Tottenham Hotspur 3 - 2 Everton
High hopes were dashed at White Hart Lane in what was a sobering reality check really for Everton and the notion that they could yet sneak into the top four.
Stuck in seventh for weeks now, the Blues have been frustrated by Manchester United’s 17-match unbeaten which has kept them continually at arm’s length while the teams between the Red Devils and Chelsea have taken turns to slip without any one of them truly melting down… yet.
United’s 1-1 draw at home to Bournemouth and Arsenal’s threatening implosion following another defeat, this time at Liverpool, set the table nicely for Ronald Koeman’s side to make up ground with a win over Spurs but it proved the be fanciful in the end because the North Londoners were too strong and Everton’s rearguard faltered.
The game was billed by Evertonians as an opportunity to see how far the Blues have come since the draw with Spurs on the opening day and by the end the answer was fairly definitive, even if the final score didn't underline the size of the gulf that exists between second place and seventh.
The epitome of strength, Tottenham were superior in almost all departments on the day and they could have been three up by half time after Harry Kane had hammered them into a 20th minute lead, Joel Robles had foiled the England striker on the next attack, and Victor Wanyama had seen a shot bounce back off the upright.
Everton, meanwhile, failed to register a shot on target in the first period, a symptom of the home side’s relentless pressing, Koeman’s decision to pack the midfield in an attempt to limit Spurs’s ability to play through them, and Romelu Lukaku’s subsequent isolation. As a tactic it had merits, even if there was an argument for bringing back the central defensive three that was so successful against the likes of Manchester City, but it was undermined by the selection of the one-paced Gareth Barry ahead of James McCarthy.
The veteran looked all of his 36 years shoe-horned in alongside Morgan Schneiderlin, Tom Davies and Idrissa Gueye and McCarthy’s comparative energy after he finally replaced Barry in the second half merely served to strengthen the argument that the latter’s days as a starter are behind him.
Nevertheless, having set up to defend and contain, it behooved Everton to be flawless in both respects but they let themselves down critically for all three of Tottenham’s goals. They were undone for the first when Gueye gave up on tracking Kane and Barry backed off as the England striker turned and advanced towards the visitors’ penalty area. Kane accepted the invitation to line up a shot and, benefitting from Robles’s slow reactions, he found the corner of the goal from almost 30 yards out.
The second came from suicidal play at the back from a team that had, ironically, been by far the more direct of the two. If there’s a given about Spurs (apart from Kane’s ability to conjure a goal out of nowhere) it’s that they press feverishly high up the pitch so when Robles elected to roll the ball to Schneiderlin in a central position outside his own area, it was asking for trouble. Moussa Dembele and Dele Alli collapsed around the Frenchman and when his attempt to knock the ball to Ashley Williams rebounded off the latter and into the path of Kane, there was only going to be one result.
Koeman’s belated changes brought Kevin Mirallas and McCarthy into the fray in place of Tom Davies and Barry and the Blues began to enjoy arguably their best spell of the game. Mirallas had a shot charged down by Ross Barkley — as the indefatigable heart of the Everton side, the 23-year-old that never stopped wanting the ball in a desperate attempt to engineer a way for the Blues back into the game — soon after he was introduced but it wasn’t until 10 minutes from time that Everton finally made a breakthrough.
Mirallas picked out Lukaku in a central area with a great ball from the flank and when Jan Vergtonghen lost his balance in front of him, the Belgian striker seized the chance to advance and cut an unerring shot into the far corner past Hugo Lloris’s glove.
Another error from the erratic Ramiro Funes Mori almost let Kane in for his hat-trick but Robles read his attempt to clip the ball over him well and made the save 10 minutes before more calamity in Everton’s defence allowed Alli to plunder Tottenham’s third in stoppage time. Harry Winks dinked a quick free kick into space between the static Leighton Baines and Schneiderlin and Alli just had to help it on its way past Robles.
There was still time for one more consolation for Everton as Barkley swung a free kick into the box and Enner Valencia, an 81st-minute substitute for Gueye, swept home an impressive first-time finish but there wasn’t enough time for a dramatic equaliser.
On balance, Everton didn’t deserve anything from the match and yet they could have got something with better defending. That, in essence, is life in the Premier League — a lead can quickly be erased but you have to be your best defensively to remain in with a chance of snatching something at the end.
While he didn’t show it on camera afterwards, Koeman should be fuming at the manner in which his players gift-wrapped goals for their hosts but he will also be mindful that this was his charges’ first League defeat for well over two months. If nothing else, he is continuing to learn where the weak spots reside in his team and that will be very valuable in itself in the context of planning for next season.
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