If there's a measure of the progress made under Ronald Koeman in just a few short months, it's that a 3-0 win over the only team likely to challenge Everton for seventh place could feel so routine.
A year ago, the notion of a four clean sheets in five home games felt a world away, while in the weeks following the Blues' 2-1 win in the reverse fixture against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns in August, many Evertonians were bemoaning the team's inability to not only win against teams they should have but to simply control games through simple retention of the ball as well.
Koeman's team have been guilty of being too direct at times this season but yesterday against the disciplined and organised Baggies, they were patient, focused and bided their time until the breakthrough came towards the end of the first half.
Morgan Schneiderlin's first goal for the club on the stroke of half time put the Blues into a secure position for the second period and with West Brom below strength until Salomon Rondon and James Morrison were introduced late on and curiously unadventurous throughout, it felt like only a matter of time before the home side padded their lead. They eventually did through Romelu Lukaku — of course! — to complete a thoroughly professional performance.
Koeman's starting XI had raised eyebrows an hour before kick-off. Gareth Barry, so disappointing at Tottenham last Sunday, was in the line-up again, Idrissa Gueye was dropped back to the substitutes' bench and Phil Jagielka was recalled at the expense of Ramiro Funes Mori after several weeks watching on from the sidelines. Pleasingly, however, Tom Davies kept his place and Kevin Mirallas was restored to play off Lukaku, the former Belgian justifying his selection by plundering the first goal.
After a rousing minute’s applause in memory of Alex Young, the game kicked off but it would see only handful of clear-cut openings. Almost inevitably, the first had fallen to Lukaku early on as he was played in between two visiting defenders to set up a shot from a position slightly wider than his goal at White Hart Lane last weekend. This time, however, he cut a low shot inches past the far post.
He mis-timed a header later in the half before the effervescent Ross Barkley dipped a shot over the bar but was instrumental in the first goal which arrived six minutes before the break. He held the ball up well near the touchline before cutting inside before his attempted ball for Seamus Coleman deflected to Barkley. Ben Foster couldn't hold the midfielder's side-foot shot and Mirallas was onto the rebound quickly, lashing the ball past the 'keeper from close range.
On the stroke of half-time, more brilliant work by Lukaku after he’d been picked by Barry ended with him tucking a neat pass into the box to meet the run of Schneiderlin, who took the ball past Jake Livermore before extending a telescopic leg to prod it past the advancing Foster and just inside the far post. His celebration revealed just how much opening his account meant to a player clearly calling in love with his new club.
The start of the second half brought the surprise news that Leighton Baines had not re-emerged from the dressing and that he had been replaced by Funes Mori — it was revealed after the game that his back had seized up and he was unable to continue — and a resumption in the pattern of Everton dominance.
Having offered very little going forward in the first half apart from Nacir Chadli's low drive that Joel Robles pushed wide of the right-hand upright, West Brom began to ask a few questions of the Blues' back line. However, save for more good work by Chadli where he was able to engineer space for a direct shot that was parried away by Robles, they struggled to make inroads.
That left Everton in the comfortable position of being able to dictate their own tempo, even it was a little too pedestrian at times for the home faithful’s liking. The desire from the packed house of Evertonians to see the team drive forward rather than turn back towards the safer option of defence was tangible at times but from Koeman’s first two substitutions, which were prima facie conservative, to the players themselves at times, the emphasis was on securing the victory and not allowing the opposition to creep back into the contest.
It was Idrissa Gueye and not Ademola Lookman who replaced Kevin Mirallas midway through the second half and Dominic Calvert-Lewin didn’t make his entrance in place of Barry until the 84th minute. But, as both Schneiderlin’s goal and Gueye’s shot off the base of the post in stoppage time demonstrated, the presence of three primarily defensive midfielders in the side plus Tom Davies isn’t necessarily a negative formation. All four have license to roam forward while the likes of Barry and Schneiderlin drop back to cover and it has yielded goals from that area of the field in each of the last four home games.
Davies’ exuberance and desire to drive forward whenever possible was matched by Barkley and it was the latter who, having run the show for the Blues in pleasing fashion in front of England manager Gareth Southgate, smashed a ball into side-netting before serving up Lukaku’s 19th Premier League goal, one which represented his best return of goals yet in that competition.
Gueye and Funes Mori combined with the Argentine feeding the ball to Barkley on the left side of the West Brom area where he teased the defender in front of him, chipped a perfect cross to the six-yard line and Lukaku picked his spot with a header to make it 3-0.
Eight minutes were left at that point and save for Gueye’s solo effort off the woodwork at the very end, it was job done. Three more points at home where Koeman’s Blues have kept four clean sheets in five and the gap to Manchester United in sixth has been cut to just two points. They have played two games fewer but Everton are doing what they need to in racking up as many points as they can while hoping that their rivals above slip.
What the result also did, of course, is effectively end the argument, at least for now, over who will finish seventh if the Toffees aren’t able to sneak into the top six. In outplaying West Brom and scoring such a convincing victory, they have moved seven points clear and cemented their status as “best of the rest”.
More importantly, the building blocks for even better next season continued to be laid and “routine” victories like this – one that eluded them last season under Roberto Martinez despite similar dominance – with the two star 23-year-olds at the top of their game are all part of that development.
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