Watford 3 - 2 Everton
Any time you cast your eye down the fixture list and find yourself wondering where the next win is going to come from, you’re in trouble and that’s where Everton find themselves after another horrible away defeat.
With Arsenal and Liverpool to come at Goodison Park over the next nine days, then two more games on the road to close out the year, it’s not inconceivable, based on what unfolded at Vicarage Road, that Ronald Koeman’s team will go into 2017 having won just once in 14 games. That is relegation form any way you slice it and it may sound pessimistic but, apart from the desperate hope that Koeman and Steve Walsh have some game-changing signings up their sleeve in January, there is a pretty desperate feeling hanging around Everton at the moment regarding the state of team.
Today, for the first time since they beat West Ham on 30th October, the Blues scored first and, even more out of character, they actually started a game in acceptable fashion, even if it didn’t manifest itself into much until Gareth Barry unlocked the Watford defence for Lukaku to score his first goal in five matches.
Unfortunately, they failed to capitalise on that precious advantage thanks to some alarmingly poor defending that allowed Watford back into the game. With 20 minutes gone in the second half, the Evertonians who had made the journey south were in a familiarly dismal state of deja vu, shaking their heads at another defensive horror show and the concession of three goals by their team.
As Stefano Okaka heel-flicked his way to his first Premier League goal and then added a second from an unchallenged header either side of Sebastian Prödl’s own unforgivably free header, it prompted serious questions like: was that poorly executed zonal marking by Everton’s defence? Why was Seamus Coleman marking a towering centre half? Just what do Koeman and and his coaching staff do at Finch Farm every day and are his players buying into any of it?
Because there is precious little evidence of a style of play emerging under the Dutchman and his side remain largely ineffective going forward until desperation takes over in the last 10 minutes. (Someone should tell them that even if you draw all 38 games, you’re still likely to go down with that many points so they may as well start every match from here until May thinking they’re losing if that’s what it takes to get them going.)
Yes, they took the lead but as the clock ticked past 80 minutes, Everton’s shots-on-target tally from their last three away games — some 260 minutes of football — stood at an embarrassing three. They would double that in the final 10 of this one, one of them a text-book striker’s header by Lukaku from substitute Aaron Lennon’s pin-point cross, but it wasn’t enough to save them. Still, they look a much better side with both Lukaku and Enner Valencia’s wiling running up front; Koeman just stubbornly refuses to try it from the start.
Instead, in response to Yannick Bolasie’s injury and the need to try and inject some energy into the side, the manager fielded Gerard Deulofeu and James McCarthy as two changes to the XI that had started against Manchester United last weekend. Coming into the team at the expense of Tom Cleverley, McCarthy was deployed, somewhat surprisingly, as the furthest forward of three defensively-minded central midfielders and he offered about as much offensive threat as one would have expected.
To be fair to the Irishman, he did cover a lot of ground and, for the most part, pressed in the manner in which is manager would have expected but it was Barry who laid on the opening goal for Lukaku after 16 minutes. He clipped a beautifully flighted ball over the top for the Belgian to bring down and slot under the body of Heurelho Gomes.
Watford tried to respond immediately and their best passing move of the game thus far ended with Okaka in a good position but his low shot was comfortably saved by Maarten Stekelenburg.
He would convert a more difficult but more spectacular effort nine minutes before half-time though when Ashley Williams inexplicably pulled out of an aerial duel with Troy Deeney, allowing the Watford striker an unchallenged header that was worked out wide to Nordin Amrabat. His low cross found Okaka in the centre and he did the rest with an impressive finish from close range to level the scores.
That goal galvanised the home side and thanks to niggly fouls by Everton in threatening areas of their own half, they were able to punish the Blues’ sloppy marking. Idrissa Gueye chopped down Valon Behrami — the Swiss had played on despite vomiting in the centre circle prior to the start of the second half — and Prödl rose easily above Coleman to power the Hornets ahead in the 59th minute.
Six minutes after that it was 3-1. Miguel Britos had gone very close to scoring from another criminally unmarked position but Stekelenburg made an excellent save with his fingertips to divert the Uruguayan’s downward header over the bar. But from the resulting corner, Okaka peeled away to meet the delivery and steered a header past the ‘keeper’s vain flap and in off Leighton Baines on the line.
Cue the first of three Koeman substitutions as Ross Barkley came on for Gueye before Valencia replaced the industrious but ineffective Mirallas with 20 minutes to go. The Ecuadorian bent an ambitious effort wide from 25 yards while Lukaku failed to emulate Okaka’s first goal when his flick missed the far post but he was, in any case, flagged offside yet again.
Valencia then headed wide from Lennon’s cross before the sub served Lukaku’s second on a platter, sparking brief hopes of another last-gasp equaliser but despite strong claims for a penalty — predictably they were ignored by referee Anthony Taylor — when Britos got away with climbing all over Valencia, Everton weren’t able to muster the scoring chance to make it happen.
So that search for the next elusive win continues while the inquests into just what is going on under Koeman’s tenure only become more urgent. Whether the Dutchman is simply discovering the severe limitations and mental fragility in the squad that dogged his predecessor or there is something deeply amiss in the culture, spirit or atmosphere in the dressing room under the new manager is hard to say.
Perhaps it’s a mixture of those factors but while it’s clear an overhaul of personnel is overdue at Goodison, the fact that a manager of Koeman’s pedigree and Premier League track record — albeit comparatively short — can’t rouse more fight and cohesiveness from a squad that does possess a fair amount of talent is deeply concerning. And things don’t get any easier over the next 10 days either…
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