What with the earlier wind problem, I have now driven 11.5 hours from home in Nottingham to Goodison Park and back, and back again, and back, just to watch Everton play Crystal Palace. I was rather hoping to do this and watch us give a right royal stuffing to a Pulis side that was safely mid-table, but that was at one point looking like a near certainty to go down, but sadly last night the boot was on the other foot.
Actually, if we had all our boots on the other foot/feet, then that might explain how we were unable to direct a pass at a fellow Evertonian in the final third of the pitch, or how intended flicks and shimmies seemed to go awry just when it seemed we were getting close to breaking through the massed ranks of the Palace back line(s). Frankly, blaming ourselves (which I will do in a minute) would be a bit harsh on Palace, who I thought were excellent last night. Bolassie has gone from entertaining Soccer AM guest (other Saturday morning sports shows are available, but the BTSP is a great idea but awfully delivered by self-conscious self-promoting hosts), to a mature and highly skilled attacking footballer, who taught our wide men a lesson last night. Jedinak was solid and commanding, and in stark contrast to an off colour and off-aim Barry. And in Speroni (who, by the way, is still cleaning the mud off his boots before taking just one last goal kick) they had a top keeper who made two smart saves from Lukaku and Barkley on the two occasions he really had to make saves, given our mis-aligned footwear was affecting our shooting as well. But overall, rather than just these 3 individuals, it was the shape and method of playing the game by their whole team that beat us last night, and all credit to them. Damn them too, but all credit to them first.
I was worried right from the whistle, when it was clear that they weren’t going to be playing a pressing game on us knocking the ball about at the back, signalling another back 9 or so that we’d have to break down, reminiscent of quite a few games this season. This of course is credit to us that oppositions try to stop us playing rather than play themselves, but whilst we’ve been able to win whilst not at our best, or from a series of draws too, last night Palace combined their solidity with an attacking flair that we couldn’t cope with.
What of us?
The half-full glass draws me to the extraordinary composure on the ball of a future England player, Young Master John Stones. His distribution was first class, balls, long or short, invariably hit to players’ feet or chest, moving out from the back, ball at feet (right boots on them, clearly) calm and composed. The half-empty glass then reflects that Young Master John Stones was at fault for their third goal by not being tight enough on Journeyman Jerome, and probably for their second as well by not filling the space that he was standing in that Dann attacked and rose unchallenged to head home. Harsh on the boy, and you may disagree, but let me be clear – He Is An Immense Talent, and he will go a long way in this game, and very quickly, as his development over the last few weeks has proven. But he is still raw defensively, he is 19, he has traditionally played Right Back, and we are asking a lot of him. To some extent, his talent was all to see last night, but mistakes in the position he plays can mean goals against, and they did last night. I can’t wait to see him develop, and he has some great coaches and players around him to help him do that.
The half-full glass on the drive on the way up (“honestly officer, both hands were on the wheel WHILST I WAS IN A QUEUE – AGAIN – ON THE M6”) said we’d need pace in our line up, and I wondered if we’d have Barkley, Deulofeu and Mirallas on the pitch, playing in front of Barry and McCarthy. I was rather surprised to see not just these tricky pacey players, but McGeady as well. But no McCarthy, who I assumed had been sent to the bench for tactical reasons rather than any misdemeanours he might have made last game, or any injury which only later was revealed by Roberto (not that you could tell by the way he ran around, as usual, when he came on as a sub). In the first 5-10 minutes we looked like the Tricky Trio were going to slaughter Palace, as Barkley assumed a deeper role, and Deulofeu et al were given their head. But talking of which, and sorry for being a bit half-empty on this one, I think Deulofeu has got to use his head much better. I said this after Sunderland, look up Lad, find a player, find a pass, and do it quicker. There were times last night when it seemed he had got in to his stride, almost as if then to stop, and let more defenders crowd him out, or lose us any momentum. He has the tricks, he has unbelievable pace, and he needs to get them deployed in the right way. He was similar to Stones last night – fantastic at times, but mistakes which for him don’t mean we concede, but don’t mean we score either. Having said that, a mistake in my view is not getting back to help your full back, especially if he’s up against Bolassie, and that mistake cost us on at least two occasions.
Looking through my half-full glass at Lukaku, once more I saw the beast. The man that looks like a brick outhouse, the man that can also get a shot away quickly to test their keeper. But that half-empty glass reflects how the ball bounced off him last night, just as it used to when I kicked my balls (stop sniggering at the back) against any brick outhouse. That was their point after all. We don’t want that up front, we want a player who can hold it up better – dare I say hold it up like Big Vic does, although I do think Rom scores slightly more than Vic, and no, I don’t want him back from West Brom. Generally Lukaku looked a bit off it last night, perhaps after getting a kicking early doors. But he needs to man-up if that’s the case. Have a word with Duncan – try to avoid being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Barlinnie, but make sure if you get a kicking, make them pay in the best way possible – scoring.
And Roberto said himself that in Ross Barkley, we saw the best and worst of him last night, so clearly RM had a glass either half full or half empty of a classy brown-shoed Rioja. Ross played superbly at times, nearly scored when it would really have mattered, and did a defensive shift that he was asked to do both competently and not without some considerable flair. But then he advanced, clearly having read the latest reports of his future great-ness, and tried too many Hollywood balls and didn’t stick to the basics, which was what we needed.
The common factor? I’ve picked up on four players, all of whom are 19 or 20. No, I’m not having a ‘go’ at them, and not having a ‘go’ at their selection over an Osman, Alcaraz, Naismith or Hibbert, absolutely not. But I would suggest that the occasion got to them a bit last night, and they didn’t play consistently all night to their best. And when I say that about 4 players, and 4 really important ones at that, it is bound to impact on the result. Add to that a below par Barry, and not much in the way of surging runs, at least in the first half, by Baines or Coleman, and collectively we were off it last night.
And now we need to get back ‘on it’. Ideal in so many ways to have United next through the turnstiles at Goodison, who I suspect will afford us more space, maybe some of the pressure will be off, and we can express ourselves a lot more. We still need to conquer that last third dilemma which has affected us all season, but at least we’ve got to that part of the pitch, and not by lumping it up to a big fella. We’re playing excellent football, we are an excellent team, we have exciting and hugely talented young players who I’m proud to see in the team, and expect to on Sunday as well, and let’s get this 4th place.
We can do this.