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.
For the visit of West Brom, Phil Jagielka returns to captain Everton, with Kevin Mirallas starting up front while Funes Mori and Gana Gueye are dropped to the bench where Calvert-Lewin returns from injury.
Gareth Barry retains his starting place, meanwhile, for West Brom, Morrison and Brunt are rested by Tony Pulis, with Robson-Kanu coming in to be their front runner. Rondon is on the bench.
Mirallas gave away an early free-kick but he was quick to pick up Lukaku's pass and dance down the left wing but his cross was poor. A good run by Lukaku won a corner and that saw some probing plays, Coleman circling around to the left and powering in a great low cross that fooled everyone.
With ground balls stymied, a ball up to Lukaku was nodded down for Barkley to stab at from distance, well wide. But Everton's build-up was painfully slow and easily stifled. Lukaku eventually got a sight of goal but his shot across Foster bobbled past the far post.
West Brom put in their own attack, a header from Fletcher collected easily by Robles, but the pace of the game was pedestrian at best and the guile needed against the packed defence was somewhat lacking, any space in the West Brom box being immediately closed down.
Everton defending did not look too confident with some scrappy play stopping a shot from Robson-Kanu. At the other end, long sequences of passing were not getting very far, Lukaku eventually letting Davies get in behind and from the corner, Baines crossed well to the far post where a towering Romelu Lukaku failed badly to make proper contact with his head: second chance gone begging.
Another corner, played short, ended in a lame shot from Barkley. Some more energetic tight passing looked to break through but a black shirt inevitably snuffed out the promising play, allowing The Baggies to advance and cross, winning a corner off a Robles flap.
McClean was next to swing in a great cross that needed the defensive header from Williams with Robson-Kanu right behind him. Barkley tried a better shot but could not get it to drop. Chadli was given space and time to line up a shot that Robles had to turn behind the post.
Davies in space released Barkley but Lukaku was surrounded by four defenders, however, he pulled away and crossed, the ball coming to Barkley who shot again and there was Mirallas to fire in the rebound off Foster.
Off a free-kick it looked like Coleman was fouled but he lost his footing. But a driving determined move by Lukaku saw him clip the ball forward to Schneiderlin running in and he clipped the balls cleverly past Foster for a fine second goal.
It was a great finish to what had at times been an arduous, slow and difficult first half for the Blues, but the 2-0 scoreline gave them great confidence for the second half.
The half began with Ramirez Funes Mori replacing Leighton Baines, who had picked up an injury. Lukaku drove forward off a ball from Tom Davies and fired in a cross-cum-shot that went over everyone. But Everton were looking a little more inventive than they had for much of the first half.
But they were giving up space in defence, allowing Chadli a sight of Robles, then giving the Baggies a corner, Referee Scott this time denying Everton a quick counter by failing to play the advantage.
More lengthy intricate passing moves, some circling all the way back to Robles, tried to draw an opening in the solid Baggies defence but it would often end with a mistake; patience was needed in spades.
Mirallas drove in well down the left channel and fed Barkley who tried to create space for the shot, but could only fire into the side netting. After that, the game became very flat for an extended period.
Idrissa Gana Gueye was brought on to replace Kevin Mirallas for the last 20 minutes, something of a negative move from the manager who had both Lookman and Calvert-Lewin in need of more top-level exposure, with a solid two-goal lead.
Yacob pulled down Lukaku in the Dee, earning a yellow card and giving the big man another chance but he drove the free-kick into the wall. More substitutions broke up any tempo there was as the game became if anything even more pedestrian than it had been in the first half.
Davies was required to defend and tackled the attacker, giving up a corner that went all the way through for a throw-in. Barkley tried to clip the ball over for a lurking Lukaku before Barry earned his obligatory yellow card for upending Rondon.
Out of very little, a lovely chipped cross from Barkley placed right on Lukaku's head and this one he could not miss, to make it 3-0. Finally time to bring on Dominic Calvert-Lewin in place of Gareth Barry.
A couple of tricky Baggies corners needed defending before Lukaku drove forward and Barkely got some space to shoot, the ball hitting a defender's arm. Calvert-Lewin was cynically blocked by Dawson on the break: yellow card.
Idrissa Gueye saw a nice opening near the end, firing onto the post with Foster stranded, to wrap up a solid if uninspiring win that puts Everton within 2 points of Man Utd in 6th place... but having played two more games.
Everton: Robles, Coleman, Ashley Williams, Jagielka, Baines (46' Funes Mori), Davies, Schneiderlin, Barry [Y:81'] (84' Calvert-Lewin), Barkley, Lukaku, Mirallas (71' Gana).
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, Holgate, Valencia, Lookman.
West Bromwich Albion: Foster, Dawson [Y:88'], McAuley, Evans, Nyom, Livermore, Chadli, Fletcher, Yacob [Y:73'] (79' Morrison), McClean (75' Brunt), Robson-Kanu (75' Rondon).
Subs not Used: Olsson, M Wilson, Myhill, Field.
Referee: Graham Scott
From My Seat: WBA (H)
Back at a sold-out Goodison after that poor show down the Lane and we all wondered would there be any hangover. Pulis and WBA always make life difficult for us in most games. We had some West Brom fans in our pub and we were discussing away days in general and this game in particular.
When the teams came through he took one look at his team and informed me Pulis had picked a very defensive side trying to make sure they didn’t lose and maybe nick one especially from set pieces. I said, well you usually play like that but if we can score early then you may have to change tack and save us from a grind of a game. We had good banter and he bought me a drink and said he would see us after the match and after the Baggies had won. I gave him directions as to the best way to the ground and he was gone.
We made our way up and the place was buzzing. Goodison Road was awash with people, chip papers and horse droppings. Why are the police allowed to not have or use ‘Pooper Scoopers’? In our seats to hear the tribute to Alex Young. His ex-teammate Derek Temple spoke in glowing terms regarding Alex the man and player. The teams came out to Z-Cars but today the music was played by a lone piper, a nice touch.
The game started and within minutes you got the sense it would be as my new friend had said. WBA were in “they shall not pass” mode and we were pressing hard but finding no routes through. A bit boring you might say but I believed we were willing to keep possession and keep probing thus giving them little leeway to break on us looking for a breakaway goal or a foul to create a set piece.
Our manager had left out Gana and left Davies in as well as retaining Barry even though he got some criticism after Spurs and it seemed to be paying off as with Barry the conductor and Davies the whirling dervish we were starting to take control. Rom and Ross were causing problems for them up top. Schneiderlin was more box to box and with Jags back in the back four with Mori benched we were looking solid and indeed thwart West Brom at two set pieces first half.
The crowd were quiet which had the away fans asking if they should sing a song for us; we took no notice of them as our quietness was one of anticipation as we could see we were getting control and all that was needed was a goal. With every break we made fans leaned forward in anticipation and hope and when 30 mins came up a touch of anxiety was creeping in. However, we were probing more and with intent.
Then on 40 mins Lukaku who had grown into the game was marauding in the right channel and headed into the box where two defenders bounced off him and his pass ended up at the feet of the excellent Ross Barkley who hit a power drive that hit their keeper in the chest with a thud that could be heard from my seat. The ball bounced out and the quicksilver Mirallas was first to react and smashed the ball home. Now we got some response from the crowd. Chadli did have their only real shot on goal but Joel sprawled and deflected the effort for a corner.
Things got even better as the half was ending. The muscular Lukaku seemed to holding off three defenders in their box in a mighty tussle and he timed his pass to the darting Schneiderlin to perfection who rather expertly threaded the ball home from close in and at a tight angle. At the cessation of the home celebrations you could feel relaxation in the air.
During the break Tony Bellew took to the mic on the pitch by the dugout and thanked all the Evertonians who rooted for him last week. It must be Tony’s shortest speech ever!!!
Second half and Baines didn’t reappear; Mori came out in his stead. A few around me admitted to a touch of the jitters but as things would work out he mostly gave the simple ball and did not create and danger for us.
The half would be not really boring but rather technical should we say. We moved the ball about well and were happy to pass sideways and backwards and then come again looking for that elusive opening that would allow a third goal and goodnight Baggies. Ross was showing well and at his creative best but he could have done with a few more runs being made for him as often he would look up see nothing and go back a bit to start again this was fine in the technical sense but the crowd were starting to demand more forward intentions. However, he did make one break and after a judicious turn in the box fired hard but untrue and the ball hit the side netting only.
With WBA leaving forward thinking players like Morrison and Rondon on the bench then not a lot of threat was being created for our rearguard so we continued to prod and probe. Chadli did fire one in that had Joel racing out to make a good block and Williams cleared the loose ball away. 80 minutes came up and at last our patience paid off when the move of the match took place.
Davies found Gana on the left who passed to Mori and the Argentine then found Barkley in the box. Ross twisted one way then the other to put his markers off while looked up and saw Lukaku. He then measured his cross perfectly to find Rom between two defenders and the big Belgian headed back across the keeper and ruffled the net – now all were happy.
Before the final whistle and with two minutes added Gana turned exquisitely in the box and fired with venom but hit the post. Drat – just one inch from perfection, eh? Final whistle and the stadium and the walk back to swop tales in the Room of Nonsense was of a sedate nature with every one expecting another three points next Saturday but heed the words of Big Ron ‘I say ok but this is football we must be ready’
M.o.t.M. — Ross Barkley (Fair dos, the rest of the team were close too)
All told a good day out where we saw our 5th home win on the bounce. Rom got his 20th goal to join Kane on top of the pile. Also, we are not the best of the rest — that title at the moment belongs to today’s opponents and we are part of the big seven as I told my new WBA friend as we swopped pints
Here is one for you: could Schneiderlin, who was signed as a holding defender of some renown, end up being our ‘Fox in the box’?
See you at the Hull game.
UP THE BLUES!
Everton play the first of two successive home games this weekend that Ronald Koeman hopes will help the club's push for Europe.
West Bromwich Albion, the team that has been keeping pace behind the Blues as the only realistic challengers from below for the seventh place, come to Goodison Park tomorrow but it's on the places above that Koeman and Evertonians have their sights focused.
Last Sunday's game at White Hart Lane may not have gone as hoped — Tottenham prevailed just as the form book and league table suggested they would — but with 11 games to play and 33 points in the offing, there is still the possibility that Everton can capitalise on any prolonged slips by the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool.
Eight points currently separate the Blues in seventh from the Reds in fourth but Jurgen Klopp's team's form has been chequered of late even if they beat Arsenal handily last weekend. United under Jose Mourinho are on a long unbeaten run but aren't winning enough games to push themselves into the Champions League places.
The Gunners, however, are struggling through something of a crisis as Arsene Wenger's time there looks to be coming to an end and they, perhaps, could be a team Everton could catch if they can keep stringing results together.
Neither of the next two matches against the Baggies and Hull will be easy but they are both at Goodison where the Blues are unbeaten since the derby in December. Tony Pulis has bought wisely and instilled genuine consistency in West Brom's game and they are solid candidates to finish in the top eight.
In Salomon Rondon, the match winner in this fixture last year, they have a bustling physical striker that epitomises their style, goalscoring defenders — indeed, Gareth McAuley is now their joint-top scorer — and a generally uncompromising approach that makes them tough to beat. They lost 2-0 at home to Crystal Palace last weekend, however, in a game they had been expected to win and both that fallibility and the recency of the defeat will hopefully play into Everton's hands and thinking.
In terms of his own approach, Koeman will almost certainly make changes to his line-up and formation. The starting XI against Spurs was aimed more at containing an expansive and creative side and, at the very least, the Dutchman is expected to remove one of the three defensive midfielders he deployed in North London.
Gareth Barry would be the obvious candidate, with perhaps Kevin Mirallas earning a recall to play off Romelu Lukaku up front in the role occupied by Ademola Lookman against Sunderland a fortnight ago. Other than that, it should be a familiar line-up, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin a possible returnee to the substitutes' bench now that he has recovered from an ankle injury.
A sold-out Goodison will expect a victory and maybe another goal for Lukaku against his former club but unless Everton can get ahead by a couple of goals early, they look likely to be three points earned the hard way. It has the feel of a tight game won by the odd goal but it's not one where you'd want the Blues to be trying to hold on to a one-goal margin in the closing stages given West Brom's threat from set-pieces.
Kick-off: 3pm Saturday, 11 March, 2017
Referee: Graham Scott
Last Time: Everton 0-1 West Bromwich Albion
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Coleman, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku