What a difference four months make.
That’s one of the more obvious thoughts that come to mind when analysing the contrast between the Everton that trooped off the field at the Stadium of Light just six Premier League games ago having been soundly beaten and the one that romped in the second half this evening to a handsome 3-0 victory.
The scoreline was, of course, completely reversed in Sunderland’s favour at the end of 90 minutes on the last occasion this fixture was played back in May but it’s less the time in between than what the Everton hierarchy did with it that has been so remarkable.
Roberto Martinez was summarily dismissed the day after that chastening evening on Weariside, within weeks Ronald Koeman was installed as his successor and the Dutchman has since set about strengthening — both in terms of numbers and physique — what had become a weak outfit — psychologically and also in terms of fitness — under the Catalan. The transformation has been impressive, with respect to both personnel and the decisiveness from the dugout.
The signs were there from the early minutes of the opening day draw against Tottenham, but in Idrissa Gueye, Everton may well have pulled off the steal of the summer in landing him from Aston Villa for just £7.2m. The Senegalese international might not have been at his disruptive best this evening but he morphed into an altogether more rounded midfield general — part enforcer, part water-carrier, part play-maker and, for the opening goal, the provider of a quite wonderful assist.
In Yannick Bolasie, the Blues now possess a player perhaps equally as unpredictable as Gerard Deulofeu, but with more power and pace to burn past his marker from a standing-start than the Spaniard. He, too, laid on a goal with a terrific delivery into the box after serving up the only clear-cut chance of the first half with a similarly impressive cross, that time from the right flank.
Deulofeu himself, meanwhile, came off the bench to provide the movement and direct running that proved to be the difference between a patchy and often staid performance before half time and a wholly more energetic one in the second half, thereby underscoring the depth in Koeman's squad when it comes to potential difference-makers.
Then there was Romelu Lukaku who was a virtual spectator on his last appearance at the Stadium of Light but who came to life this evening as his team-mates found another gear and an extra dimension in the second half to provide him the ammunition to fire his first Everton goals for six months.
Amid last season’s turmoil, his personal goal drought, the protracted speculation of his future and the fuel he himself has thrown on that particular fire, Lukaku has come in for plenty of criticism this year. He proved once again, however, that when he is fit, mentally on song and the team plays to his strengths he remains a naturally potent goalscorer.
It was he who was on the end of a pin-point Bolasie cross in the first half that might well have handed Everton a 13th-minute lead were it not for an excellent reflex save by Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal. That chance, together with an earlier one where the returning Seamus Coleman’s centre almost fell into his path and another where he managed to get off a shot at the keeper despite the smothering attentions of Lamine Koné, offered portents of what was to come after the interval.
Yet the paucity of clear openings for the Blues in that first half made for frustrating viewing for supporters and manager alike. Everton had by the midway point in the first 45 minutes, established themselves as the dominant side and would restrict their hosts to just two moments of danger — a Jermaine Defoe chance where a deflected shot found him behind the Blues’ back line with just Maarten Stekelenburg to beat but he sliced over the goal, and Lynden Gooch’s curling cross-cum-shot that the Dutchman had to palm over his bar for a corner. But Koeman’s charges were giving the ball away too cheaply, resorting to ineffective direct balls forward that were meat and drink to Kone and Papy Djilobodji, and generally struggling to get anything meaningful going in the final third.
Sadly, in a week where his absence from the England squad and his club manager’s assertion that he needs to now produce for Everton, Ross Barkley was the chief culprit. Profligate in possession, weak in the tackle and slow in both deed and speed of thought, he was the antithesis of what Koeman expects from a player in such an important role and it was no surprise that he was hooked at half time for the second time in succession in this fixture, this time in favour of Deulofeu.
The change in Everton’s play and their penetration was noticeable almost immediately and while the Black Cats would hold out for another quarter of an hour before their goal was finally breached, Everton were already probing for weaknesses.
Bolasie, whose unpredictability had been as much a hindrance to his own team than a weapon against the opposition, was threatening down the left flank and it was his whipped shot that Pickford almost turned into Deulofeu’s path in front of goal in the 48th minute.
Three minutes after that, the same pairing combined when the Spaniard latched onto the Congolese international’s ball over the top. Initially taken wide by a heavy first touch, Deulofeu eventually twisted his way back inside into the box, saw a deflected shot fall to Gueye who quickly laid on to Coleman. The Irishman’s drilled shot missed the target but was almost turned it at the far post by Lukaku.
The long-awaited breakthrough came with an hour gone from a counter-attack following a Sunderland corner at the other end. Everything David Moyes’s men would throw at the Blues’ defence would be repelled in the second half, often by Ashley Williams, but on this occasion it was Lukaku who cleared the set-piece to set Deulofeu on his way. The winger’s fleet feet helped him evade one tackle and then carried him into Black Cats territory where a poor pass looking for Kevin Mirallas was cut out only as far as Gueye who drove forward, used Deulofeu as a decoy and then chipped a delightful ball to the six-yard line where Lukaku had made up the ground to nod a downward header past Pickford.
Sunderland’s most intense spell followed as they searched for a quick equaliser but they were becoming increasingly ragged at the back, where Koné, a summer target for Koeman who very nearly signed for Everton, went from tower of strength to Keystone Cop alongside the increasingly hapless Djilobodji.
Lukaku rolled his marker and hammered a shot off the crossbar that would have doubled his tally had it been just a few inches lower but he would get his second in the 68th minute thanks to Bolasie’s turn of pace down the flank. The winger burned Javier Manquillo for speed to the byline and arced a left-footed cross to the back post where Lukaku had all the time in the world to bury another header.
2-0 became 3-0 three minutes later as Lukaku wrapped up his hat-trick when Mirallas exchanged passes with Deulofeu in the centre-circle before dissecting the Sunderland defence with a perfect through-ball that allowed his compatriot to spring the offside trap and slide the ball past the ‘keeper with unerring confidence. 11 games without a Premier League goal partially atoned for in the space of as many minutes.
Sunderland were a fully vanquished side by this point and Moyes cut a dejected figure in the home dugout as Everton spurned further chances to twist the knife in their former boss. Pickford beat away Bolasie’s powerful drive, Lukaku blazed over with Mirallas perhaps better placed to his left, his late replacement Arouna Koné also had a low shot saved while Deulofeu would almost certainly have scored in stoppage time when he was put completely in the clear by another wonderful ball over the top but his first touch again let him down.
Koeman made made mention of those missed opportunities after the game and he voiced his displeasure at the first 45 minutes but he couldn’t hide his delight at a terrific second-half display. The result lifts Everton into 3rd place and while it’s still early days, Evertonians are daring to dream of a European challenge again on the basis of a five-match unbeaten run in all competitions under the new manager.
Most important is the evidence so far of the success of Koeman’s ethos, his methods and his summer transfer business which has visibly beefed the team up, shored up the defence and injected the kind of attacking options that can turn matches just when it looks like they are shaping up to be a hard slog towards frustration.
It’s a squad that won’t be fully tested until early October when they travel to the Etihad Stadium to face impressive early leaders Manchester City but the key in the interim was always going to be to pick up points, achieve full fitness and gel the new-look team into the sum of its parts that it once promised it could be under Martinez. Confidence will beget performances and the points will take care of themselves. In that respect, this has been a very positive beginning to the Koeman era.
There's a weird paradox between the feeling with each passing year that time flies by ever faster and yet the international breaks seem to drag by even more slowly these days. Perhaps it's because, having moved on from the increasingly worrisome Roberto Martinez era and witnessed a strong start to 2016-17, Evertonians are just anxious for the team to get on the field to see what's next now that the distraction of the transfer window is out the way.
Regardless, thanks to broadcast scheduling by Sky Sports, Blues fans have an extra two days to wait for a Monday night kick-off in Sunderland to face another former boss in the shape of David Moyes. Like Ronald Koeman, the Scot will be in charge of his fourth Premier League fixture at his new club but there is quite a contrast in the outlooks of the respective managers for the campaign.
Moyes was in a mode very familiar to Everton supporters the other week when he openly admitted that Sunderland were facing another battle against relegation this season. Koeman, meanwhile, was talking in terms of Europe at his pre-match press conference on Thursday.
The lack of Champions League football has been cited as a significant factor in the challenge the Blues faced over the summer in trying to attract top talent to Goodison Park and with the strength of the Premier League's established four power-houses — the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Chelsea — having been largely backed up by their own performance in the transfer market and early results this season, a top-four finish might be a tall order again this time around.
Still, as Leicester (no one should count out their top-four prospects either) proved last season, anything is possible and Everton are currently quoted at around 7/1 to finish in the Champions League places come May. You can get 100/1 on the Blues pulling off the same feat as the Foxes and winning the title! My Betting Bonus has an array of promotions if you fancy a flutter on Everton's chances, either on Monday's game or the season as a whole, but a return to the Europa League would be a great first step and there will be confidence in the Finch Farm camp that that is a more than realistic aim.
“I had the same experience at Southampton,” Koeman told the media on Thursday with regard to the difficulty in attracting the best players without having the carrot of Champions League footnball. “You like to show to [the players] that they can develop, that the club is growing and it likes to win titles. That's not done in one year, that needs time.
“It's all up to this season, how we perform because if we reach Europe, which is our challenge, then it'll be easier to get these kinds of players.”
With Koeman's and Steve Walsh's first-choice targets of striking support for Romelu Lukaku proving beyond reach, the onus for firing the Blues into Europe will fall on the shoulders of the Belgian and new loan signing Enner Valencia. The Ecuadorian arrives at Goodison with the chance to relaunch a career that had stalled at West Ham two years after he arrived in East London fresh from his goalscoring exploits at the World Cup in Brazil.
It's an opportunity that Slaven Bilic has admitted could be good for all parties and Koeman certainly feels that the 26-year-old can provide much-needed competition and versatility to his forward line.
“He will bring that competition that all players need,” the Dutchman said in the Liverpool Echo. “He has pace, he's physical, he can play in different positions across the front, and he can press.”
Lukaku will continue to be the main man, though, and he will take to the field at the Stadium of Light looking to end an uncharacteristic run of 13 league games without a goal.
The player himself said recently that he fully expects the goals to flow now that he is getting back to 100% fitness after his protracted break following Euro2016 and both club staff and fans alike will be hoping that the brace he scored for Belgium this past week can be the catalyst that reignites his club form. He is 4/1 to score either the first or last goal on Monday and 13/10 to score any time.
“I expect a lot from [Romelu] because he's a very good player,” Koeman explained yesterday. “He's still 23 and he knows that he can improve and that he needs to develop himself.
“The technical staff is support for the boy to make him a better player and, of course, he's an important player because he's normally the top scorer in the team.
”I hope he will score next [goal] next Monday. Strikers need goals to have total confidence but don't forget he had a difficult pre-season. He came in late and I think he is now close to his best [levels] to perform.”
While Koeman's forward line already has a settled look to it, with Kevin Mirallas, Yannick Bolasie and Ross Barkley rounding out the likely starters in that area of the pitch, the manager has his first selection headaches in defence now that Ashley Williams is fully fit and Seamus Coleman is available again.
The duo captained their respective nations in World Cup qualifying this past week and are strong candidates to be in the Blues' starting XI against Sunderland but Mason Holgate's form in the Irishman's absence means that Koeman faces a very difficult decision when it comes to the right fullback/wingback position.
There were some question marks over whether Coleman was rushed back into action by Martin O'Neill for the match in Serbia last Monday but Koeman has confirmed that he is fit to start. It remains to be seen whether Holgate is demoted despite his impressive displays thus far or whether the boss accommodates him in a three-man defence.
Sunderland may have begun 2016-17 with just one point from their first three games but with the benefit of a fortnight's break, Moyes will have had more time to instill in his new charges his defensive ethos and his plans to make the Black Cats difficult to beat.
As such, he will plan to make life as difficult for the Blues as possible and it could be a contest that shapes up in a similar way to the game at West Brom three weeks ago, with the home side happy to cede possession and daring Everton to break them down while hoping to cause problems of their own at set-pieces, as they did under Sam Allardyce in Martinez's last match in May.
In ex-Evertonians like Jack Rodwell and the talented, but ageing, Steven Pienaar, plus Adnan Januzaj and Duncan Watmore, Sunderland do have players in their ranks who can cause Koeman's side problems but in the absence of the injured Fabio Borini and the removal from the equation of the inevitable goal against his former team from Victor Anichebe, it's veteran Jermaine Defoe who will pose the biggest threat.
Able to conjure a goal from very little, the 33-year-old was the Black Cats' top scorer last season and leads their team again with two already for the season. Preventing service to him will hopefully be uppermost in the minds of the Everton coaching staff in preparation for this one but there will be confidence in the likes of Phil Jagielka and Williams that he can be effectively shackled on the night.
Though the table means very little at this early stage of the season, the confidence that comes from winning games and being among the pace-setters can be a big boost, particularly if the Blues can pick up another win and capitalise on the points that will inevitably be dropped in tomorrow's Manchester derby.
A victory would also demonstrate that Everton are making the most of a relatively favourable run of league fixtures, something they repeatedly failed to do in each of the last two seasons. Tougher challenges loom, particularly at the start of October and November and for much of December but for now the key will be to keep grinding out results.
Kick-off: Monday, 8pm
Referee: Mike Jones
Last time: Sunderland 3 - 0 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Jagielka, Williams, Baines, Gueye, Barry, Barkley, Mirallas, Bolasie, Lukaku