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Everton 3-1 Southampton: Three Thoughts | Rafa’s adjustments, pace infusion & centrehalf woes

The Toffees stormed back in the second half after a poor start. What did we notice?

Everton v Southampton - Premier League Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

You can forgive even the most optimistic Everton fan for failing to muster up excitement for the Blues prospects after the first 45 minutes against Southampton yesterday. Down 1-0 at the break, the Blues had failed to respond to the visitors goal and entered the break with a sputtering of boos seeing them into the tunnel to consider their on-field efforts.

Well, you know the rest of the story. The Blues stormed back and won 3-1. Here’s three thoughts on the Blues rousing comeback.

1. Rafa knows how to adjust

There is no doubt that at this point you have the defining stat of yesterday's win.

It really is a breathtaking statistic. Almost SIX YEARS since the Blues have been able to turn around a game that they were losing at halftime!

While it’s not a stat that was at the front of everyone’s mind every time the Toffees entered the break losing, but it’s important to consider the effect that has had on the psyche of Blues players and fans alike.

I’ll readily admit that I have been one of the fans that have gotten on other Blues supporters for their lack of belief, but this stat made me completely rethink things. Basically, for the last 6 years Everton have had to play a good-to-perfect match in order to get three points.

Find yourself irrationally high after an Everton win? Well of course, they actually played well for 90 minutes! If they didn’t play well in the first half, the Blues were going to lose, or AT BEST draw. Even if they did play well in the first half, the Toffees were certainly more than capable of losing after LEADING at half.

No wonder Everton fans are always on pins and needles. Anything happening on the field can only go worse. Statistically, it was ONLY going to get worse, or at best be maintained.

Ok, ok, ok but it’s only one game, so let’s slow down a bit. It was a poor Southampton team and it was the first game back in front of fans so the players were bound to comeback, right?

No. There have been countless times that Everton were losing to worse teams in worse situations at worse times of the season. Why did we not kick on then? The last comeback win came in September of 2015, meaning the following managers have failed to come up with the magic combination to overcome a halftime deficit:

  • Roberto Martinez
  • David Unsworth (Interim x2)
  • Ronald Koeman
  • Sam Allardyce
  • Marco Silva
  • Duncan Ferguson
  • Carlo Ancelotti

These men took the helm at Everton for 254 matches after the last halftime comeback, and never once were able to turn a poor performance into a good one. 254.

So when Rafa and the Blues headed down the tunnel, you’ll excuse Everton fans for their pessimism. However, the Spaniard wasn’t afraid to make major tactical adjustments that proved to be match-deciding.

Whether it was flipping the centerbacks so as to relieve Michael Keane of constant pressure (more on that later), or inverting Demarai Gray and Richarlison, Rafa’s adjustments addressed key issues on the field and paid immediate dividends.

After immense pressure right from the second-half kickoff, that resulted in a handful of corners, Richarlison got onto the scoresheet.

These seem like simple things, and of course the players have to player with more urgency and crispness, but if things were that simple wouldn’t one of the managers above have been able to turn at least one halftime deficit into a win?

It’s obvious that Rafa’s message got through loud and clear, and the combination of belief in the players and the willingness to admit his original tactics weren’t working combined to create a magical start to the new season.

Not only that, but now Everton fans have reason to believe no matter how poorly the team is playing the manager is willing to do whatever is necessary to give the team a chance to get a result. That will earn Benitez a little bit of slack from the Everton fans, and don’t be surprised if Everton do the same thing again this season.

2. New signings = new Everton

Over the past few seasons, one of the loudest and most consistent complaints from Everton fans was the complete lack of pace throughout the side.

Relying on players from Wayne Rooney to James Rodriguez, the Blues have had talent, but have found themselves constantly one of the slower sides in a league in which speed is an essential ingredient to the winning recipe.

Fans have constantly bemoaned the lack of pace out wide and in the midfield, with Everton lacking a key tool to lean on to help alleviate pressure when the other team has possession to creating opportunities through the ability to chase down balls that would have been previously out of the range of slower players.

Benitez obviously agreed with this assessment and made immediate moves to address this glaring weakness with the signings of Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, two players well known for their pace.

Throughout the preseason matches Rafa’s plan was evident as both players immediately slotted into starting positions and the tactics the team employed were set up to capitalize on the ability (and threat) to get in behind.

Despite being short five first team players for COVID isolation, Rafa made no major adjustments and set up the Blues to attack directly and with pace, and boy did it pay off.

Gone were the days of endless side-to-side passing that would inevitably end up with a Pickford clearance or turnover of possession. Rather, the Blues attacked with intent once the ball was won.

With the threat of Townsend and Gray (as well as Richie and Dominic Calvert-Lewin), Southampton was forced to sit off the Everton attackers. This meant that once the Toffees found themselves on the ball there was space for the forward line to check back into, as well as plenty of space for the midfielders to run into. This meant the attacking runs were crossing in front of and behind defenders, putting them in an incredibly difficult position and which drew a number of fouls in dangerous positions.

Like this.

If this week is any indication, Everton fans should look forward to a season of direct attacks. This also explains why the Blues are looking to offload the less than fleet-of-foot James Rodriguez and bring in a more direct, driving attacking center mid.

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the pieces (and possibly more to come?) fit together to give Everton a new identity.

3. Centerback woes

All off season there have been rumors that Everton were in the market for a new centerback. After years of lacking depth, the Blues have finally established some quantity at the position, but it’s quality they need.

Michael Keane’s inexplicable mistake that gifted Southampton their goal was confirmation that Everton are only going to go as far as their centerbacks can take them. With Ben Godfrey in isolation and Yerry Mina apparently not favored, Rafa went with Keane and Mason Holgate, another player who is rumored to be up for sale.

Everton v Southampton - Premier League - Goodison Park Photo by Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images

While to their credit the aforementioned mistake was the only goal conceded, there was a feeling of uncertainty almost every time the ball went back to the pair. Their inability to creatively distribute caused Southampton to cut out the outside backs and force Keane and Holgate to drop it to Pickford, who would then play it to the front four.

I would expect Ben Godfrey to return to the starting lineup once he returns, but if Rafa considers Holgate and Keane as the next best options (FWIW I think last seasons results prove Mina is superior), then yesterday’s performance should only solidify the belief in the Blues front office that an upgrade is needed at the center back position, or else the Blues could see a promising season undone by uncertainty at the back.