Everton 1 - 1 Swansea City
It’s eight games now since Everton’s confidence-inspiring 3-1 win over Middlesbrough took them into second place in the table and had many supporters and observers wondering if a switch had been flipped at Goodison Park – one where the potential locked away in a side that badly under-performed last season was gradually being unleashed by the arrival of Ronald Koeman.
As subsequent performances and results have demonstrated, starting with the defeat at home to Norwich in the League Cup, the Blues may now be harder to beat — that EFL Cup loss and the 5-0 thrashing by Chelsea notwithstanding — but they have found goals and inspiration going forward hard to come by.
Everton have picked up just one victory in those eight matches in all competitions and, far from the broom sweeping away the questionable methods and attitudes of the Roberto Martinez era, there’s a feeling that there is still something fundamentally amiss in the team under Koeman.
It’s got the fanbase eagerly awaiting the January transfer window to see if Koeman and Steve Walsh can unearth the remedy for his team’s malaise but there’s a lot to be said for the argument that a coach of his experience and repute should surely be able to get more out of the squad he has than he currently is.
Or do the issues that became evident over the past two seasons under his predecessor run so deep that an overhaul of the playing staff is the only solution? It’s hard to pinpoint precisely but what is clear is that Everton are playing at the moment without an identifiable style or any discernible pattern.
And there are big question marks over their collective mentality and their apparent inability to really rouse themselves until they’ve fallen a goal behind, usually on the back of a sluggish first-half performance. Today was yet another example; owing the supporters a reaction to their drubbing at Chelsea, Koeman’s players ended up having to be shaken at half-time into a response not only to their lack of reaction to the debacle at Stamford Bridge but also the fact that they had gone into the interval a goal down.
It was all so inevitable given the general lack of thrust and guile that had characterised Everton’s first 45 minutes. Granted, Swansea had come determined to press, harry and generally deny the Blues any space and Bob Bradley’s men deserve credit for the way they went about their business, particularly before half time. But the home team’s lack of movement, fluidity and simple passing options made it a painful watch for the Goodison faithful.
While Martinez’s Everton were guilty of over-passing, they were at least usually able to move the ball through midfield before hitting an invisible wall around the edge of the opposition penalty area. So often Koeman’s version seem unable to move the ball beyond the centre halves, with Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams routinely looking in vain for passing lanes and men dropping deep the pick up the ball.
So it was Swansea, who had a lot less trouble pinging the ball through the centre of the park, who were able to establish the early momentum while Everton struggled to give their subdued fans anything to get excited about beyond Romelu Lukaku’s early sight of goal from the angle four minutes that Lukas Fabianski was equal to with a low save by his near post.
And it was the visitors who came very close to scoring after 17 minutes when Jordi Amat connected with a corner from the right that he glanced inches over the crossbar before the Blues finally started to make some inroads, both times through the mercurial Yannick Bolasie.
The Congolese hammered a 26th-minute cross into the centre that was far too strong for Lukaku to react in time and it bounced off the Belgian and over the bar. Bolasie’s next delivery was weighted better though and Ross Barkley, who had started the move with some silky footwork and powerful running, knocked it smartly past his marker but then fluffed his lines with just the goalkeeper to beat by bouncing his effort a yard wide.
Had that gone in, you suspect the contest might have panned out more like they did in the last home game against West Ham but, instead, things unravelled at the other end thanks to another clumsily-conceded penalty by Jagielka. Gylfi Sigurdsson had wriggled away from the Everton captain but then fell under his awkward challenge leaving referee Martin Atkinson with an easy decision to make in pointing to the spot.
There would be no heroics from Stekelenburg like there were at the Etihad Stadium last month, with Sigurdsson sending the Dutch ‘keeper the wrong way with a confidently-despatched spot kick high into the other side of the net.
Stung into action, what was arguably Everton’s best move of the match a couple of minutes later almost yielded an immediate equaliser when Bolasie was threaded in beautifully by Lukaku but Fabianski stood up well and blocked his shot behind for a corner.
Koeman said after the match that he’d asked his players at the break why they needed to fall behind before they finally started playing and it’s a fair question because they certainly were more purposeful and direct in the second half where it was mostly one-way traffic towards the Gwladys Street End. With Idrissa Gueye back in the side after suspension and easily the standout performer on the pitch, much of what Swansea tried to do in the second period was stymied as the Senegalese intervened time and and time again.
What was worrying, however, was that Everton didn’t create a genuinely clear-cut chance until Seamus Coleman popped up a minute from the end of the regulation 90 to steer a header into the top corner and spare the Blues the agony of a first home defeat of the season.
They would send 37 crosses into the box over the 90 minutes but hardly any of them found an Everton head and only one of them ended with an effort on goal, a laudable effort from Bolasie who rose above his marker but couldn’t get enough power on it to trouble the goalkeeper.
For the rest of the half, Koeman’s men seemed hellbent on demonstrating just how ineffective they can be from dead-ball situations. Corner after corner either sailed straight into Fabianski’s hands, failed to beat the first man or was easily headed clear, while the Pole saved Barkley’s direct free kick fairly easily and Leighton Baines drove another into the defensive wall.
Turning in vain to his bench, Koeman threw on Gerard Deulofeu for Aaron Lennon (who had offered almost nothing) in the 66th minute and then replaced James McCarthy (who had offered almost nothing) with Kevin Mirallas six minutes after that. If you were charitable, you’d say that the Spaniard at least provided a bit more movement and some different energy but he was unable to significantly influence proceedings and, like Bolasie later in stoppage time, he was guilty of poor decision-making when he elected an over-ambitious shot from way out that missed the target by miles when better options were on ahead of him. Mirallas...? Well, he offered almost nothing.
The manager’s final throw of the dice was to pull Jagielka off with four minutes left and bolster his forward line with the addition of Enner Valencia, a move that Sigurdsson almost exploited soon afterwards but was foiled by Stekelenburg. But despite the extra bodies in attack, it didn’t look as though the Blues were any closer to equalising until, out of the blue, they did.
A cross from the right was cleared to Bolasie on the edge of the box, he hooked it into the area looking for Lukaku, Amat was only able to head it into the air and Coleman rose to plant an inch-perfect header past Fabianski’s despairing grasp.
The players and Goodison were energised into a push for a winner in injury time and it almost came when Amat cut out Baines’s cross from the left and the ball fell to Bolasie but the Spanish defender recovered in time to clear the Everton man’s shot that was otherwise destined for the net.
Had that gone in, it would simultaneously have been just reward for Everton’s territorial dominance but also have masked some serious underlying issues that are ongoing impediments to Koeman’s goal of European qualification this season. Most glaring, again, is the absence of a reliable system, of an identifiable pattern of play and a consistent starting XI.
Evertonian eyes are on January but there are eight games — or almost a quarter of the season — between now and the time any new additions could be acquired. It behooves Koeman and his staff in the meantime to redouble their efforts to not only find a combination that is going to yield results during what is now a more demanding schedule until the end of the year but to uncover why there appears to be such a lack of motivation among his charges until they have brought adversity upon themselves.
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