As victories go, this one was sorely needed. Not just as a pick-me-up following more agony in the Merseyside derby but to address an away record that has been dragging Everton down since the unexpected reverse at Bournemouth in September.
It wasn’t pretty, especially in a dour first half, and it wasn’t completely convincing but Ronald Koeman’s side rediscovered some important aspects of their makeup and their play on their travels that could once again form the foundations of a charge for the European places.
Idrissa Gueye’s glaring miss aside, the Blues were clinical when they needed to be, defensively sound in defence of a narrow lead and comfortable between the posts thanks to an assured display by Joel Robles in goal. And in contrast to the over-reliance on going direct in recent games, particularly against Watford and Liverpool, they actually played some football on the deck at times, even if it was just to maintain possession while they tried to pick their way through the opposition.
Then there was the added injection of youth, from the start in the form of Mason Holgate who played on the right-hand side of a three-man back line, and then in the second half from Tom Davies who put in another precocious performance off the bench at a time when Everton needed some more energy in the middle of the park.
With Gareth Barry pushing 36 and Phil Jagielka a year behind him, a changing of the guard will need to take place in Koeman’s team and there was a sense this afternoon that that is now underway. Both veterans will have roles to play as the second half of the season unfolds but Koeman is hopefully now grooming their successors, handing them more game time and more responsibility.
His Everton side will, of course, need more than a smattering of youth to get where it needs to go under his stewardship and the first 45 minutes at the King Power Stadium were a stark illustration. The visitors started with purpose but quickly found their hosts frustratingly hard to break down as Claudio Ranieri, knowing that his opposition is no longer the passing, possession-based outfit they were under Roberto Martinez, had his charges dropping back into an effective blue wall that collapsed the space and snapped into tackles to snuff out any move before it could threaten their goal.
To be fair, Everton’s defence was similarly effective at the other end in the early going but by the midway point of the first period, the Foxes were on top and the Blues found themselves hemmed into their own half for spells. With so little creativity in the line-up, almost nothing was worked through the middle; instead, almost everything was channelled through Seamus Coleman down a congested right flank where debutant Ben Chilwell was a particularly effective bulwark against the visitors’ attacks.
Ranieri’s men had little to show for their relative dominance, however, beyond some “sighters” from 20-plus yards. Robles made a comfortable save to stop one from Daniel Amartey while Demarai Gray finished a counter-attack by firing wide and Islam Slimani hammered another effort well off target from a similar range.
For Everton, Romelu Lukaku was cutting a familiarly isolated figure up front and his only hint of an opening came from an angled ball forward from Barry that almost put him in past the last defender before the opportunity was snuffed out. Ramiro Funes Mori headed over after a 42nd-minute corner had been cleared back to Kevin Mirallas and Leighton Baines almost found the Belgian’s toe with a raking shot-cum-cross in first-half stoppage time.
Koeman has spoken of his side maybe needing a little luck to lift them out of the doldrums and a little came six minutes into the second half just when Evertonian thoughts were drifting towards the substitutes’ bench and musing about what changes could come from there.
Robles swept a long pass over the Leicester defence, catching both Marcin Wasilewski and Wes Morgan on their heels for a crucial split second as Mirallas raced onto it. Taking a touch wide of the goalkeeper, the Belgian looked to slot it past him and his shot was helped into the net by Wasilewski’s foot as he slid in to try and block it. 1-0 and Everton were on their way to three points.
That they secured it owed much to some committed defending, led by the rock solid Ashley Williams at the heart of the Blues rearguard and some pleasingly strong goalkeeping by Robles. The Spaniard wouldn’t be tested much beyond a close-range Leonardo Ulloa that was as close as the Foxes came to equalising but his positioning and dominance in the air was first rate.
Helped by that defensive resilience and the introduction of Davies, Everton refused to allow the kind of fightback from 2-0 down that Leicester pulled off against Stoke last weekend. The 18-year-old even provided some threat going forward, bouncing one shot narrowly wide and then forced a low save from Kasper Schmeichel before Ross Barkley replaced Mirallas to give Leicester one more problem to worry about.
The 23-year-old was involved in what was arguably Everton’s best move of the match seven minutes from time as he released Lukaku down the right and the striker crossed to meet the run of the on-rushing Gueye. Sadly, the Senegalese, on the slide, could only steer the ball over the bar with the goal gaping in front of him.
Instead it was left to Lukaku to kill the game in the first minute of stoppage time as only he can. Outmuscling Morgan in a challenge for a long clearance from the edge of the Blues’ box, he tore away from the defender, feinted to the left of Wasilewski and tucked his shot inside the post before knee-sliding in celebration at his 10th goal of the season.
What had threatened to be another tedious and frustrating afternoon had finished with a professional away performance, Everton ending a three-month wait for an away win and the feeling of a whole lift around the club heading into the final match of the year against bottom of the table Hull.
Grind another win there, follow it up with another three points against Southampton and then start making some astute moves in the transfer market and, all of a sudden, 2016-17 starts to hold promise again that Koeman’s first season in charge will come to represent huge improvement on what came before.
Everton travel to Leicester with Robles, Holgate and Mirallas given starts, with Jagielka and Barkley on the bench.
Maarten Stekelenburg is injured after Leighton Baines crashed into him last week, so Joel Robles replaces him in the starting line-up and young 'keeper Mateusz Hewelt gets promoted to the bench as cover along with bright prospect Tom Davies from the Under-23s.
Everton kicked off with the now requisite hoof forward that then lost possession. The early exchanges saw the visitors controlling the play without really penetrating the Foxes defence. After some lame pass-the-parcel at the back, Colemans early cross was straight to Schmeichel.
After 10 mins, it was Leicester's turn to apply some pressure as Amartey fired in on Robles. For Everton, they were relying on forward balls through Coleman wide right and this ploy won the first corner, taken by Barry but looping in high to Schmeichel. From his release, Gray ran forward and fired wide.
Chilwell put in a good run that won Leicester a corner as the tempo increased a little. But Everton's play out of the back was painfully slow and ultimately wasteful. An attack down the left saw Baines put on a better-quality cross, but it was Baines who gave away a free-kick coming in late on Gray.
Barry tried to pick out Lukaku with a sharp forward ball but it ran away from the big man. Holgate tried the same thing from deep. When Baines did pick out Lukaku, Mirallas was well offside in front of him.
When Everton did play the ball forward at pace, there seemed to be a lot more space opening up, but still no end-product was forthcoming. Gueye played a great ball directly in to Lukaku's feet and it just bounced back off him.
It was laboured at best, albeit with Everton dominating possession but producing absolutely nothing in the way of a meaningful attack on goal. Mirallas did win another corner, that he took, Funes Mori almost connecting, follwed by abetter movement and a scuffed shot from Baines but still not testing Schmeichel as a dreadful 45 minutes of what now passes for Premier League football mercifully ended.
The laboured play continued until a long clearance from Robles bounced nicely fro Mirallas and he struggled to control the ball enough to deflect it off a defender past Schmeichel and into the Leicester net. Route one pays off!
The goal bought some much-needed life to proceedings, with Mirallas threatrening to get a second but for close attention from the Foxes defence. ALbrighton got a chance to threaten the Everton goal from a free-kick but it was played straight to Robles.
Williams overstretched to clear a ball and may have damaged his hamstring as the home side were willed on by their fans, Everton. Ulloa replaced Gray and almost cored off a free-header, Robles well-positioned to catch it as the Yellows had to batten down the hatches under repeated Leicester forays, with Davies replacing Gareth Barry as the pressure continued to mount, Baines picking up the armband.
Some real pressure now, the Everton defence tested but holding firm, with Barkley getting the call to replace goalscorer Mirallas for the last 15 minutes. Davies broke forward and tried a curler past the far post, and was a live wire in mdifield. Simpson booked for a foul on Barkley.
The quality of the football was still remarkably poor from both sides, but all that mattered to Everton was retaining a precious lead. Mahrez and Ulloa had other ideas, with another great ball in to the far post but this time under defensive pressure from Williams.
Everton finally got some decent passing and took the sting out of it, Lukaku getting forward off a superb ball from Barkley, but out wide he played the cross to Gueye, positions bizarrely swapped and the open goal predictably missed. Why oh why wasn't Lukaku in the box instead of making the cross?
Drinkwater drew a yellow for fouling Lennon, which led to a corner taken by Barkley, with Davies firing in the third ball at goal. Cleverley replaced Lennon to break up the play a little as the minutes ticked away towards a precious Everton win.
Into 4 minutes of added time and Everton trying their best to keep the ball away from Robles and Barkley did brilliantly to get the ball out to Lukaku who did the rest as only he can when running with the ball after batting away Wes Morgan.
Lukaku then played in Coleman who could not control his late shot, while the travelling Blues revelled in the moment with a fine retinue of songs as the KP Stadium rapidly emptied. An excellent result from a really poor display of football. That is apparently the best we can expect until the Koeman 'project' is complete... two years from now.
From My Seat: Leicester City (A)
A trip across the country to the home of the Premier League Champions... Leicester City (doesn’t sound quite right that) is always a boring sort of journey but, once in Leicester, it's quite a colourful place really. With my turkey butties and a couple of mince pies in my silver foil and the trusty flask full of a warming liquid, I ponder how our last result will affect this game. The team comes through and right away you can see 5 at the back, or 3 with 2 wingbacks, or swap between them depending how the game is going.
It was nice to see Holgate starting and Davies on the bench. There has been a clamour in some quarters for more of our youngsters to be played but I believe, from what I have seen, that we have no ‘Rooney type’ who is a shoo-in at 16... but we do have some definite talent and that needs to be handled with care for them to reach their true potential. The two selected today will start getting a bit more game time. I wish them well.
The corner of the ground that was mini-Goodison today soon filled as kick-off approached and most seemed in good voice. The players were welcomed with great support, even after last week, so that was positive. We kicked off and, well, to be honest... nothing much from either side. I looked at my notes and the words 'half-time' seemed just a few lines from the title. To say it was a scrappy start was being kind... yet, on the positive side, in the first 10 minutes, Holgate was looking composed and prominent in combining with Coleman and feeding him a couple of balls that saw him into crossing positions but alas he over-hit both.
On 10 mins, Leicester did have a shot on target but Joel gathered it in easily, it was straight at him. A few minutes later, we force a corner and Barry takes but his in-swinger was too close to the keeper who gathered and set Leicester up on the counter, splitting our defence, but Gray, through on his own, got over-excited and fired well wide. The faithful cheered his effort.
It’s the half-hour mark now and I am still waiting for Gana to really start and influence things more. He was doing the running okay but little in the way of keeping things ticking over; however, Holgate was still showing well under the tutelage of Ashley Williams who was having a decent half. The game was end-to-end without any product which doesn’t really excite anyone. Then, right on the death, we put a good move together that got Baines in down the left and his well hit daisy cutter across goal missed the sliding Mirallas’s toe by a fraction and that was the first half gone.
I asked a mate if we had changed shirt sponsor as it wasn’t Chang today. He didn’t know so we pondered what the second half might bring. The half starts and we see Holgate again look comfortable and calmly gets the ball forward down the line well. Then we see Lukaku pass to no-one and Leicester attack but again founder near the box as Williams marshals his defence well and that was yer first five minutes... so ‘here we go again’, I thought... when Joel Launches one long up-field and Mirallas emerged from between two defenders, did them for pace, and slotted. The Merseyside corner erupted – it was as if everyone was waving clenched fists in unison in some choreographed rite.
The mood changed from an away end that had, from time to time, done the ‘Everton’ Chant and one or two other songs; well, now it was really buzzing and even the festive Jingle Bells one about Everton winning away was aired. I thought: "If we do win away today, it will be the first time since September." So, after a turgid five minutes, the sixth brought that goal and with it a confidence shown by the players that we haven’t seen for a while. Plus Koeman changed the system a little to a flexible 4-4-2 with Mirallas supporting Lukaku more.
The faithful got even more boisterous on 67 mins when Tom Davies replaced Barry. I think that change was well called as we needed young legs to get about them now because they were really going for it in a spell that lasted a good 15 mins but, with Williams a rock at the back and certainly playing as the captain of the rearguard, and Joel giving them all confidence by coming for the crosses and high balls and dealing flawlessly with them. I wonder if this could be the start of something better for him?
In an effort to get a win, we dropped deeper and at times it looked a bit like the derby as we cleared balls only for them to come straight back. I noted that young Davies did well with his boundless energy in this Leicester spell and the manager on 75 mins took off Mirallas and sent on Ross. It was an inspired move because Ross was eager to get on the ball and not give it away; instead, he took players on, looked for the right pass, and slowly the tide turned again now. Gana and Davies were looking to push on when they could and in one of these moves, Davies surged and put in a good shot that curved away wide. Then it was Gana’s turn when Lukaku got onto a great through-ball from Ross, moved rapidly forward and crossed to the unmarked Gana just some six-yards out but the Senegal international managed to get it over the bar, took some doing that, but he was flat out and sliding along the ground.
It was a bit of a ding-dong battle now and Leicester had all their star men on the pitch off the bench but we at last were looking like a team on the up. Okay, there may be some way to go but, in injury time, we put together a move and goal that supported my feeling. Joel was still cleanly gathering anything within his reach, Davies was like a rash and managing to get a shot on target; Ross was looking like the player we all hope for, and these players combined in one way or another to get Lukaku onto a Ross through-ball a0nd go with some strength to get past the man-mountain, Morgan, then trick the big centre-back, Wasilewski, and slot past the keeper who had gone to ground. It was the play of a striker that costs a lot of money. Still, 3 mins of added to play but really the game was over and I doubt whether many Blues saw those minutes as they danced and sang every song in their repertoire.
Final whistle and – although not the best game you will ever see – I didn’t meet a fan who doesn’t take a win first; if the icing can be added, then fine but for a fan's peace of mind, it's always the win. I always want to win with silky joined-up stuff but, if I had to choose between the two... well?
MotM – Ashley Williams
I did wonder today if perhaps we have seen the best position for Ross – that is until he can add the word 'consistency' to his game. Impact sub. He definitely added a lot today when he came on. Just perhaps a few of these performances can propel him to be the player the coaches always said he would become.
A win today and next up is lowly Hull City. An away banker in many eyes but in this league no games are ever the same, so I hope we have at least gained confidence from today and the manager and players can give us what we crave.
Hope you have all had a great Christmas; now New Years Eve could depend on the Hull away score. Dan-der an dan.
UP THE BLUES
The push for a mid-season winter break seems to be getting stronger by the year but there is something undeniably special about the Festive calendar and the closest game to Christmas in particular.
Boxing Day away; Evertonians in blue Santa hats; adapted Christmas carols; and, oh, what fun it would be to see Everton get something away! Not since the point they so impressively earned at the Etihad Stadium in mid-October have the Blues got anything from a match away from Goodison Park and it is three and a half months since they last won on their travels.
There is no doubt that the away form is a key area of concern for Ronald Koeman but while the defeat at Watford was another low point in a season full of them, the last two home performances, against Arsenal and Liverpool, have at least established a baseline for the effort, energy, pressing and spirit that is required if a top-six finish is going to remain a realistic goal.
Koeman will have to pick his charges up again from defeat, however, as he prepares to take Everton to Leicester City, the scene of a weak display earlier this year as the Blues rolled out the blue carpet ahead of the Foxes' coronation as Premier League Champions.
The unlikelihood of their title triumph has perhaps been underscored by their struggling defence of it so far this season. Leicester come into this game sitting in 15th place, three points off the relegation zone and 26 points behind the current leaders, Chelsea.
They have shown signs of life recently though with a 4-2 victory over Manchester City that relieved the pressure on Claudio Ranieri, albeit thanks to a hat-trick from Jamie Vardy. The England striker will be missing from their line-up, however, as he serves the first match of a three-game ban.
He will be joined in the stands by two more key members of the Foxes team — both Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs will also be suspended while Danny Drinkwater is a doubt through injury. All four are important members of Ranieri's side and will certainly force the Italian to dig deeper into his squad.
Koeman, meanwhile, will be forced into more changes to his starting XI after James McCarthy succumbed to another hamstring strain and Maarten Stekelenburg was forced out of the Merseyside derby with a dead leg. Gareth Barry replaced the Ireland international to limited effect against Liverpool last Monday but with Tom Cleverley out of favour and Koeman still reluctant to satisfy the growing clamour for Tom Davies' inclusion, the veteran will likely get the nod to partner Idrissa Gueye in central midfield.
Further forward, the extra dimension that Enner Valencia has brought in the last couple of games will likely see him keep his place and while Ross Barkley's erratic has become a topic of much conversation, a lack of alternatives will probably see him continue in his role behind Romelu Lukaku.
While there has been a feeling at the lowest points of the campaign under the new manager that little has changed from the team's struggles under Roberto Martinez, Koeman can go a long way to restoring the positive feeling of progress that he enjoyed at the start of the season by picking up a win at the King Power Stadium. His predecessor was a dead man walking by the time Everton were beaten convincingly 3-1 in early May but this trip to the Midlands offers the Dutchman the chance to engender some much-needed positivity again heading into the final game of the year.
Kick-off: 3pm, Monday 26th December, 2016
Referee: Stuart Atwell
Last Time: Leicester 3 - 1 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Coleman, Williams, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, Gueye, Lennon, Barkley, Valencia, Lukaku