2020 might feel in many ways like it’s been an interminable year but it wasn’t all that long ago that Everton, under Sam Allardyce, were ranked rock bottom in the Premier League in terms of attacking production. 20th for shots taken, 20th for shots on target, 20th for chances created and 20th for chances created from open play.
While there was always the feeling that Farhad Moshiri would choose to get his over-arching dream back on track by binning the most unpalatable managerial appointment in the club’s history at the end of 2017-18, nothing was guaranteed and that uncertainty made for sobering times for Evertonians.
Fast forward two and a half years and the outlook at Goodison Park has been transformed. In between, Marco Silva’s tenure may have come to an unsuccessful end but he was at least responsible for the arrival of Richarlison and thanks to the Brazilian, the arrival of Carlo Ancelotti and three astute signings this summer, Everton are now an entirely different proposition from an attacking perspective.
So far this season, they’ve played three matches in all competitions and had 64 shots on goal. Admittedly, 32 of those came against League Two Salford City on Wednesday with an almost entirely different team but the statistic does, perhaps, underline a general shift in mindset since last season.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the platform that a primarily defensive acquisition in the form of Allan has been to the side going forward but it’s James Rodriguez, a player who promises to be a goldmine of assists for the Blues, who is, predictably, grabbing the headlines.
In his first two games as an Everton player, the Colombian has created more “big chances” than André Gomes, Tom Davies, Fabian Delph and Morgan Schneiderlin created in all of last season combined and 40% of those Gylfi Sigurdsson carved out in 2019-20. He weighed in with an assist this afternoon, scored what will hopefully be the first of many goal in royal blue and generally underscored the size of the coup Ancelotti and Marcel Brands effected when they acquired him from Real Madrid.
And it’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, a player who flew under the radar somewhat last weekend despite scoring the winning goal against Tottenham, who stands to benefit most from the transformation in midfield. The 22-year-old ensured that the lion’s share of the limelight was his this time by grabbing his first hat-trick to bury a spirited West Brom as Everton ran out 5-2 winners to temporarily top the Premier League table for the first time in three years.
Although the Baggies levelled the game early in the second half through an admittedly brilliant Matheus Pereira free-kick when they were playing with only 10 men following Kieran Gibbs’s dismissal in first-half stoppage time, it was pleasing (from the perspective of analysis of the Toffees’ performance) that James’s goal had put the home side ahead because it largely negated any notion that Ancelotti’s men wouldn’t have won had it remained 11 vs 11.
It’s true that West Brom gave Everton a scare in the first 20 minutes or so and Ancelotti acknowledged afterwards that the visitors had been better than his own for much of the first half. It’s to Slaven Bilic’s credit that his side came out with as much fire, energy and attacking effectiveness after looking so short on quality against Leicester in the first game back in the top flight. But, by the same token, there is a swagger and a determination about this new-look Blues to go with their impressive new signings that breeds confidence that they will create the chances to drag them back from losing situations.
There were warning signs from a defensive perspective, however; precedents that will give the manager and his coaching staff things to work on for when they face more difficult opposition in the near future. Indeed, had Jake Livermore’s shot flown a few inches to the right and not cannoned off the outside of Jordan Pickford’s post, Everton would have been 2-0 down with a quarter of the contest played.
The England ‘keeper had betrayed some early nerves at the back when he knocked Yerry Mina’s first-minute back-pass straight to Matheus Pereira and the Brazilian teed up Grady Diangana for a low shot that Pickford had to get down to save. But it was Mina’s backing off and then failure to engage Diangana as the winger broke at speed that had Ancelotti berating him angrily in the 10th minute. West Brom’s new signing from West Ham took full advantage of the space allowed him by hammering a shot past Pickford to give the visitors the lead.
Everton had by that point already had one great chance that Calvert-Lewin could only head wide when he looked odds-on to score while Richarlison also fired off-target, Calvert-Lewin saw another effort deflected behind and Allan lined up a 25-yarder that was too close to Sam Johnstone.
The game was surprisingly open, however, and Pickford parried away a shot from Pereira before Darnell Furlong’s cross from the right picked out Livermore sitting five yards off Mina but he found the woodwork rather than the goal.
That provided a bit of a wake-up call to Everton to tighten things up a bit more and renew their efforts going forward. And after Richarlison had seen another effort deflected wide and Michael Keane had headed a corner over the bar, Calvert-Lewin struck his first of the afternoon to restore parity.
Abdoulaye Doucouré and Seamus Coleman exchanged passes down the right flank and the Irishman accelerated past his man on the outside, clipped a dangerous cross into the six-yard box where Richarlison and Furlong challenged for it and it fell to Calvert-Lewin who back-heeled it over the goal line. The referee’s assistant’s flag went up straight away against the Blues No. 9 but a check by Video Assistant Referee, Simon Hooper, corroborated the Brazilian’s fervent assertion that he hadn’t touched it. The last touch before Calvert-Lewin’s had been Furlong’s so the goal stood.
A loose touch by DCL at one end allowed West Brom to power forward again on the counter-attack and Pickford had to bat away another shot from Pereira. A succession of corners back at the Park End, however, as the first period wound down was followed by a piece of individual brilliance from Rodriguez.
The Colombian needed just one touch after receiving the ball on the edge of the box following 18 consecutive Everton passes, Richarlison’s purposeful run and a timely block by Gomes on an opponent to set himself for a swing of his wand of a left foot and the ball arrowed into the far corner of the goal past Johnstone’s despairing dive.
That might have been the last action of the half had it not been for Gibbs’s inexplicable rush of blood to the head immediately after the restart following the goal. An innocuous-looking coming together with Rodriguez ended with the West Brom man striking James in the face and earning a straight red card, one that made the visitors’ task that much harder. His manager would also get his marching orders from Mike Dean for remonstrating with him on the field after the whistle for half-time and he spent the second half watching on from the stands.
West Brom initially made a decent fist of their situation, though, because after Allan had conceded a free-kick 25-yards from goal, Pereira swept the resulting free-kick over the defensive wall (for some two of the four players elected not to jump to try and block it for some reason) to make it 2-2 less than two minutes into the second half.
And while West Brom continued to attack with belief despite their numerical disadvantage, Everton’s irresistible attacking options eventually prevailed. Richarlison won a free-kick in the 54th minute, Lucas Digne swung in a free-kick, the Brazilian connected with a close-range header which the keeper did well to push away off his line but Keane was on hand to tuck away the rebound.
Eight minutes after that, Everton scored arguably the pick of their five goals on the day. An initial attack had been repelled but the Blues retained possession, worked it across the outside of the penalty area before James knocked a perfect ball over the top to Richarlison who knocked it goal-wards past the keeper and Calvert-Lewin slid in to toe it over the line and make it 4-2.
Then, after Doucouré, who had been on a yellow card since early in the first half, made way for Gylfi Sigurdsson, Calvert-Lewin wrapped up his hat-trick. When Digne’s free-kick glanced off the walk and over, Everton won yet another corner which was curled in by Rodriguez and Calvert-Lewin met it with the back of his head to send it flying in past the stranded Johnstone.
It could be argued that no one deserved to get a goal more at that stage than the tireless Richarlison and he would have the ball in the net with a wonderful finish from Sigurdsson’s arcing ball into the box but the flag went up — correctly this time — to deny him his first of the season. On the evidence thus far, he shouldn’t have to wait much longer.
Perhaps out of mercy for a beaten side, the Blues eased off the pedal in the final 20 minutes and Ancelotti threw Alex Iwobi and Moise Kean on for the closing stages and apart from an excellent volleyed cross by Digne that Richarlison glanced wide, there wasn’t much danger of the Baggies’ margin of defeat getting any wider.
So, three wins out of three in all competitions and a brief stint at the top of the Premier League represent a terrific start to the new season for Ancelotti and Everton. The exciting thing about this team now is the variety of options they have going forward and the multiple threats they carry in the final third.
Demonstrably capable of scoring from set-pieces (as they were last season as well), the Toffees now have a player in James capable of conjuring a goal or assist from seemingly innocuous situations to add to the goal-poaching talents of Calvert-Lewin. Once they had gone back ahead in this game, there was only going to be one winner.
Again, on the defensive side, there is work to do, particularly given that Ancelotti has three central midfielders who are all capable of operating in a holding role but who also like to get forward. The problem this afternoon was that too often they were all caught in advanced positions together and that caused problems on a number of occasions, including for the opening goal.
Whether Allan is content to sit in like a traditional No. 6 or whether the manager has to work out some sort of rotation when the team is going forward is something for the Italian to work out but he has at least had the issue exposed without any cost in points which is as positive a development early in the season as you can ask for.
Fleetwood in the cup next with, we expect, another extensively-changed team before a different kind of challenge looms at Selhurst Park against a Crystal Palace side that also has two League wins from two to start the campaign. Come away with a win from that one and Everton will have added another piece of evidence to support to the notion that they can be top-six contenders this season.
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