AFC Bournemouth 1 - 0 Everton
Ronald Koeman himself has been pragmatic enough to acknowledge that his Everton team won’t win every game but, having overseen such a strong start to life at Goodison Park, it’s unlikely he would have expected to witness this kind of performance in a game in which the Blues were expected to do well.
Two defeats in a row, both under-pinned by really poor performances, have brought a swift end to the Dutchman’s honeymoon period at Everton and have thrown up some vexing questions and problems with a squad that still badly lacks sufficient depth.
With a display that was hauntingly familiar to the worst of last season, Koeman doesn’t appear to have the answers yet but he will have learned plenty from a chastening week where supporter expectations will have been realigned and sights will have been lowered.
Given that Everton should have won this fixture last year, that they beat Bournemouth on the two other occasions they faced them in 2015-16 and were coming into the weekend on a four-game winning streak in the Premier League, optimism was high that Koeman’s men could put the EFL Cup stumble against Norwich behind them by getting back to winning ways.
Sadly, they never really got going — almost to a man they looked for the first 45 minutes as though they’d sleep-walked off the team bus — and they paid the price against a Cherries side that was on the top of their game as they carried out what seemed to be a masterful tactical plan by manager Eddie Howe.
In stark contrast to the visitors, who all too often couldn’t get the basics like ball control, foul throws and a simple five-yard pass right, Bournemouth were quick, sharp and hungry and they had registered their intent in no uncertain terms before they eventually took the lead in the 23rd minute.
Ross Barkley’s weak give-away before a minute had elapsed almost ended with Callum Wilson opening the scoring, but he glanced Charlie Daniels’ cross inches wide of the far post. Jack Wilshere would have notched his first Cherries goal had Seamus Coleman not got a crucial deflection on his side-foot shot that carried it onto the face of the crossbar. Then the energetic Jordan Ibe, who tormented Coleman in the early going before the Irishman eventually managed to shackle him a bit more, fired a shot that looked destined for the bottom corner until it, too, took a vital nick off Ashley Williams. That was five minutes before Harry Arter drifted easily past Barkley and shaved the outside of the post with a similar angled shot.
It was worrying just how much control the home side had assumed of the game by the midway point of the first half and just how easily they were retaining it. Everton struggled to get the ball off their hosts and when they did, they invariably gave it straight back. Surely even Junior Stanlislas would have been surprised, though, at just how much space he found himself in 25 yards from goal. With time to line up his shot, he arrowed a 25-yarder into the top corner of Maarten Stekelenburg’s goal to make it 1-0.
Had Everton scored first, as they did at the Vitality Stadium last November and again in March, things might have been different. It certainly would have put a different complexion on proceedings had Barkley not frozen by the penalty spot when an early Yannick Bolasie cross bounced past his feet in the second minutes or had Artur Boruc not pulled off an excellent save to deny Romelu Lukaku eight minutes later. The Belgian met Barkley’s in-swinging free kick with a downward header searching for the corner but the goalkeeper reacted quickly with a firm hand to push it away and Barkley himself then lashed wide after the rebound had been fed back to him.
Starting in spite of an ankle injury, Gareth Barry was visibly off his game and with even Idrissa Gueye looking fallible, the first half made uncomfortable viewing for the travelling fans who had come in fine voice. Barry went closest to equalising before the break, though, when he tested Boruc with a crisp 30-yard shot that the ‘keeper helped over the bar with both gloves.
Apart from a Kevin Mirallas effort that was deflected well wide, Koeman’s side barely threatened otherwise in the final quarter of an hour before half-time during which fireworks — not to mention some decisive action like his early substitutions against West Brom and Sunderland — might have been expected in the away dressing room.
There were no changes after the interval, however, either in terms of personnel or the pattern of the game from Everton, at least until an otherwise well-below-par Coleman whipped a teasing ball in from the right that Barkley met with a firm header that he planted wide of goal.
Two changes from Koeman in five minutes before the hour mark saw Barry make way for Tom Cleverley and the largely anonymous Mirallas go off in favour of Gerard Deulofeu but while Cleverley brought the kind of energy and purpose that the rest of the side had been lacking, the Spaniard offered next to nothing.
After wasting a rare break-away chance with a lame prod forward looking for Lukaku, his only other contribution of note was a dangerous, deep cross that Boruc had to bat away from under his bar in the 64th minute.
If Koeman felt, as he indicated after the game, as though his players’ second half efforts were closer to the level he expected, it was probably due to the fact that they had far more of the ball after half time and were the ones trying carve out the chances as they tried to get back into the game.
With no real creativity or drive in attacking midfield, however, they had no answer to Bournemouth’s suffocating pressing game and with Howe assigning double markers to the Blues’ wingers, Bolasie and then Deulofeu often found themselves boxed off near the touchline, starving the side of width and keeping Lukaku in familiar isolation up front.
Not once did Everton get into the clear behind the home defence during 90 minutes as the Cherries did an impressive job of making the tight confines of Vitality Stadium — it’s five metres longer than the pitch at Goodison Park and just as wide) feel much smaller than it actually is.
When Bolasie threw off his tendency to over-elaborate he was quite effective. He played a one-two with Lukaku on the edge of the box and had a rare sight of goal with quarter of an hour to go but smashed his shot narrowly over. And with the Toffees still in with a chance of grabbing a point right to the end, it was the former Palace winger’s excellent delivery from the right that substitute Enner Valencia just couldn’t react to quickly enough to steer home, his first-time shot flying a yard wide of the far post.
Even after seven matches in all competitions, it’s early days in the Koeman era and the manager and he is still on a learning curve when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses in his team. He can’t fail to have been concerned by the collective malaise that blighted this performance, however. Apart from Stekelenburg, who had little to do apart from pick the ball out of the net and smother an early Wilson chance, and Cleverley who made as much of an impact off the bench as he could, it’s hard to find any positives from any of the other individual performances.
More worrying was the shortage of game-changing options on the bench, with the team’s supposed difference-makers — Barkley, Mirallas, Deulofeu and Bolasie — all letting him down to varying degrees and Valencia again failing to illustrate convincingly what he can offer the team up front. It's for those reasons that talk of a top-four challenge this term have been shown to be wildly fanciful without significant investment in January.
As an opportunity to get things back on track, next Friday’s game against a Palace team that underlined their own resilience and aerial threat by coming back from 2-0 down to beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light now takes on added significance. Hopefully, the manager will use the days in between to ram home some harsh truths and light a fire under some under-performing backsides because he cannot have been pleased at all with what he has seen this past week.
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