Southampton 1 - 0 Everton
If you’re going to concede the first goal, as Everton have now done seven times in 13 Premier League games, then you can’t really ask for more time to address the situation than 89-plus minutes. And yet, faced again with the need to react, to fight, to show character, Ronald Koeman’s impotent outfit couldn’t muster a sustained response until time was ebbing away in the second half.
Once again, it was too late and the too little came in the form of Gareth Barry’s weak effort in the third minute of stoppage time. It was Everton’s first and only attempt on target in 94 minutes of football (a Yannick Bolasie overhead kick that Fraser Forster saved in the second half wouldn’t have stood after referee Craig Pawson penalised the Congolese for a push) – a neat summation of just how bereft this team of attacking ideas, impetus and threat… as if last weekend’s equally toothless display against Swansea hadn’t already provided one.
Koeman, shown up on his first trip back to St Mary's Stadium since ditching Southampton over the summer, has big problems on his hands. His squad seems immune to whatever powers of motivation he possesses, perhaps aware that having cycled through various options, particularly in attacking midfield and central defence, the Dutchman doesn’t have many alternatives beyond turning to youth, something he appears bafflingly resistant to doing. Here, he kept the same side as the one that started last Saturday, with the exception of Gareth Barry who replaced James McCarthy in central midfield.
His team lacks any fluidity, cutting edge or genuine battling spirit and he has a striker whom he proclaims to be among the best in Europe toiling away with barely any support in a role to which he just isn’t accustomed. Romelu Lukaku’s attitude and body language on the field can be infuriating, as can be his touch when it deserts him (as it did again in this match), and there is no question that he could work harder to create his own opportunities, but he has been embarrassingly starved of service in recent games. A natural goalscorer, he has had two shots on goal in three matches, both of them against Swansea and neither of them routine chances. That’s a massive problem.
So, too, is a defence which continues to struggle defending crosses. Having lost the ball from their own kick-off, Everton failed to deal with one of those deep deliveries from the right that consistently led to goals under Roberto Martinez last season and when Phil Jagielka mis-timed his jump and the ball bounced off Seamus Coleman in front of goal, the result was inevitable. Josh Sims snatched at the loose ball but it fell invitingly to Charlie Austin who couldn’t miss from a yard out. Just 42 seconds had elapsed.
Again, ample time for a team with Everton’s European ambitions and supposed talent to respond and, for a brief spell they actually seized control of the game, playing some neat passing football — increasingly rare under Koeman — albeit almost entirely in front of a well-marshalled and disciplined red and white wall. And when those moves broke down, Southampton seemed able to get behind the Blues’ defence at the first time of asking, as Nathan Redmond did in the 17th minute to pick out Sims in the centre but the youngster couldn’t get enough power on his header to trouble Maarten Stekelenburg.
The best move from Koeman’s side should have levelled it after 25 minutes as Barry’s slide-rule pass was dummied by Aaron Lennon and found Coleman on the overlap but Idrissa Gueye skied the Irishman’s cut-back high over the crossbar.
Barry himself had a great chance to equalise after Oriol Romeu had taken Bolasie’s legs and the veteran midfielder found himself with a free header at the back post but he steered his header over. Ross Barkley, once again all neat touches and short passes but providing no penetration, had another opportunity but missed badly with a header, while Gueye despatched another effort into the stands on the stroke of half time.
Koeman bemoaned another lethargic first-half display from his team after the game and again suggested that their second-half showing was more how he wants Everton to play but it’s hard to see what he was referring to because the improvement was only gradual until desperation took over in the last 10 minutes.
And Southampton could have buried them by that point. Pierre-Emile Højbjerg smacked a shot off the outside of the post when he probably should have hit it across goal where two Saints attackers were lurking. Stekelenburg then kept the Blues in it with a superb sprawling save, diving to his right to palm Austin’s unchallenged header behind for a corner.
Prior to that, Gueye’s excellent slaloming run had been stopped by Romeu who chopped him down on the edge of the box but Lukaku swept the free kick over while Bolasie had unwisely elected to go it alone a few minutes later but finished his powerful run down the centre with a wild shot that flew a couple of yards wide. He would come closer a few minutes later when he curled an effort inches above the crossbar but those efforts were rare sights of goal for an Everton side that struggled to build coherent attacks all afternoon.
Some of the distribution in midfield and from defence was awful, another by-product of the lack of movement and options in forward areas. So often the tactic was simply to bang the ball through the middle, either in the air or on the floor and Barry in particular was guilty of whacking it straight to a Southampton player. (It is said that the Blues rarely play well without him in the line-up but, unfortunately, he had a bad day at the office.)
From the mid-way point in the second half, Koeman made moves to try and spark Everton into life, withdrawing the industrious but, again, ineffective Lennon for Gerard Deulofeu and then hooking Barkley for Kevin Mirallas with 20 minutes left. Instead, it was Southampton who almost scored again, the otherwise disappointing Baines getting a crucial foot to Sims’s shot from the angle and then hooking the ball off his goal line after Stekelenburg had got his gloves to James Ward-Prowse’s shot after the Saints midfielder had found himself with time in the box to chest down another cross from the right.
Ward-Prowse could and probably should have killed the contest when Stekelenburg spilled his shot to Austin but he failed to make proper contact on the striker’s square pass and the visitors escaped.
With Mirallas offering a bit more forward thrust than had Barkley and the urgency of the situation finally dawning on the Blues, Southampton were forced back more in the final 10 minutes. However, Bolasie’s greed got the better of him again as he wasted a good counter-attack opportunity with Deulofeu a better option ahead of him and Coleman’s shot from Mirallas’s cut-back from the byline was blocked. And Enner Valencia, a late introduction for Baines, dropped a near-post header inches wide in the 89th minute as Everton tried another last-ditch Houdini act.
It wasn’t to be though and Koeman’s men stretched a dismal record of results to just one win in eight Premier League matches. Somehow they remain in 7th place but the bottom half beckons again if results don’t improve in the coming weeks.
Again, worryingly, the manager doesn’t appear to have the answer to why his side lacks tempo and intensity in the first half of games and are producing so little in attack. Certainly, with the talent that exists in the squad on paper and Koeman’s own managerial experience, Evertonians are entitled to expect more — better distribution in the middle of the park, better finishing from the midfielders, better ball control and more invention from the attacking players.
Pleas for change have largely fallen on deaf ears so far, with the same personnel picked week-in, week-out when, from the captain on down, they are under-performing to a galling degree. The questions have been asked: Why no alteration to a tired and busted lone-striker system, one with which Everton have persisted now for two and a half seasons.
Where’s the youth? Depending on kids comes with its on risks, both for the team and the players themselves, but at some point you have to ask, with their willingness to please and, hopefully, pride in the jersey, could they do any worse? Or are we just going to sleepwalk to January where Koeman and Steve Walsh will attempt to buy the solutions to a deep-seated malaise that is threatening to make 2016-17 another write-off of a season in a long rebuilding job?
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