Everton 6 - 3 Bournemouth
If it would appear hard to know where to start picking apart a mad game like this one, perhaps the best place would be to simply acknowledge a brilliant performance from Romelu Lukaku and a personal haul that leaves him as the current top scorer in the Premier League.
Watching the debates rage on these pages about the Belgian this season has been simultaneously amusing, bemusing and, when you see calls for the club to cash in on their greatest asset, dismaying. Evertonians waited almost three decades for a reliable, consistent striker capable of scoring 20-plus goals in a season and now Goodison Park is graced by one of the best in the modern game. Still, some supporters prefer to get hung up his attitude and work-rate when his goals return speaks very simply and loudly for itself.
On his day, Lukaku is unplayable and after having precious little bearing on the proceedings at Stoke in midweek, he was in that familiar “beast” mode today — bullish, clinical, spectacular, unstoppable. From the quick-fire build-up play involving Morgan Schneiderin and a one-two with James McCarthy to the curling finish that bent majestically around Artur Boruc’s despairing dive, his first goal of four very different strikes on the day was a thing of pure beauty.
Goals two and four demonstrated his opportunism and lethality; his third and, arguably, most important was a deft volley following an equally impressive disguised pass to Seamus Coleman whose pitching-wedge centre it was that he guided past the hapless Bournemouth goalkeeper to make it 4-2.
Just for good measure, he created the second goal for McCarthy almost out of nothing, with quick feet, strength and awareness along the byline, underscoring his peerless tally of Premier League goals in which he has been directly involved.
On any other day, Ross Barkley would probably be the one hogging the headlines. He, too, had had a night to largely forget in the Potteries on Wednesday evening but against the Cherries today he delivered his most complete performance of the season. Diligent in his pressing, tenacious in his tackling, purposeful, creative and incisive on the ball, and both clinical and impudent with the coup de grâce that made it 6-3 in second-half stoppage time, the 23-year-old was excellent and a close runner-up behind Lukaku for for man of the match.
Everton’s was an attacking display that was breathtaking at times but there were nagging frustrations with the team’s overall showing, particularly on the defensive side and the way the Blues dropped off for long periods and allowed the visitors to run the game. And by the 70-minute mark, memories of the 3-3 debacle at the Vitality Stadium in November 2015 were flooding back as the visitors rallied back to 3-2.
Haunting thoughts of the home defeats to Leicester, Stoke and West Ham last season weren’t too far behind but whereas many would bet that that Everton team under Roberto Martinez would have given up the lead this afternoon, under Koeman they are a different proposition… even if some of the defending by Ramiro Funes Mori and Ashley Williams looked like it belonged in the previous regime.
Credit to Koeman, however, for making some tactical adjustments in the final half hour to help steer the course of the game back in his team’s direction. His line-up when it was announced before kick-off had certainly raised eyebrows and there can’t have been many who were happy to see McCarthy vault over both Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye into a starting role, especially given that Gareth Barry had also been recalled.
McCarthy, in particular, more than justified his selection though, playing as the more advanced of a three-man central midfield unit that was rounded by Schneiderlin until the Irishman was withdrawn on the hour mark in favour of Davies. It was he who collected the Frenchman’s interception and exchanged passes with Lukaku to play him in with the outside of the boot before the striker cut across the edge of the box and fired home the opening goal with just 30 seconds on the watch.
And, after another full debutant, Ademola Lookman, had wrong-footed Harry Arter with quick feet but dragged a shot across goal, the same pair combined for the second goal. Lukaku took Barkley’s pass to the byline, wriggled between two black-and-red shirts and cut the ball back where McCarthy’s stabbed shot came back to him off a defender and bobbled past Boruc off his shin. Fortunate, yes, but more than deserved.
The third goal was a gift from Simon Francis but the finish from Lukaku was no less clinical for of it. The defender’s pass across his own box was into no-man’s land between his goalkeeper and Steve Cook and Lukaku intercepted it easily before clipping a shot confidently over Boruc and into the net.
3-0 up with less than half an hour gone and you could have forgiven some among the home faithful if their minds started wandering to the last time Everton racked up a rugby score in the Premier League. There was a creeping complacency about the Blues for the next 30 to 40 minutes’ play, however, of the kind that has persisted through three different managers and perhaps explains why it’s 10 years since Everton last destroyed a team by a six-goal margin. Successive Toffees teams have tended to take their foot off the pedal rather than really go for the jugular and that was the case today, particularly in the second half.
Koeman’s side went close to extending their lead either side of half time when Boruc beat away a strong Coleman shot and Barkley’s similarly powerful drive was deflected just past the post but there was a building sense, as the game ticked towards the hour mark, that the next goal was going to come from Bournemouth.
Jack Wilshere’s shot that deflected behind off Ashley Williams had provided a warning sign two minutes after the break and it was the Arsenal loanee who split Everton’s centre-backs in the 59th minute with a rapier pass that Josh King helped past the exposed Joel Robles.
Back at the Park End two minutes later, McCarthy again popped up in space to latch into Barkley’s pass but after checking back onto his right foot, the Ireland international’s shot lacked power and Boruc saved with his foot and Lookman lashed the follow-up into the side netting.
And when Robles got a glove on another King shot after he had sprung the offside trap down the Cherries’ left attacking channel, the striker grabbed his second from the resulting corner. Andrew Surman and Ryan Fraser combined down their right and the latter’s low driven cross was prodded in on the stretch by King.
Koeman’s response was immediate. Kevin Mirallas was thrown on in place of Lookman whose precociously dazzling footwork and daring had been a delight at 3-0 but his comparative lack of experience on the defensive side made him surplus to requirements now that the game needed to be shut down.
But it wasn’t until Mason Holgate replaced Barry with 10 minutes to go and the Blues transitioned into a back five with the kind of tactical shift that was missing in the last two seasons under Martinez that the tide turned back in their favour. Prior to that, Marc Pugh had smashed a shot across the face of Robles’ goal from the angle and the Spanish ‘keeper had had to make a fine save diving to his right to push away Arter’s shot to preserve the slender advantage.
Having survived that wobble, endured the mounting unease in the stands, and seized the initiative back with the help of Davies's intensity in midfield, Everton went on to break the contest open again with some wonderful attacking football. And once again the end of the move was all down to Lukaku as he completed a brilliant hat-trick in the 83rd minute.
The 23-year-old wrong-footed substitute Brad Smith with a reverse pass to Coleman and then advanced to the edge of the six-yard box to steer home a left-foot volley from the Irishman’s cross.
A minute later, he added a fourth as the ball fell to him near the centre circle and he touched it on to Barkley. He in turn delivered a terrific back-heeled pass into Lukaku’s path and, after surging between two defenders and holding both off, he picked his spot past Boruc to bury the ball into the bottom left hand corner.
Bournemouth’s spirit was unshaken though and they would strike back again the final minute of the regulation 90. Arter and sub Benik Afobe played a one-two through a cluster of blue shirts and after Robles had charged down the former’s shot and it had bounced back off Arter seemingly over the goal line, he was able to bundle it over the line to make it 5-3.
The Cherries were still going for more goals in the fourth minute of stoppage time but in doing so they were picked off one final time as Funes Mori sent Barkley away with a raking forward pass that drew Boruc well out of his box. The Blues’ No.8 knocked it past him nonchalantly and, with the empty net gaping in front of him, he had time to spread his arms wide in celebration (perhaps with retribution for the winner that was taken away from him by Junior Stanislas at Dean Court 16 months ago on his mind) before slotting it home.
Koeman acknowledged after the game that he was concerned how much his team sat back at 3-0 up and invited Bournemouth back into the game. But he couldn’t hide his admiration at the quality of the goals or his satisfaction at the effect his tactical tinkering had had the desired effect on the result.
That in itself is further evidence of the progress that is being made under the Dutchman’s stewardship — a year ago, few would have bet against Bournemouth completing their comeback and sending Blues fans away chuntering about defensive collapses and the team’s frail mentality after throwing away a seemingly unassailable lead.
After the draw at Stoke, the three points were paramount but plenty of confidence will be gleaned from the impressive way in which Everton were able to put their foot back on the accelerator and power their way back to a three-goal lead. Seven games unbeaten and a 100% start to 2017 at home in the Premier League shows that the Toffees under Koeman are gathering momentum at just the right time to capitalise on any slip-ups by the teams above them.
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