Everton 1 - 0 Stoke City
One of the highlights of Roberto Martinez’s first season in charge may have been the proclamation from Evertonians that the School of Science had been re-opened following 11 years of Moyesian pragmatism, but any scientist would tell you that a body’s molecular make-up is everything when it comes to suitability and survivability in a given environment.
Among the deficiencies of Martinez’s tenure that were eventually exposed was defensive fortitude and while Ronald Koeman probably still harbours hopes of adding some silk to his team before Wednesday’s transfer deadline to add to the mercurial Yannick Bolasie, it’s the addition of some much needed steel that under-pinned this hard-fought win over Stoke City.
Everton could, and probably should, have won what ended up being an unsettlingly tight contest by a wider margin than 1-0.; however, where their execution in the final third failed them or when Shay Given proved immovable, it was their more formidable rearguard that helped them secure three valuable points in a match that might easily have got away from them under the previous regime.
Koeman’s back line may have lost a potential England star in John Stones but in Ashley Williams it has gained a gritty leader and in Mason Holgate a player who is quickly assuming the mantle of future Goodison Great that his former Barnsley club-mate once occupied.
The Welsh skipper almost scored on his Premier League debut for the Toffees when he was denied in the first half by Peter Crouch hooking his downward header off the line but he was a defensive bulwark alongside Phil Jagielka against Stoke’s physical outfit.
Holgate, meanwhile, not only defied his height disadvantage by reducing Peter Crouch’s aerial influence at times but, more importantly, shackled the Potters’ star man , Marco Arnautovic, in impressively precocious fashion. The Austrian wriggled out of the 19-year-old’s pocket on just two occasions all afternoon and nearly provided the equaliser on both occasions.
In front of a four-man back line rounded out by a rejuvenated and more focused Leighton Baines, meanwhile, was Idrissa Gueye, a player who could easily end up being the summer’s best value-for-money signing in the Premier League based on his early outings in a blue jersey. Displaying an energy and verve to hunt the ball down and break up the opposition’s forward momentum, the Senegalese midfielder worked brilliantly in tandem with Gareth Barry.
Koeman is hard to please, though, and you could see why he wasn’t completely satisfied despite gaining what was an important home win over a difficult side to break down. Everton started brightly, faded a bit as Stoke gained a footing in the match but then gained the ascendency in what became a really entertaining encounter despite there being no goals in the first period. They held enough of the initiative to have put the game to bed in the second half but weren't quite clinical enough.
Kevin Mirallas’s neat heel flick to set up left-foot shot that Given comfortably saved was an early indication of the Blues’ attacking threat but the home side’s play became a little untidy and overly reliant on the diagonal ball forward until the midway stage of the first half when things started to click.
A sharper Romelu Lukaku might have done better with his first real opening in the 21st minute when he showed great anticipation to get behind Geoff Cameron and collect a long ball but his touch to take it past the defender forced him too far back inside towards the “D” and his eventual right-foot effort was kicked away from the danger zone by Ryan Shawcross.
Then, shortly after Crouch’s intervention to deny Williams, Barkley’s header back across goal almost forced a catastrophic error by Shawcross but the defender planted a reflexive header into his goalkeeper’s arms. And Mirallas tested Given again following a driving Ross Barkley run with a rasping shot from the edge of the area that the Irishman beat away.
Given their increasing potency, the half-time whistle that blew following a Mirallas over-head kick that bounced just wide wasn’t greeted with all that much enthusiasm by the home side but they carried that momentum into the early part of the second half and had gained the crucial advantage within five minutes of the restart.
Barkley screwed a cross-cum-shot across the face of Given’s goal and inches past the far post in the 48th minute and less than 60 seconds after that, Lukaku and Holgate combined superbly with a one-two interchange inside the Stoke area. The Belgian latched onto the young defender’s knock-on but his shot was blocked behind for a corner at the near post.
At the resulting set-piece, Williams was tripped, unwittingly it would appear from television replays, as he cut towards the near post by Phil Bardsley and referee Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. If the penalty award was somewhat fortuitous, there was also plenty of luck about Baines’s spot kick which Given turned onto the post but couldn’t prevent from ricocheting back into his net off his head.
The goal didn’t precipitate further dominance or goals from the Blues as Stoke upped their intensity going forward in search of an equaliser. That they didn’t get one in the 58th minute was largely down to another crucial intervention by Maarten Stekelenburg. The Dutchman made himself big to shepherd Arnautovic away from goal and then got enough on the Austrian’s shot to carry the ball onto the face of the crossbar whereupon Baines slammed it clear of danger from his own goal line.
Bolasie’s pass inside set Barkley up for a decent shot on target that Given was again equal to in the 64th minute and the Irish ‘keeper had to be at his best again 13 minutes after that when the Blues’ No.8 was slipped in behind the defence but his shot was beaten away again with the angle to the net closed off.
A minute later at the other end, Stoke’s last real opening went begging as Arnautovic popped up free in the Everton area again and just needed to roll it square for Jonathan Walters to hammer home but his pass just eluded the toe of the substitute and the Blues survived.
Having introduced Arouna Kone for Mirallas with 20 minutes to, Koeman was now taking measures to batten down the hatches by withdrawing Barkley in favour of Ramiro Funes Mori and then Bolasie for the more defensively-minded Tom Davies.
Though there were some nail-biting moments in the closing stages when the visitors won a couple of set-pieces, it was a strategy that worked in preventing Stoke from making any real inroads into the Everton defence, even after Bojan Krkic had come off the bench in Hughes’s vain hopes of engineering an equaliser.
There may have been elements of fortune about the win and had it not been for Stekelenburg the points might have got away from Everton but there can’t many fans who wouldn’t take a narrow win over an uncompromising team like Stoke any day of the week.
Yes, the margin of victory could have been greater with more composure up front but Lukaku is clearly still feeling his way back to full fitness and match-readiness because not all his synapses were firing. He seemed to want too much time at the vital moment and his decision-making, particularly when Mirallas was in better positions ahead of him, was a little suspect but his hold-up play was good and he put in a decent shift overall. That sharpness will come over time but he will want to end a goal drought that stretches back to March as quickly as possible.
The international break may prove useful for him in that regard and the extra days will also give Koeman more time to work with the team to fine-tune what is already looking to be better, stronger, more well-rounded outfit than the one that finished last season in such absymal fashion. Add some new faces before the window to complete the summer’s transfer business and things should be looking very bright indeed for Everton in 2016-17.
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