Seven games, 14 points and what will at the very least be a 6th-place berth heading into the second international break of the season represents a good start under new manager Ronald Koeman. Obviously, you’d have taken that record at any point during the final seven games of last season and, obviously, if it establishes the pattern for the campaign, it puts Everton on course for Europa League qualification.
Yet, there’s a feeling that the Blues have spurned an excellent opportunity to be sitting even higher in the table heading into October and a return of just one point from Bournemouth and Crystal Palace serves to underline the fact that Koeman still has plenty of work to do with a team still finding its way.
The ingredients for a stirring return to winning ways against Palace were certainly there — a packed house under the lights at Goodison Park and only the absence of Leighton Baines seemingly denying the manager his strongest line-up. What is his best starting XI remains up in the air somewhat, though. Tom Cleverley, who was arguably the best player in blue last weekend when he came on in the second half at the Vitality Stadium, was drafted in for this match at the expense of Kevin Mirallas, with Koeman seemingly sacrificing either width or further attacking options in favour of greater energy in the middle of the park.
Though the former Manchester United and Aston Villa man would play the full 90 minutes, it’s doubtful that he justified his selection, particularly where his use of the ball was concerned, but Mirallas’s inability to make the most of his 15 minutes illustrates the difficulty Koeman is having in finding a settled and consistent combination among the forward four players.
While not especially pretty or convincing, Everton were good value for the lead they took into half time thanks to Romelu Lukaku’s brilliant 35th-minute free kick. Chances had been at a high premium up until that point, with neither team working the opposition goalkeeper, but exemplified by a much more robust and combative Ross Barkley, the Blues seemed to be in determined mood even if they lacked craft.
When Phil Jagielka went in bravely to a high-footed challenge and was awarded the foul against him, though, it set up Lukaku to open the scoring. Strictly, it should have been an indirect free kick, but the Belgian striker swept the ball past Steve Mandanda with a well-placed strike.
With three wins on the bounce behind them, a team boasting physical threat and height, Palace are a difficult proposition these days, even without the injured Scott Dann in the team. They came out after the interval strongly and had caught the home side out before they’d really settled back into the contest.
Bryan Oviedo, who was impressive from a defensive standpoint until he made way for Ramiro Funes Mori late on, made a rare error by showing Joel Ward inside which culminated in Christian Benteke rising easily above Seamus Coleman to loop a header that seemed to arc into the net in slow motion with Maarten Stekelenburg perhaps thinking it was destined to drop wide.
The sense of unease within Goodison briefly turned to despair shortly afterwards when, in an almost carbon-copy move, Ward centred to Damien Delaney who also beat his marker in the air to plant a header into the same part of the goal. Fortunately, the linesman’s raised flag came to Everton’s rescue, with James McArthur having been adjudged to have strayed into an offside position.
Responding to that let-off, the Blues regained the initiative for a short while but the second half would provide a neat summation of their present predicament. Palace looked the stronger outfit and were finding plenty of space at times while Everton battled to find an outlet ball and were resorting too often to aimless balls forward. And yet, apart from a diving catch to deny James Tomkins, Stekelenburg was barely troubled for the remainder of the game, underscoring the improved defensive solidity under Koeman.
Though few in number, the best chances fell Everton’s way. A nice move put Idrissa Gueye in for a great chance to open his account since joining from Villa but he was denied by a blocking challenge that deflected his effort wide.
Then, from a corner on the Blues’ left, Barry darted to the near post to flick on the dead-ball delivery and his header would have found the inside of the far post had Jason Puncheon not been on the line to help it behind on the far side.
Yannick Bolasie, dynamic and powerful in the first half against his old team but noticeably poorer in the second, went close with an acrobatic overhead kick, but arguably the clearest opening fell to Coleman who was released into the box by a nice flick from Lukaku but the Irishman snatched at the chance rather than let the ball drop and he sliced it off target.
Ultimately, a draw felt like a let-down, particularly with two weeks off now and a trip to formidable-looking Manchester City looming next. There are signs of progress under Koeman — let’s face it, he’s still only a month and a half into his first season with the club — but they might be more incremental than those early results suggested.
Everton showed a worrying lack of guile, a shortage of quick, incisive passing moves and the final ball was too often delayed or mis-placed when opportunities did present themselves. While Barkley answered the call to press and harry the opposition more in forward areas, certainly more so than Lukaku, it appeared to be at the expense of creativity and that gave the Toffees a disappointingly one-dimensional feel.
Koeman expressed his satisfaction with his team's points return after seven matches and Everton are unquestionably in a better position than before to take advantage of the Dutchman's experience. Being hard to beat, as one Premier League defeat demonstrates, was an important first step. The rest will come... but perhaps over a longer period of time than those first few results suggested.
Stunned momentum leaves taste of frustration for international break
Before kick-off, I was lucky enough to be asked along to Carling In Off The Bar a show which aired on YouTube by Sky Sports presented by Adam Smith and Laura Woods. The show airs every Friday night game and is set in a pub in the city of the home team, this being MacKenzie's Whisky Bar on Rodney Street in Liverpool. I brought Ste along for the entertainment and free Carling.
We were asked to arrive for 4:30pm though, with getting out of work a bit early, the best we could do was about 5pm, given the Friday traffic coming through the tunnel was just horrendous. The show is pretty much in the wackiness format of Soccer AM except in a pub, but it was good fun to be around it and see how it all works behind the scenes. The initial show went live on YouTube at 6pm.
At about 7:20pm, we went to get a taxi to the ground and were luckily able to share with three other Evertonians heading that way. It was good company in the taxi and we arrived nicely in time for kick off... Goodison Park looking splendid under the lights.
Everton had made just the one change to the team that dipped at Bournemouth Tom Cleverley in to replace Kevin Mirallas, with Gerard Deulofeu not even in the squad. For Crystal Palace, you kind of knew that Christian Benteke would come back to haunt us. Though I was pleased when I heard that Jonathan Moss replaced Mark Clattenburg as the match official, I now feel that even Clattenburg would have been a better option than the hopelessly inconsistent Jonathan Moss.
The atmosphere, though okay, wasn't exactly electric and, in the first half, it was the Crystal Palace supporters making a fair bit of noise. We were getting the better of things and had Crystal Palace pinned back for large periods of it, this culminating in us going in at the break a goal to the good following a Romelu Lukaku free kick. Though undoubtedly a great effort from Romelu, I couldn't help but feel the goalkeeper could have done a bit better as the ball went over the wall but was hardly in the corner of the goal. I'm basing this on a one off view from the Gwladys Street, of course; those in other sections of the ground or watching on TV may beg to differ.
We caught up with Gaz at the break and, with a seat vacant near us, he was able to join us for the second half, which was intriguing and entertaining, though not for particularly the right reasons. We had a good spell of pressure as the Goodison atmosphere really lit up. It was good to see a competitive game with a lot of tackles flying in but Jonathan Moss and his assistants just couldn't let things flow and the game was broken up far too much. This really spoiled the game. Simple contact at times was mistaken for fouls, most maddeningly when Bolasie went over an outstretched defender inside the penalty area with the free kick going against us somehow.
The inconsistency irritated the masses for both sides, no doubt and it spoilt what could have been a better game. Our best chance in the second half came when Yannick Bolasie got free inside the penalty area and should have driven at goal but instead tried to square it and the chance was gone. I loved his speculative overhead volley also. He had a busy game and seemed determined to make an impact against his former club.
Crystal Palace withstood this spell of pressure and retaliated, Joel Ward looping a ball into the penalty area and Benteke rising highest to find the corner of the net with his header. You could question the defending perhaps, but sometimes you have to take your hat off and say it was a good headed goal. Fair play to Benteke also who could have really rubbed it in our faces, but chose not too and didn't celebrate too wildly.
This changed the game considerably and for quite a period we were really pinned back with Crystal Palace forcing corner after corner, though the pressure was expertly withstood by Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams, so much so that Maarten Stekelenburg had rather little to do. Crystal Palace thought they had scored the winner when Damien Delaney headed a similar goal to Benteke's into the far corner of the net, but James McArthur was apparently offside so the goal was ruled out.
Everton tried to launch a quick counter whilst Crystal Palace celebrated but Jonathan Moss wouldn't allow such entertainment. He instead ran to his linesman for confirmation of why it was ruled out. It seemed to me he was determined to give the goal to Crystal Palace. Why he had to run over to speak to him is over my head. The referees are microphoned up these days after all to improve communication and increase speed of play!
We toiled late on for a goal though it didn't materialise. Jason Puncheon cleared a headed effort off the goal line from a corner kick but we couldn't force the ball home. At full time I'd say Crystal Palace might have been slightly more disappointed with the result as they had us on the ropes at one point, but a draw was about fair. Boos rung around the stadium at full time, more born out of frustration that fume I think. Regardless, it feels our momentum has really been stunned these last 11 days since we lost to Norwich City.
If we have realistic aspirations of qualifying for Europe next season, we have to be getting more from games against Crystal Palace and Bournemouth than a solitary point, and with our next two fixtures away at Manchester City and Burnley, it's tough to expect much given the form in our last three fixtures. Most of the players are away on international duty this next 10 days or so, so a lot of hard work is required by Ronald Koeman and his management team to evaluate what has gone wrong these last few games, and plan how to overcome Manchester City the other side of the international break. We have to give Ronald time. Managers seldom arrive and hit the ground running. The first season is usually a struggle.
After the match, Gaz kindly drove us back to MacKenzie's Whisky Bar where we returned for the live show aired on Sky Sports 1. We had a laugh and appeared in the backdrop on TV quite a few times having now watched it back. We finally made it!
Stekelenburg: Not a great deal to do really but he seemed a little helpless with the goal. One moment when he punched the ball out from a crowded penalty area particularly sticks in my mind. 6
Oviedo: Performed admirably. Though I'd question the wisdom of it, I hope that the late substitution which replaced him with Ramiro Funes Mori was tactical rather than injury-forced, as Bryan seldom seems able to finish a game. 6
Jagielka: His defensive display, when we were under severe pressure in the second half, was key to us preserving the draw. 8
Williams: See Jagielka. 8
Coleman: Full of effort down the right though not quite on his top form. 6
Barry: Had a decent game in there and was perhaps the most creative outlet in midfield. 8
Gueye: As busy as ever all over the pitch. 8
Bolasie: Though a bit inconsistent, he was fired up and perhaps did more than anyone to try and force the winner though alas it never came. A few early observations the other players are always looking for him and trying to give him the ball so they must have a lot of faith in his ability. Also, the Crystal Palace players were often tapping him on the back, helping him up and shaking his hand throughout the game, which tells me he's probably a pretty good lad and they respect him. Even when he clattered someone late on, their players and even Alan Pardew didn't make as much of it as they may have done. My Man of the Match. 8
Cleverley: His final product was often lacking but give him some credit, he worked his socks off and pretty much always does and you can't really ask for more than that. 6
Barkley: Well he's trying and he didn't have his worst game. If he keeps on working hard hopefully he'll get his confidence back. 6
Lukaku: Was fairly busy and scored a good goal but I feel he needs to defend from the front a bit more. At times in the second half more movement and effort would have really helped out his team mates. Good to see him grab a goal also. 6
Mirallas (for Barkley): Didn't really make an impact despite his best efforts. 6
Funes Mori (for Oviedo): He did his best but couldn't quite make an impact. 6
Sky Sports' cameras descend on Goodison Park for the first time this season as Everton face Crystal Palace in the first match of the weekend's top-flight programme.
Sky's decision to open up Friday nights to Premier League football has not been welcomed in all quarters, with critics concerned that there is a risk of saturation with top-class football now on every day of the week, not to mention the usual difficulties posed for some supporters by evening matches.
(It's not the first time Everton have played a league game on a Friday, of course; more than once Boxing Day fixtures have fallen on Fridays — most recently, a 1-0 defeat to Stoke City in December 2014 — but they tend to get forgotten because they're public holidays.)
Tonight's meeting with Palace does, however, offer an opportunity for Evertonians to assemble under Goodison Park's magical lights and provide a special atmosphere to spur the Blues on to a much-needed victory.
Successive defeats, the first of Ronald Koeman's fledgeling tenure, have allowed some apprehension creep into discussions among Blues who feel a little uneasy that, after such a promising start, there is actually pressure on the players to put in a top-level performance so soon in the season.
Koeman was typically phlegmatic in his pre-match press conference and put last weekend's disappointment against Bournemouth as a collective bad day at the office but, with two barren weeks over the international break to ponder any bad result, you do feel that there's a lot more riding on this match than normal. Certainly, there is a need and desire to re-establish that early momentum that the Dutchman had established with four wins on the bounce.
It probably doesn't help that the visitors are Palace who will arrive with their tails up thanks to a three-match winning streak of their own and who have been something of a bogey side for us at Goodison since they returned to the Premier League in 2013. Two 3-2 wins — one effectively ended the Toffees' Champions League hopes in Roberto Martinez's first season; the other, coming on the heels of the 6-3 defeat to Chelsea, offered an early sign that 2014-15 was not going to see the team build on the fifth-place finish of the preceding campaign — and last season's 1-1 draw ensured that an Everton side hasn't beaten the Eagles at home since April 2005 on their way to finishing in fourth place.
Having endured some awful runs of form under Alan Pardew in recent times, Palace look to be a different proposition now that they've finally acquired a striker who can pose a reliable aerial threat and offer the promise of regular goals in Christian Benteke. Never what you could call prolific in his time at Liverpool, the Belgian hasn't looked like the same player since a ruptured Achilles disrupted his time at Aston Villa but he will still pose enough of a problem that Phil Jagielka and Ashley Williams will have to pay close attention to him.
It was his headed goal in stoppage time that completed Palace's recovery from a 2-0 deficit at Sunderland last Saturday to win 3-2 and they will almost certainly look to serve him with crosses and at set-pieces.
Everton, of course, have their own Belgian target man in Romelu Lukaku, who has 11 more Premier League goals than his compatriot and is two years younger. He won't be operating at 100%, however, with pain from the toe he injured against Middlesbrough still bothering him according to his manager. Koeman insisted in his pre-match press conference that Lukaku will start, though, and Evertonians will be hoping it won't affect him too much.
With Leighton Baines also out, there is the possibility that Koeman could name an unchanged side from last weekend, which would mean Bryan Oviedo continuing at left back in his absence. Gareth Barry could be a lingering concern after he was forced off at the Vitality Stadium with an ankle problem but his condition was not addressed during the manager's “presser” yesterday so it's not known if he is a doubt.
Koeman hinted that he is never averse to making personnel changes to suit the kind of game promised by a given opponent but it remains to be seen if he will, particularly as last weekend illustrated the paucity of game-changing options on the bench.
Whatever team he opts for, Everton will likely need a top-drawer performance at both ends of the park. Koeman's summer business has certainly beefed the side up in terms of being able to match more physical outfits like Palace and if they can put in the work rate to match while rediscovering the potency they displayed against the likes of Sunderland, then they should win and put a bounce back into the step to take into the international break.
A hopefully fired-up Yannick Bolasie playing against his old team, a more polished, confident Ross Barkley display and more influence from Kevin Mirallas would create the conditions in which Lukaku can thrive and improve upon his tally of three goals from his last four against the South Londoners.
Kick-off: 8pm, Friday 30 September, 2016
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Last Time: Everton 1 - 1 Crystal Palace
Predicted Line-up: Stekelenburg, Coleman, Jagielka, Williams, Oviedo, Barry, Gueye, Barkley, Bolasie, Mirallas, Lukaku