Manchester City 1 - 1 Everton
It’s fair to say that this trip to the Etihad coming out of the international break had been approached by Evertonians with a mixture of trepidation and anticipation. Boasting a 100% record at home in all competitions and already many people’s pick to the win the Premier League title in Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge, Manchester City looked formidable over the first six weeks of the season.
Tottenham’s impressive stifling of their attacking rhythms combined with Celtic’s exposé of their defensive frailties offered evidence, though, that the Spaniard’s men were far from invincible and, for a few tantalising minutes of today’s game, a stunning victory beckoned Everton following Romelu Lukaku’s excellent break-away goal.
Unfortunately, Ronald Koeman’s side hadn’t caught City on an off day and with Kevin de Bruyne back in the starting XI and Sergio Agüero coming off the bench to offer his potency in their attack, Everton had to be on top of their game defensively and faultless at the back if they were to pull off a surprise.
Despite two uncharacteristic blunders by Phil Jagielka and thanks to the goalkeeping heroics of Maarten Stekelenburg , they almost managed a shock victory but they were punished for one of the rare occasions where they afforded David Silva too much room and left substitute Nolito unmarked to plunder the equaliser.
This was an excellent result for the Toffees, though. The giddy optimism that greeted the four successive wins following the opening-day draw with Spurs had given way to the harsher reality that bit against Bournemouth and Palace, revealing the flaws and areas for improvement in Koeman’s side. So, while there is something to be said for argument that a team with top-four ambitions should be able to go anywhere and win, Everton still aren’t quite at that level.
For most of the first 20 minutes of this contest, it looked as though it was going to be a very long and difficult afternoon for Everton. Oviedo was struggling in vain to contain Leroy Sané and Koeman’s men were pinned back into their own half at times, unable to make the ball stick beyond the halfway line. Indeed, there were times where the ease with which City could move the ball and the movement that made it possible were quite depressing.
It didn’t help that apart from a spell after the five-minute mark, where successive crosses from the Blues’ right were blocked and a move that leed to Lukaku sailing a free kick well over Claudio Bravo’s bar, Everton were giving the ball up so easily. Koeman had stressed his preference for the occasional direct ball forward over pointless possession — the visitors would have just 28% of the ball over the 90 minutes — but too often it just meant it coming right back in the form of more City pressure.
While Everton toiled to find an outlet ball, Guardiola’s side, by contrast, always seemed to have a man over and they swarmed around the box at times probing for weakness. It was to the Blues’ credit, however, that their hosts were restricted during that first quarter of the game to a De Bruyne shot from 20 yards that deflected over off Oviedo’s blocking challenge, a low Raheem Sterling effort that was diverted into Stekelenburg’s arms and a penalty claim by Sane when he felt contact from Oviedo’s boot in the box which referee Michael Oliver waved away.
A tactical shift by Koeman midway through the first period, however, eased the situation. Having guessed correctly that Guardiola would field a back three, Koeman had initially set out with Lukaku, Yannick Bolasie and Gerard Deulofeu in attack but he modified his formation to allow the latter two to drop off and abandon the high press that had been largely ineffective given City’s passing prowess.
That didn’t preclude either wide player from getting forward and it was clear that there were possibilities for Everton on the counter-attack if they could just manage some composure when the opportunities presented themselves. The best in the first half came shortly before the half-hour mark after David Silva had flashed a shot from the edge of the box narrowly over at the other end but Deulofeu spurned a three-on-two break when his ball forward searching out Bolasie only found the feet of Nicolas Otamendi.
What had been a study in the the differences in how two teams can use and keep the ball was heading into the interval goalless when City were handed the chance to break the deadlock three minutes before half-time. Wriggling among the feet of three yellow shirts in the Everton penalty area, Silva eventually jinked his way past Jagielka and was tripped when the captain dangled an ill-advised leg behind him in a lame attempt to check his progress to goal.
De Bruyne stepped up and drove for the right-hand side of the goal from his perspective but Stekelenburg guessed correctly and beat the shot away superbly. Honours even at the break and a half the job well done by Everton because defensively they had been excellent.
To a man, the defensive in front of Stekelenburg had stuck doggedly to their shape and done their best to harry anyone that moved in a sky blue shirt once he crossed the halfway line, and that pattern continued into the second half. Ashley Williams, in particular, was immense at the heart of defence and he had to be, particularly in the few minutes before both sides made their first substitutions in the 55th minute.
The former Swansea defender had been forced to slash a couple of low crosses behind for a corner, while Stekelenburg remained alert to divert Iheanacho’s attempted flick behind at his near post. At the other end, Deulofeu’s last significant involvement before making way for James McCarthy was to force the first and only save from Bravo with a rasping shot that the Chilean palmed over.
It was a rare opening for Everton who, with so little of the ball, were increasingly relying on something special on the counter-attack if they were going to breach City’s goal. It arrived in the 64th minute courtesy of Lukaku who proved that despite being isolated at times and inconsistent in his ability to hold the ball up, he sometimes only needs one opening to score.
Bolaise went for a ball out of defence down Everton’s left, pulling Stones across the halfway line with him and the Congolese international did enough to help the ball on and release Lukaku to romp towards goal with Gael Clichy trying manfully to keep up. The Belgian powered past him, drew Bravo and then whipped a perfectly-placed left-foot shot inside the far post to spark bedlam in the away end.
The 26 remaining minutes represented an eternity through which to hold on to the precious lead but, by scoring first, it had put Everton into an excellent position to at least grab a point. And so it proved, although when another poor tackle by the otherwise impressive Jagielka gifted Agüero the opportunity to score from 12 yards where De Bruyne had failed and Stekelenburg guessed right again and parried his penalty to safety, it felt like maybe it might be the Blues’ day. That feeling was reinforced when the Dutch ‘keeper pawed away a shot from Agüero at full stretch following the resulting corner.
That it wasn’t to be a famous Everton win owed much to one of the few occasions where they switched off and allowed Silva the freedom of City’s left flank and he swung in a cross that Nolito, doubling up on Jagielka with Agüero, ghosted onto to plant a header past Stekelenburg to make it 1-1.
Again, though, credit Everton — not to mention their towering Dutch ‘keeper — for maintaining their concentration and not allowing the match to be turned on its head from there. With the hosts still kept largely at arm’s length, it would have taken a world-class intervention from De Bruyne to win it and he almost provided it with nine minutes to go after Everton gave up the ball following a Seamus Coleman throw-in. It was quickly moved to the Belgian midfielder and his rattled off a quick shot that was rocketing into the top corner until Stekelenburg finger-tipped it brilliantly onto the post.
As many have said in the aftermath of the game, not many teams will go to the Etihad and get anything this season so the result and the performance that underpinned it speaks to the impact that Koeman has had, his powers of motivation and organisation, and his tactical acumen. The key to results likes these, however is to build on them and in that respect, next weekend’s trip to Burnley will be just as important.
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