In the Premier League era, fixtures against Tottenham Hotspur have long since proved a problem for Everton, problems which continued on Saturday with a 0-0 draw, for which Tim Howard – and poor finishing from Spurs – was largely to thank.
You can call it a Hex, coincidence or just general superiority predicated by an increased spending power, allowing the assembly of simply a better side for longer periods.
Whichever way you see it, 9 wins over a 23 year period – against any side – is not good enough for a club of Everton’s stature and neither was yesterday’s performance at White Hart Lane, should the Blues hope to challenge for European qualification once more this season.
The signs were good for Everton in the early exchanges, unchanged from Sunday’s 3-0 home defeat to Manchester City, but for the return of Bryan Oviedo in place of the injured teenager Brendan Galloway. The possession was good, with positive early touches across the midfield and forward line and looking capable of posing a real threat to a Spurs line up that on paper lacked any real creative spark.
Those early moments of promise failed to materialise into any form of substantial opportunity and it was the home team who began to take control and dictate the action. That sharp purposeful possession gave way to hesitant touches and poor decisions, which saw Everton, lose ground and begin to retreat – slowly but surely towards their final third.
Since the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino, Spurs have begun a transformation from a side of expensively assembled individuals that light up a pre match graphic, but flatter to deceive on the field of play, into a team that might underwhelm eyes on occasion but displays a real purpose and hunger where it matters.
They are far from the finished article, but one fact is clear their revised aggressive high pressure philosophy was too much for Everton in the corresponding fixture here last year and once they settled a similar result was one to be feared.
Harry Kane was the first to threaten, when he found a pocket of space on the edge of the area and stuck harmlessly wide, when pressured by two Everton defenders.
The games first real opportunity came on 17 minutes when Kyle Walker failed to deal with a harmless diagonal ball, his loose touch falling to Tom Cleverley, who used the run of Romelu Lukaku to cut inside onto his favoured right foot. His crisp strike was comfortably palmed away by the diving Lloris for an Everton corner.
It was as good as it got from the Blues, who should have been behind after 22 minutes, when a long spell of retained possession was concluded with a loose touch from Bryan Oviedo high up the field. As soon as Ryan Mason took the ball, its destination was understood, his wonderful pass released his fellow academy graduate Kane into the clear, his poor first touch – indicative of the increased pressure of expectation – allowed Howard to close the space and save with his outstretched leg and keep the scores level.
The American was called into action once more on 28 minutes, this time Mason himself found space in the area, ghosting in behind Gareth Barry to fire across goal only to find Howard equal to it once more.
Everton were beginning to drop deeper and deeper, finding it difficult to force the defensive line up the field and pressure the ball. They stood up well and the defensive commitment was impressive, however, with the creativity of Eriksen – who was absent through injury – to find runners from deep, the result might not have been so flattering.
Again it was Howard to the rescue, repelling a strike from Nabil Bentaleb and a Toby Alderwiereld header to ensure Everton approached the second half with the scores level.
One player who would not see that second half was Tom Cleverley, who sustained what, looked a serious injury to his right leg, when tackled fairly by the aggressive Eric Dier. The midfielder looked in real agony, leaving all Evertonian’s hoping for a positive diagnosis for a player who has really impressed in his short Everton career.
Kevin Mirallas replaced Cleverley, however the introduction of the Belgian – impressive in patches midweek against Barnsley – was largely anonymous in a lacklustre second half from Roberto Martinez’s men.
The manager would go on to concede that the efforts of midweek had effected his side, talking of a clear differential in the energy levels between the two teams.
Whilst I feel that may be a valid statement on some level, it doesn’t tell the entire story.
Against Southampton, Everton were purposeful in their play, moved the ball quickly when required and above all, engaged with the opposition high up the pitch. This was not the case yesterday and Everton were fortunate not to pay the price.
It was the much-maligned Howard once more who they owed their gratitude when on 54 minutes, he got down low to save a Mason snap shot, following a Barry error. The start of a difficult few minutes for the 700 game veteran, putting in Dele Alli moment later, only for the young substitute to slash wide from a narrow angle.
The game slowly petered out after that point, punctuated by a correctly adjudged offside Harry Kane goal on 72 minutes and a borderline Steven Naismith penalty claim on 74, which could have gone either way.
But, it would have been more than Everton deserved on a day when they under performed. What they did show is a resolute attitude and the ability to grind out a result when necessary and lean on players such as Howard, who in recent times has been below his level.
The Blues now enter the international break on the back of a positive result of sorts, with the hope that the John Stones saga can be laid to rest for the moment at least. In the hope that the reinforcements clearly required will be present when we return to action against Chelsea in just over a fortnight.
Without it, we can expect to remain in the slip stream of something special, desperately clinging to a club like Spurs, who will continue to spend, but are now looking to add that substance.