That goes down as a very important win, for many, many reasons.
First, of course, it’s 3 points. Just like any win. But what sets this win apart is the manner of the victory, not just the points in and of themselves. As Mason Holgate showed his naivety for a second game in a row with a handball more obvious than Donald Trump’s haircut, we’re exposed right at the death to our vulnerability at set pieces in to our box. We’re vulnerable at the best of times, but when you’re playing a Pulis side littered with giants all over the pitch, and then they throw their ‘keeper in to the mix, you just know they’re going to score. Perhaps last season, they would, and despite Williams being on the pitch to add his solidity, that same back line would probably have conceded. The fact that it didn’t could well count for more than the 3 points gained on a blustery day in the West Midlands, as it starts to create the self-belief that was so obviously missing in the last two seasons. Now, OK, it’s only Game 2 of the Koeman era, so perhaps we haven’t quite turned the corner yet, but at least we seem to have found the corner we want to navigate, and have adjusted our position to be able to make the turnaround. It didn’t look that way when we conceded, with McAuley nodding in after Stekelenburg was at least partially impeded, but rather than capitulating every time the ball was launched forward, we largely held our own in our box, not something many of us have noticed in recent times. Not perfect, but much improved. It may be that we look back on ‘West Brom Away’ as the start of a new defensive solidity. Let’s hope I don’t eat my words.
Now you may think Holgate gets a mention above and yet it’s a negative one, surely unfair. Yup. Completely. Sorry (not sorry) and all that, but it suited the narrative of the moment. But apart from that blip deep in to stoppage time, Mason Holgate looked superb yesterday, rightly admired by all watchers, including the MotD team. He’s a kid, he’s 19, admittedly with a Barry White voice that Pienaar would be proud of, but he’s still on the learning curve and not the finished article by any stretch of the imagination. But he’s played twice competitively this season and not looked out of place. We’ve seen this before with Galloway and to a lesser extent Browning, a few good games but then kids do have a tendency to have the odd ‘mare, and the last place you want one of those is in defence, so how Koeman manages this young talent will be fascinating. He looked far more composed than the Argentine International alongside him who had a ‘mare of his own in the first half. But when you look at our roster of defenders, Williams, Jags (superb yesterday I thought), Mori (more consistency please Ramiro, consistency of the positive kind), Holgate, Pennington, Galloway, and eventually Browning, it does make you wonder if RK will go in for a Lamina Kone or similar, or give youth a chance. He probably still will, after all we’re just a twanged Jags hammy away from a defensive crisis, as we can’t rely on Holgate, Galloway and Browning to do the biz week in week out. But makes you think doesn’t it? Get an experienced man in, how do you maintain the development of the kids? Loans await one suspects.
Another point about the defence, or more appropriately, or defenders. Did anyone else notice how far up the pitch we sometimes saw our Central Defenders? Jags was involved in the first goal, and not as usual with a raking long ball that ends up nestled in the lap of the Granny in Row B who was just trying to pour herself a scalding hot Bovril. No, he too, neat quick passing, along the deck and quickly in to the feet of the men who know what they’re doing when within 25 yards of goal. Holgate and to a lesser extent Baines were also drifting inside, perhaps trying to copy Guardiola’s inverted full back routine. It added not just more bodies, but more options, and if we’re going to play neater passing moves, it helps if you’ve got enough personnel in place.
The importance of the win is also to applaud Koeman for his tactical nous, but more importantly his tactical conviction. I can only think of Mourinho that has changed things in the first half, and not waited until half time. Our set up clearly wasn’t working, McCarthy the perhaps unlucky player to be hooked, but rather than “we’ll assess at HT” or as we’ve grown used to with RM and DM, “we’ll assess at 70 mins when the game is all but lost”, he changed it there and then. And he got his rewards. We’ve seen much of his decisiveness already, not just on the pitch, but pursuit of players he wants, and clear objective assessment of passengers like Niasse and McGeady (who else? Kone? Robles? Leandro? McAlleny?) that need to ply their trade elsewhere, if anyone’ll have them. It’s so refreshing to hear objective and reasonable positivity instead of relentless positivity when it’s quite clearly mis-placed, and my bet is that the squad will play for the man. He, for me, has to be key to any achievements this year, irrespective of what players are added.
Well done Everton, you’ve got me believing again (you better not muck it up this time – says the man who’s supported the Club for 49 years and ought to know better), and I think this could be a very interesting season. I’m not going to make bold forecasts, I’ll leave that to the other lot, I’m just going to say I think we’ll be better this season than the last two, and maybe we’ll win something. I’d love that, but it won’t be my yardstick of success in Koeman’s first season. We need to be playing like that and burying sides when you get the chances that Ross and Rom had yesterday, and then, well, who knows? Bring on Stoke!