This is really beginning to feel like ‘something’. Not sure what, but certainly ‘something’. A new dawn? Another false one? Or a sense of real momentum after a number of important results in the Premier League, and perhaps this Koeman Project is well on its way. Make no mistake, the project will have its bumpy road to navigate, no bumpier than Stoke away (love Joel’s interview that he “doesn’t know what the weather will be like” when asked about away to a team that has been a thorn in many a side), but there is a real sense that we’re up and running.
Crystal Palace away is always tough, and it would not have been a surprise (but yes, a massive disappointment), if the elation after thrashing City was followed by a frustrating afternoon in South London. It wouldn’t be the first time – ever, let alone this season. But instead of a Hull or a Watford Away performance, we got another example of Everton with fight and attacking intent. OK, some might say “IF” Benteke’s header had been 6 inches lower, and “IF” Dann’s header hadn’t been matched by a superb Joel save, then things might have been different, but of course they weren’t, and you’re never going to get a game where the opposition doesn’t have a few chances, and it’s up to every player to play their part, even the woodwork. It’s as daft as saying we wouldn’t have won the League without Big Nev. I mean, seriously.
The starting point for me has to be the formation. Three at the back against Chelsea simply didn’t work, and that can’t be just down to having Jagielka and Oviedo in the side and not Holgate and Baines; it was probably the worst game to try something out that hadn’t been honed to perfection against without question the best side in the Country, both then and now. But Koeman is happy to acknowledge his own mistakes, and then rather than risk repeating them, he works on them, uses them as a learning experience, and the last two results at least seem to suggest a winning formula. I’m not convinced the back-ish five approach is the answer alone, one has to credit Barry and Davies too, and the most significant point for me is the mentality and work rate of the whole squad. No one doubts the work rate of Gana, but his absence has hardly been noticed, and not just because of the blond-haired maestro who’s replaced his energy and added skills of his own. Idrissa Gana Gueye has without doubt been player of the season so far, but he does have a habit of getting caught in possession, and can’t pass further than 5 yards. Davies can break up play, not quite at Gana’s level, but he also wins the ball and immediately moves forward at pace, taking him away from recovering opposition, and then also has a searching pass or two in his locker. To build on last week’s peach for Mirallas, I’d add yesterday’s gem of a slightly longer ball behind the defence for Barkley, who either failed to find the target, or failed to pull it back enough for Lukaku, whichever was reality.
Part of our recent success, then, is being able to turn defence in to swift attacks, not letting the opposition regroup quickly to repel our attacks. And those attacks for most of this season have been fairly insipid attacks for the most part, and lightly knocking on the door of packed defences ain’t going to win you no football games. The 3 at the back malarkey seems also to have given us another dimension with Seamus Coleman re-acquainting himself with the opposition penalty area on a ar more regular basis, and if he can just nail his final ball, that could be another source of chances as the season progresses. And of course he’s confident that someone will cover his defensive duties.
It can be no coincidence that our upturn in fortunes has coincided with, or more likely been caused by, an upturn in Barkley’s form. Yesterday was one of his best games for years. Excellent balance, really excellent balance in fact, an eye for the pass at the right time, never afraid of letting off a shot, and I just think a more considered approach of when to shoot and when to play in Rom will pay enormous dividends. Credit also to Mirallas, who seems to have a broader role across the front line; maybe not a No.10 whatever that is, but up with Lukaku offering options to lay the ball back, to be there for the flick on, and generally give defences lots more to think about than his huge Belgian team mate. It just feels ‘right’ this set up, and the players seem to be responding to it.
I’m not getting carried away, don’t worry (I’ve supported Everton for 49 years so I have the scars of hope), but I do detect a difference, and it’s a momentum I suspect the players feel as well, and they’re responding to it.
If Joel is right and the weather in Stoke plays a part, then maybe our project will derail temporarily, but on form, it shouldn’t. And even if it does, it has to be recognised that there is something different about the way this Everton side is playing, and it’s mainly good!