What a difference four months make.
That’s one of the more obvious thoughts that come to mind when analysing the contrast between the Everton that trooped off the field at the Stadium of Light just six Premier League games ago having been soundly beaten and the one that romped in the second half this evening to a handsome 3-0 victory.
The scoreline was, of course, completely reversed in Sunderland’s favour at the end of 90 minutes on the last occasion this fixture was played back in May but it’s less the time in between than what the Everton hierarchy did with it that has been so remarkable.
Roberto Martinez was summarily dismissed the day after that chastening evening on Weariside, within weeks Ronald Koeman was installed as his successor and the Dutchman has since set about strengthening — both in terms of numbers and physique — what had become a weak outfit — psychologically and also in terms of fitness — under the Catalan. The transformation has been impressive, with respect to both personnel and the decisiveness from the dugout.
The signs were there from the early minutes of the opening day draw against Tottenham, but in Idrissa Gueye, Everton may well have pulled off the steal of the summer in landing him from Aston Villa for just £7.2m. The Senegalese international might not have been at his disruptive best this evening but he morphed into an altogether more rounded midfield general — part enforcer, part water-carrier, part play-maker and, for the opening goal, the provider of a quite wonderful assist.
In Yannick Bolasie, the Blues now possess a player perhaps equally as unpredictable as Gerard Deulofeu, but with more power and pace to burn past his marker from a standing-start than the Spaniard. He, too, laid on a goal with a terrific delivery into the box after serving up the only clear-cut chance of the first half with a similarly impressive cross, that time from the right flank.
Deulofeu himself, meanwhile, came off the bench to provide the movement and direct running that proved to be the difference between a patchy and often staid performance before half time and a wholly more energetic one in the second half, thereby underscoring the depth in Koeman's squad when it comes to potential difference-makers.
Then there was Romelu Lukaku who was a virtual spectator on his last appearance at the Stadium of Light but who came to life this evening as his team-mates found another gear and an extra dimension in the second half to provide him the ammunition to fire his first Everton goals for six months.
Amid last season’s turmoil, his personal goal drought, the protracted speculation of his future and the fuel he himself has thrown on that particular fire, Lukaku has come in for plenty of criticism this year. He proved once again, however, that when he is fit, mentally on song and the team plays to his strengths he remains a naturally potent goalscorer.
It was he who was on the end of a pin-point Bolasie cross in the first half that might well have handed Everton a 13th-minute lead were it not for an excellent reflex save by Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal. That chance, together with an earlier one where the returning Seamus Coleman’s centre almost fell into his path and another where he managed to get off a shot at the keeper despite the smothering attentions of Lamine Koné, offered portents of what was to come after the interval.
Yet the paucity of clear openings for the Blues in that first half made for frustrating viewing for supporters and manager alike. Everton had by the midway point in the first 45 minutes, established themselves as the dominant side and would restrict their hosts to just two moments of danger — a Jermaine Defoe chance where a deflected shot found him behind the Blues’ back line with just Maarten Stekelenburg to beat but he sliced over the goal, and Lynden Gooch’s curling cross-cum-shot that the Dutchman had to palm over his bar for a corner. But Koeman’s charges were giving the ball away too cheaply, resorting to ineffective direct balls forward that were meat and drink to Kone and Papy Djilobodji, and generally struggling to get anything meaningful going in the final third.
Sadly, in a week where his absence from the England squad and his club manager’s assertion that he needs to now produce for Everton, Ross Barkley was the chief culprit. Profligate in possession, weak in the tackle and slow in both deed and speed of thought, he was the antithesis of what Koeman expects from a player in such an important role and it was no surprise that he was hooked at half time for the second time in succession in this fixture, this time in favour of Deulofeu.
The change in Everton’s play and their penetration was noticeable almost immediately and while the Black Cats would hold out for another quarter of an hour before their goal was finally breached, Everton were already probing for weaknesses.
Bolasie, whose unpredictability had been as much a hindrance to his own team than a weapon against the opposition, was threatening down the left flank and it was his whipped shot that Pickford almost turned into Deulofeu’s path in front of goal in the 48th minute.
Three minutes after that, the same pairing combined when the Spaniard latched onto the Congolese international’s ball over the top. Initially taken wide by a heavy first touch, Deulofeu eventually twisted his way back inside into the box, saw a deflected shot fall to Gueye who quickly laid on to Coleman. The Irishman’s drilled shot missed the target but was almost turned it at the far post by Lukaku.
The long-awaited breakthrough came with an hour gone from a counter-attack following a Sunderland corner at the other end. Everything David Moyes’s men would throw at the Blues’ defence would be repelled in the second half, often by Ashley Williams, but on this occasion it was Lukaku who cleared the set-piece to set Deulofeu on his way. The winger’s fleet feet helped him evade one tackle and then carried him into Black Cats territory where a poor pass looking for Kevin Mirallas was cut out only as far as Gueye who drove forward, used Deulofeu as a decoy and then chipped a delightful ball to the six-yard line where Lukaku had made up the ground to nod a downward header past Pickford.
Sunderland’s most intense spell followed as they searched for a quick equaliser but they were becoming increasingly ragged at the back, where Koné, a summer target for Koeman who very nearly signed for Everton, went from tower of strength to Keystone Cop alongside the increasingly hapless Djilobodji.
Lukaku rolled his marker and hammered a shot off the crossbar that would have doubled his tally had it been just a few inches lower but he would get his second in the 68th minute thanks to Bolasie’s turn of pace down the flank. The winger burned Javier Manquillo for speed to the byline and arced a left-footed cross to the back post where Lukaku had all the time in the world to bury another header.
2-0 became 3-0 three minutes later as Lukaku wrapped up his hat-trick when Mirallas exchanged passes with Deulofeu in the centre-circle before dissecting the Sunderland defence with a perfect through-ball that allowed his compatriot to spring the offside trap and slide the ball past the ‘keeper with unerring confidence. 11 games without a Premier League goal partially atoned for in the space of as many minutes.
Sunderland were a fully vanquished side by this point and Moyes cut a dejected figure in the home dugout as Everton spurned further chances to twist the knife in their former boss. Pickford beat away Bolasie’s powerful drive, Lukaku blazed over with Mirallas perhaps better placed to his left, his late replacement Arouna Koné also had a low shot saved while Deulofeu would almost certainly have scored in stoppage time when he was put completely in the clear by another wonderful ball over the top but his first touch again let him down.
Koeman made made mention of those missed opportunities after the game and he voiced his displeasure at the first 45 minutes but he couldn’t hide his delight at a terrific second-half display. The result lifts Everton into 3rd place and while it’s still early days, Evertonians are daring to dream of a European challenge again on the basis of a five-match unbeaten run in all competitions under the new manager.
Most important is the evidence so far of the success of Koeman’s ethos, his methods and his summer transfer business which has visibly beefed the team up, shored up the defence and injected the kind of attacking options that can turn matches just when it looks like they are shaping up to be a hard slog towards frustration.
It’s a squad that won’t be fully tested until early October when they travel to the Etihad Stadium to face impressive early leaders Manchester City but the key in the interim was always going to be to pick up points, achieve full fitness and gel the new-look team into the sum of its parts that it once promised it could be under Martinez. Confidence will beget performances and the points will take care of themselves. In that respect, this has been a very positive beginning to the Koeman era.
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