Everton 3 - 0 Southampton
Goodison Park became familiar with the art of patience in 2016 but more of this kind of result both at home and away will surely make this year an altogether more enjoyable and profitable one for Everton than the 12 months just gone.
The sell-out crowd that packed the Old Lady could have been forgiven for thinking that they were still reading from the script of the previous 12 months and beyond as their team laboured through the first hour of their third match in the space of a week but the Blues saved the entertainment for the end.
Ronald Koeman had rung some changes from the side that had to fightback twice against Hull on Friday — a full debut for Dominic Calvert-Lewin and first start of the season for Tom Davies were more than welcome — but both sides looked jaded at times. Nevertheless, there was a sense that there was more frustration on offer amid the fear — a growing one the longer the contest wore on — that the Saints might just catch the Blues' defence out decisively on one of their threatening counter-attacks and settle it with a single goal. Or at least have Everton scrambling into the close desperately searching for another equaliser.
The substitution that ultimately changed the game came with an hour on the clock but the pivot arguably came in the 69th minute when Nathan Redmond was put in behind the home defence by Jay Rodriguez's clever touch but, with the angle against him, he was foiled by Joel Robles. Had that gone in, things could have been very different but, instead, the stage was set for Enner Valencia.
Bearing the mantle of ill-advised deadline day panic signing, the Ecuadorian seemed to be surplus to requirements at his second Premier League club coming into last month. Shorn of all other avenues, however, Koeman found a role for him as willing runner in a wide forward role and, an ineffective outing on Humberside three days ago aside, he appears to have found a new lease on life. What was missing was a first goal in Everton colours and he picked a very good time to grab it, opening the floodgates for a belated New Year's party at Goodison as the Blues equalled their biggest win under Koeman thanks to a penalty, won by Valencia, and a Romelu Lukaku rocket to put the icing on the cake.
This was a strange game between two teams coming off heavy schedules but a clear pattern was established early on. As the home team, the onus was on Everton to control the bulk of possession while Southampton looked to pick them off on the break with the speed of Nathan Redmond and the inventiveness of Dusan Tadic.
And the Blues seemed comfortable in that role for the first half an hour without really dominating the encounter, their rhythm not helped by the loss of Calvert-Lewin after just 10 minutes. The young striker had barely had a chance to leave an impression on the game on his full debut before he was forced to withdraw and be replaced by Kevin Mirallas.
The Belgian could count himself somewhat unfortunate to have been left out after putting a good performance at Hull and he picked up where he left off when he came on this afternoon. Like the rest of the team, though, he struggled to find a killer pass or moment of magic to break down Southampton's stubborn back line.
Rotating with Idrissa Gueye in providing the link between the defence and attack, Davies was raw but confident and exuberant in the centre of the park; Ross Barkley, required of maturity as a relatively elder statesman in the side and seemingly buoyed by having Davies' drive behind him, was purposeful, probing, tidy in possession and edged man of the match overall (watch the build-up to the penalty if you can); Lukaku, forced to work with his back to goal until Valencia's introduction, played the hold-up man well; and Seamus Coleman was a willing outlet down the right flank.
It resulted in sporadic pressure and five corners in the first half but not much in the way of a workout for Fraser Forster in the opposition goal after Barkley tested him with a bouncing half-volley in the fourth minute. Lukaku had the only other chance of note in a typically flat first half with a low shot from Barkley's pass, one the big keeper diverted away with his foot.
Southampton, meanwhile, were geared mostly for the counter-attack but Redmond twice found himself with heading opportunities in the first half, the first he despatched into the Gwladys Street End and the second he glanced wide unchallenged in first half stoppage time.
In between, Rodriguez had been the chief danger and he had the ball in the net but had his “goal” chalked off for offside (he had also converted with his hand). He also forced Robles to extend himself to parry the ball away after his cross had deflected towards goal off Ashley Williams and then produced the outstanding individual moment of the half when he rolled Davies, jinked past Williams but fired his shot over the crossbar.
If there was a feeling of “here we go again”, it really set in in the first quarter of an hour after half time but Valencia's introduction had the desired effect almost immediately. Aaron Lennon had almost nothing going forward — a significant handicap given that Everton overwhelmingly favour the right flank as an attacking avenue — but his replacement's running and pace created space, notably for Barkley to operate in and for Lukaku who first tried to exploit it with a bursting run but he dragged his shot well across Forster's goal.
Coleman was also the beneficiary of more freedom of movement in the final third and when
Barkley Lukaku played him in on the overlap in the 74th minute, he found Lukaku with a cross but Forster blocked the Belgian's header on the line. Thankfully, the rebound eventually fell kindly for Valencia to swivel the ball home from close range.
Operating on a day's less rest and without their star defender, Virgil van Dijk, Southampton were on the ropes and after Lukaku had curled a shot narrowly over after Jose Fonte's careless giveaway, Valencia drew an equally sloppy foul from Yoshida in the box as he tried to link up with Mirallas.
Leighton Baines assumed responsibility for the penalty despite Lukaku's keenness and he duly despatched a crisp spot kick into the bottom corner after the ‘keeper had guessed the wrong way to make it 2-0 with nine minutes left.
While he would be off down the tunnel again in short order at the final whistle again, the striker took his sulk out on the ball though two minutes from time. Baines' slid in brilliantly to dispossess the unsuspecting Saints man in front of him, presenting Davies with the chance to slip the ball to Lukaku in space on the edge of the box and he took a couple of steps before belting an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
Though the margin of victory perhaps flattered the Blues on the basis of the entire 90 minutes, it can only have a positive effect on team morale, representing as it does a third win in five games since the ugly defeat at Watford. More than that, it served to heighten the sense that Koeman's Blues are finally developing an identity and a versatile way of playing that will serve as the foundation on which he can build out the side with new signings in the next two windows.
Creatively, they are still limited and frustrating to watch at times but as long as they remain difficult to beat, solving that problem is made all the easier for the Dutchman and Steve Walsh.
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