Burnley 2 - 1 Everton
Last weekend’s draw at Manchester City was supposed to be the springboard from which Everton could revive a campaign that has started flagging of late; a backs-to-the-wall performance laced with some individual brilliance at both ends of the field to build confidence for games like this at Burnley that they simply dare not lose. Unfortunately — undeserved as it may have been — lose they did.
The early-season optimism that was pervasive on the back of a four-game winning streak and a second-place spot among the front-runners has given way to mounting frustration and acceptance of the fact that Ronald Koeman didn’t simply wave a magic wand to cure the ills that had set in over the past two years.
Five games without a win in all competitions has certainly reset expectations now, with eyes already trained on January to see if the new manager can fill a couple of key roles in the side that are clearly lacking at the moment — namely a player that can pull the strings in midfield and open up opposition defences with a key pass or a moment of magic and another capable of taking some of the burden for goalscoring off the shoulders of Romelu Lukaku.
Yannick Bolasie stepped up at Turf Moor, ironically enough taking the ball off Lukaku, pulling Everton level with almost an hour gone and setting up a push over the final half hour to win the game. With a bit more luck, less determined defending by Burnley and a touch more guile in the final third, Everton might have been celebrating a victory; as it is, fans are left poring over another setback.
That issue of creativity — or the lack thereof — is one that has come to fore over what is a worsening run of results in recent weeks and it was certainly a glaring one in the first half of this game.
Everton started well and had forced Tom Heaton into a save, the first of a number of saves he would have to make over the afternoon, from Kevin Mirallas after he had seized on a defensive error and fired goal-wards from 12 yards out. And the Blues remained on the front foot for most of the first half hour but though they would have Burnley under pressure in both halves, when intensity and pace didn’t suffice, they lacked the ability to carve their hosts open when Sean Dyche pulled his men back behind the ball.
So often, this was a display that was crying out for movement and tempo but the pleas from the travelling fans in that regard would go unanswered for long periods, especially in the first period. Too often, the defence — usually Phil Jagielka, who had his worst game for a long time — had no route out from the back other than a clipped ball forward aimed in the direction of Romelu Lukaku, an agricultural approach that produced mixed results and frequently handed the ball back to Burnley, particularly with no-one running behind looking for the second ball.
Not that the Clarets were able to do much with it. They, too, were overly reliant on their own target man, Sam Vokes, but it was via a rare fluid move along the deck, arguably their best of the half, that they took the lead late in the first half. Scott Arfield, who was fortunate to still be on the field after testing referee Mike Jones to the limit with a series of cynical fouls over and above his yellow card in the preceding 40 minutes, danced past the uncharacteristically lead-footed Ashley Williams and stabbed a weak shot that bobbled off an Everton leg. The deflection wrong-footed Maarten Stekelenburg, however, who could only push the ball meekly into the path of Vokes who had the simple task of prodding it home from close range.
It was a harsh reminder for Everton that you have to make your superiority tell in the form of goals and that you can be punished in the Premier League for switching off even for a moment. The Blues had unquestionably been the better side up to that point, going close when Bolasie finished a move by bicycle-kicking wide, forcing Heaton to parry away a bouncing effort from Lukaku and then a stinging effort from Ross Barkley.
Recalled to the side after sitting out against Manchester City last weekend, Barkley was, on balance, one of the brighter lights for the Blues and he certainly vindicated his inclusion but there were still times where he delayed a pass too long or there just wasn’t enough movement around him to open up lanes for a killer ball.
Having gone into the break a goal down, a robust response was clearly required in the second half and Koeman got it in terms of greater purpose from his charges and a more physical approach to match that of their hosts. Lukaku in particular — the target of further but unwarranted criticism in the wake of what was a very harsh defeat — became more adept at holding the ball up and bringing team-mates into play as Everton swarmed forward at times looking for an equaliser.
It almost arrived when, not for the first time, Idrissa Gueye and Gareth Barry combined to snuff Burnley out in the centre-circle and the ball was sent forward quickly by the Senegalese to pick out Mirallas but his cross was just too heavy for the sliding Lukaku to connect.
A move of similar speed and incision a few minutes later yielded the equaliser, however, when this time Barry collected after Gueye’s interception and sent Bolasie and Lukaku away, with the Congolese international taking the ball off his team-mate and belting a shot across the ‘keeper and into the far corner. The away end erupted in celebration, followed by inevitable renditions of the “Yannick Bolasie” song and clenched-fisted demands that Everton now finish the job.
To be fair, in the context of an abysmal refereeing performance from Mike Jones, who constantly broke up the flow of the game with fussy decisions when he made them and neglected his duty entirely on other occasions, and the limited game-changing options on Koeman’s bench, they made a pretty good fist of attempting to do so.
Coleman combined well with Gueye down the right, skipped inside and looked to have slid a perfect ball behind the defence for Lukaku to tap in but Michael Keane got a crucial toe on the ball to put it behind. Mirallas had a somewhat unconvincing header blocked at the back post and there were a couple of “nearly” moments after Gerard Deulofeu came on for Mirallas where the ball was pinged into the feet of Lukaku in the box but Everton just needed it to break in their favour.
Unfortunately, their intensity died a little in the last five minutes after Gueye went off in favour of Tom Cleverley — the former had spent quite a few minutes intermittently messing with his boot so might have taken a knock — and on another day, the Blues might have left Turf Moor with a draw and some pointers from which to work on following a patchy but occasionally spirited display.
Their inability to deal with another high ball, however, this time from Heaton’s lofted free kick in the 88th minute, and Burnley benefitting from some fortune when Johann Berg Gudmundsson's snapshot came off the crossbar straight to Arfield, condemned them to defeat. The Clarets’ midfielder executed what was, admittedly, a tidy first-time finish back across Stekelenburg’s goal to spark jubilation in three sides of the ground and the rapid emptying of the David Fishwick Stand as demoralised Blues trooped out into the gathering gloom.
While he is under no illusions after two full campaigns in England about the fact that there are no easy games in the Premier League, Koeman will be wondering how Everton lost that game given the extent to which Everton dominated the match and how poor Burnley were. That Dyche’s men managed just three shots on target told its own story but so did the fact that they scored from two of them in terms of the Blues’ defending when it counted.
The Dutchman will be pragmatic, no doubt, about the fact that his side were unfortunate, will file this one away as an undeserved loss and move on to concentrate on getting back to winning ways against West Ham but he will also have gathered further evidence of where he needs to strengthen in January and then next summer beyond. For Evertonians who dared to dream of an instant transformation under the new man based on those early results, the reality that there are few quick fixes and that Koeman was right about his two-year time horizon has set in.
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