrated Martinez on more than one occasion during his time at Goodison Park.
Deulofeu had shown an early flash of promise but mis-controlled an excellent Ross Barkley pass in the third minute that took away the chance to challenge Ben Foster one-on-one, his eventual centre prompting vain calls for a penalty on Barkley by Jacob for an apparent trip.
But the Spaniard was generally too willing to go to ground at the first hint of contact and he was a poor target for the direct balls pinged in his general direction from a midfield seemingly lacking in ideas and options. Barkley, meanwhile, was happy to lay off the safe pass in the interests of ball retention rather than daring to take men on in an attempt to make things happen.
It meant that with less than 10 minutes of the first half to go, Everton had had just one tame Gareth Barry shot from a Baines centre to show for their efforts going forward and the Baggies must have felt they were in for a fairly comfortable afternoon.
The arrival of Lukaku and the switch to 4-4-2 changed things almost immediately. The attack now had a focal point and Mason Holgate, accomplished and assured as a centre half, could now provide some width and penetration as a full back and the home defence suddenly had a lot more to worry about.
The tactical shift also created the conditions for the wonderful, quick passing interchange that carved West Brom open in first-half stoppage time, presenting Mirallas with the opportunity to score the equaliser. Gueye, Lukaku, Barkley and Jagielka all combined on the left side of the box before the Belgian forward was released in behind the back line by Barry and drilled a low shot across Foster and into the far corner.
Though Everton had controlled the possession in the first period, their more effective shape in the second afforded them more territorial dominance as well. And after Stekelenburg had done brilliantly to cover more poor defending by saving from Darren Fletcher, and Deulofeu had seen a shot come off the back post following a Mirallas header, Koeman’s men took the lead.
Mirallas was fouled by Olsson after he had robbed the Swede of the ball in a central area and when the resulting free kick was swung in, Funes Mori rose highest to power a header that looked destined for the top corner until Foster pawed it away for a corner. That set-piece delivery found Holgate whose volley bounced back towards the near post and Barry was on hand to nod inside the upright and send 2,800 Evertonians massed behind the goal into bedlam.
Koeman, who was already preparing the obvious change of Yannick Bolasie for Deulofeu, now had the platform of a lead on which to introduce his new signing and the ex-Palace winger might, with better finishing from his team-mates, have walked off with two assists to show for his first outing for Everton.
First, an impressive burst of acceleration took him away from Jonny Evans into space to whip in a right-footed cross that was inch-perfect for Barkley but he somehow headed half a yard wide of goal. Then, after smashing a shot of his own over the bar at the end of a surging run, he pulled the Baggies’ defence apart and slipped the ball in for Lukaku but Foster was off his line quickly to block the Belgian striker’s shot.
On either side of that latter chance, Ashley Williams came on to replace Mirallas to make his debut and the defensive resilience that the Toffees would need in the closing stages was exhibited first by Funes Mori as he charged down Ricky Lambert’s shot. Phil Jagielka then shut James McClean down as he tried to work an opening in close proximity to Stekelenburg’s goal, ultimately preventing the Irishman from getting any kind of shot off.
A final heart-stopping moment when Holgate was adjudged to have handled outside his own box and Foster came forward for the last set-piece of the game thankfully ended with Jagielka heading clear and the West Brom keeper half-volleying wide from the edge of the box with Stekelenburg scrambling across to cover.
As Koeman acknowledged after the match, The Hawthorns is never an easy place to come so to have not only take three points but to do so from a 1-0 deficit and the kind of position Pulis’s men love to have opponents in so they can shut up shop, was particularly impressive.
He was miffed that his side didn’t take their opportunities to kill West Brom off but there were plenty at the final whistle who felt that last season under the previous regime, Everton might well have buckled in those final stages.
With Koeman still feeling his way into his new job, his transfer business still not complete and some key players still not 100% fit, every point gained is a bonus. In that sense, this was a big result and one that bodes very well for a season that continues to shape up in very optimistic fashion.
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