It was the kind of weather that usually gets people saying “Yeh, but Messi wouldn’t be able to do it at Stoke on a cold, wet day in February”. That may be true, chances are we’ll never find out unless he gets a convincing Pep talk, but the Britannia in yesterday’s conditions was the rock on which many a top side has foundered, but not for Everton.
Lennon gets his newspaper, pipe and slippers out before deciding which side of Butland he’s going to score.
That’s right, we are a top side. I can feel the wrath of some already who’ll be suggesting that I’ve gone mad, extrapolating two comfortable wins against two sides that failed to turn up, for us to become masters of the universe. Relax. We’re not. But let’s remind ourselves that many suggested we would never be a top side whilst we showed such defensive frailties allied to the strengths going forward, probably linking the fact that too much of one, was probably causing too much of the other (ooh er, Matron). You can guess which way round. The reality is that first against Newcastle, and yesterday against Stoke, our defence was the strength that many have wished for, and not at the expense of chances at the other end. We scored 3 yesterday, and as many independent observers have said – Merson, Higginbotham, Shearer – it would not have flattered us if it had been twice that number, or even more. So let’s glory in the balance that we’ve achieved, celebrate for once, and keep the negativity for another day, hopefully some time never.
For some, the absence of Howard and the rightful placing of Robles between the sticks, has been the start of our renaissance. Given that in both games, Joel Robles has hardly been troubled, this is something of a leap in logic, but it may have some foundation other than the saves he hasn’t had to make. Maybe, just maybe, his presence gives more confidence to those around him, or just in front of him to be more precise. This has to be a factor. It wasn’t that long ago that Joel was derided for his ‘flappability’ and poor positioning decisions (I still can’t believe why he didn’t come for the ball at his near post when Barnsley scored in the League Cup), but through that Cup campaign, and up against City no less, his performances have been strong if not quite yet outstanding. This has to be a good sign, because everyone knew he was a great shot-stopper, and so if you’re now more confident in his all round game, that’s got to breed confidence in your back four. Allied to this, a marked reduction in the number of crosses being allowed in to the box, and you see how tightening a few small things can make a significant difference.
I wonder if that’s why Oviedo is being picked ahead of Baines? I haven’t read anything that says that England’s best left back is anything other than 100% match fit, but I guess that might be the case. As it happens, if he isn’t fit, I’d assume Galloway would be warming the bench. But perhaps we should give credit to our favourite Costa Rican who is there on merit, delivering a number of crunching tackles and interceptions, venturing forward on the overlap, and linking up well with (mainly) Cleverley on the left. But he also seems to get closer to his oppo wide man, and I think this is helping to reduce the supply in to the box, because Coleman seems to be doing likewise. West Brom will probably make me look a fool for saying it, but for me, this tightening on our flanks has been instrumental in forcing the opposition inside more, only then to be picked off by the ever hungry Barry (great again yesterday), McCarthy (ditto) and Cleverley (ditto), and even clever back-tracking by Barkley who seems to use his own dribbling ability to use a twinkled toe to nick it off a Stoke player, on more than one occasion. Lennon likewise.
In the centre of the defence, Jagielka has looked assured, and Funes Mori even more so. If I’m honest, I can’t see Stones getting back in to the side next week, and a place alongside Deulofeu on the bench is probably the best he can hope for, ironically two of our best ‘offensive’ players being asked to take a back seat for a little while at least.
Massive credit to an unfit Lukaku for getting on the pitch, because we know from his 15 minute cameo yesterday that our lovely Arouna Kone attracts our adoration and frustration in equal measure, and he’s not going to help our goal tally much if he has to replace Lukaku in a more substantial way any time soon. Slightly worrying really, and it’s a shame he can’t bang in a few more goals, because Kone’s hold up play, and even a moment of trickery on the left to set up Mirallas, was superb again. The ball sticks to Kone better than it used to with Rom, although thankfully the Belgian has improved that side of his game, and if he could just do the simple thing when 99 times out of a 100 you’d expect him to score, then we’d all be happier for the team and of course for him. He’s a player, like Naismith, that the Blues really want to succeed, even if it’s only for his bonkers goal celebration.
A quick word, unusually for me because this is an Everton blog, on our opposition yesterday. I nearly ran a poll on Twitter to see which Mark Hughes we’d get yesterday – Smug Hughes, or Angry At Terrible Decisions In Defeat Hughes. If I had, we’d all have been wrong, as we seemed to get Downcast Hughes instead. Not, for once, his simmering feud with an opposition manager (despite what can only be described as a cursory pre-match handshake with Roberto, who simply replied “Hey Mark, wanna see my moves…?”), his angry gesticulations from the touchline, or his barking in the ear of the Fourth Official. He seemed totally hacked off at a side that seemed disinterested in a fight in foul conditions, that didn’t just see the crowd running for scant cover, but many of his players too. No sign of the exciting Bojan at all (it’s not like this in Barcelona), Shaqiri (it’s not like this in Milan) was a shadow of the scourge of Goodison, and Arnautovic (it’s not like this in Bremen – oh hang on, yes it is) was one of those superbly tackled by the Everton midfield whenever he got a sniff of the 18 yard box. The defence was woeful, and clearly lacks Shawcross (one who I’d have expected to see out a passing shower), but Muniesa (it’s not like this in Barcelona either mate), and Wollscheid (you pronounce it like he played yesterday), were AWOL all game. There may be a message there to Peter Coates and Mark Hughes. In Imbula you look like you’ve got a decent player, but I do just wonder whether the balance of this exciting (at times) Stoke squad is too much in favour of the imported mercenary (yes, I know we’ve got a few too) and not enough grafters like Walters, Whelan and Adam, two of whom probably would have started yesterday but for illness and injury. You need both, but on the evidence of yesterday, Stoke haven’t got the balance right.
But on the evidence of yesterday, and Newcastle, despite a flattering scoreline, Everton might just have got the balance that we’ve been demanding. And of course, we’ve got a diamond called Ross Barkley, 2,3,4….