A cold, windswept evening in Stoke has never been anyone’s idea of an easy ride. It wasn’t so long ago that Rory Delap would cause panic in the Everton penalty area every time the Potters got a throw-in within bombing distance of their penalty area and, to be brutally frank, whether it’s called the Britannia Stadium or the bet365, things haven’t changed all that much in these parts.
Shorn of the mercurial talents of Xherdan Shaqiri, out with a calf injury, and with Bojan Krkic having been loaned out for the rest of the season, Stoke City had a rudimentary air about them in this game and the Blues left the Potteries with mixture of relief at avoiding defeat and regret at their inability to let their own class tell.
Evertonians came into this game buoyant after three successive Premier League wins, as many clean sheets and at the possibility that with a win, the Blues could be sitting just eight points off second place.
Old habits die hard with this Everton team it seems, however, and a failing that has plagued this season reared its head again this evening as Koeman’s team got off to another poor start and conceded the first goal.
It was symptomatic of a defence that was all over the place in the early stages and one ripe to be caught out by a routine ball over the top that left Marco Arnautovic in oceans of space and 36-year-old Peter Crouch galloping through completely unchecked without a blue shirt within 10 yards of him. The veteran striker was on hand to convert the Austrian’s well-weighted centre and put Stoke ahead, notching his 100th Premier League goal in the process.
It was an awful goal to concede from Everton’s perspective and it forced them once again to have to fight their way back into the game. Where their only possession prior to the goal had been back and forth across the back, they gradually started to make inroads into Stoke’s rearguard.
It was one of those nights when the pitch seemed that bit too hard and the ball that bit harder to control and it certainly seemed that way when Leighton Baines, collecting a wonderful cross-field ball by Tom Davies wide on the left, picked out Kevin Mirallas with a cross but the Belgian couldn’t quite get it under control and he ended up scooping the ball awkwardly over the crossbar.
It was a move that highlighted the spaces that were prone to open up in Stoke’s defence but the Blues seemed unable to create it. It didn’t help that Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku seemed to be operating on different wavelengths throughout or that Ross Barkley was having one of those games where very little was coming off for him. To his credit, he never stopped looking for the ball and trying to make things happened but the fact that he was name-checked again by his boss after the match for giving the ball away told its own story.
He wasn’t alone though. Morgan Schneiderlin, otherwise an impressive full debutant in central midfield alongside Davies, was guilty of a couple of dangerously lazy passes across his own half and Seamus Coleman was also having “one of those days” down the right flank.
The Potters, meanwhile, continued to carry the greater threat and could easily have extended their lead before half-time. First, Crouch volleyed inches wide of the post after Arnautovic’s knock-on had sprung Everton’s ragged offside trap. Arnautovic then found himself in the clear behind the Blues’s defence to collect Charlie Adam’s chipped pass over the top but just Joel Robles raced off his line to make an excellent save.
Further signs of life in Everton’s attack came when Coleman latched onto Mirallas’s deft touch at the end of a decisive move but with Bruno Martins Indi sliding in to block in front of him, he knocked his shot it over the top.
But the Irishman turned provider after being found by Mirallas once more a few minutes later but this time he cut back onto his left foot, curled a cross into the six yard box where Ryan Shawcross turned it past his own goalkeeper.
Everton celebrations were halted by the sight of the linesman’s raised flag indicating offside on Lukaku but after consulting with his assistant, referee Craig Pawson signalled that the goal was given.
With parity restored, the Blues almost handed the initiative straight back to their hosts on the stroke of half time when Crouch dissected their defence by flicking Eric Pieters’ direct pass into the path of Arnautovic but once agaain Robles came up big to foil him in a one-on-one situation.
Koeman’s half-time change, which saw Mason Holgate withdrawn in favour of James McCarthy and the side revert to a conventional back four, came as no surprise. The young defender had endured a torrid 45 minutes and there seemed little sense in employing three centre halves against a lone striker when they couldn’t cope with Arnautovic arriving from deeper.
The switch had the effect of largely nullifying Stoke’s attack but the extra congestion in midfield meant that the game descended into a ragged scrap until Ademola Lookman came on with 20 minutes to go.
Up until then, Everton had struggled to get on the ball while, even with Saido Berahino on the field, Mark Hughes’s side had largely resorted to giving the ball to Adam to simply hoist it in the general direction of Robles’s goal hoping to catch the ‘keeper out with the wind.
The change of pace and inventiveness that Lookman offered, particularly when he linked up with Davies, threatened to turn the game decisively in Everton’s favour though and the teenager almost scored with his first involvement. Davies found the new signing with a back-heel from the touchline and he rattled a low shot towards the near lost that Lee Grant did well to turn behind.
Berahino went close for Stoke when he tried to knock the ball over Robles’s head but Ramiro Funes Mori was on hand to head it over the bar before Everton looked to have won it at the other end. Coleman, Ashley Williams and Barkley exchanged quick triangle passes to open up the space ahead of them and the move ended with Coleman digging out a great cross from the byline that picked out Davies arriving near the penalty spot .
Grant made a terrific reflex save to turn his header to the side and Lookman could only rifle the rebound agonisingly across the face of Stoke’s goal and just past the far post.
Given that the home side had resorted to basic yard-dog, hoof and hope tactics in the second period, had either of those efforts gone it it would have represented just reward for Everton’s more joined-up approach, even if they weren’t really able to raise the standard of the fare much above agricultural.
As it was, they had to be content with a share of the spoils and a sixth successive league game without defeat. Attentions will turn to Saturday’s game against Bournemouth where the more familiar comforts of home should allow Koeman’s men to express themselves a bit more.
The starting line-up for that one will almost certainly include Schneiderlin who slotted in nicely into the midfield and showed some clever touches and impressive reading of the game, while also helping launch some of the Blues’ most dangerous attacks.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the name of Lookman on the teamsheet, most likely in place of Mirallas who had a poor game despite getting into some decent positions. The 19-year-old once again looked a real talent and his pace, inventiveness and eye for goal made a visible difference to an otherwise fairly staid display.
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