Barely a week goes by without somebody questioning the vagaries of Everton’s first team formation or systems and then Rafa Benitez ends up talking about “tactics”. All very confusing and repetitive. With Everton’s youth team under the leadership of Paul Tait and assisted by club legend Leighton Baines, the formation could not be more clear. On Friday night under the Goodison lights, the young Blues lined up in a well-balanced 4-2-3-1 formation for their FA Youth cup tie with Sheffield United.
Everybody knew and looked comfortable with their roles and they were supportive of each other. Two right-sided defenders, two left, an industrious and mobile midfield pair and an attacking trio behind a central striker. Simple and on the night very effective.
Everton almost got off to a great start when after 10 minutes Frankie Onkoronkwo playing on the left of the attacking three was adjudged to have been pulled down in the area and Isaac Price was presented with an opportunity from the penalty spot. Unfortunately his low shot was a little too close to the Blades keeper Hiddleston who pulled off a morale-boosting save.
The Blues didn’t have it all their own way in the first half against a spirited Sheffield side although they were very harshly denied a breakthrough goal in the 39th minute. Stan Mills, who has been in prolific goal-scoring form for the Under 23s, timed his run from the right channel to perfection to latch onto Luke Butterfield’s excellent through ball and slot home. Unbelievably the flag went up for offside when Mills had been clearly onside. No VAR so no overturning of a very poor decision. Still 0-0!
There was not much of a wait for the first goal and it came from Blues dangerman Okoronkwo 3 minutes later. He earned himself a yard of space on the corner of the penalty area and hit a great measured and low right-footed finish beyond the Blades goalkeeper. Great goal, no dubious flag in sight and a deserved lead, 1-0.
Everton started the second half much quicker than the first and well in control from the very kick off. We didn’t have long to wait either for the next piece of controversial refereeing. In the 57th minute, that man Okoronkwo drifted in from the left perfectly to nod home a good cross from Price. Offside again? I am certain VAR would have yet again over-ruled the decision. For a game in which we were witnessing great entertainment and quality from both sides, the officials were having a shocker!
The Blues were 2-0 up legitimately, in spite of the best efforts of the officials, 5 minutes later as, you guessed it, Okoronkwo produced a surging run from the left. He saw his initial shot blocked but he was alive and brave enough to challenge for the rebound and prod the ball to Mills who gleefully shot home. 2-0 to the Toffees, Okoronkwo needed a spot of treatment but carried on.
Besides the wonderful attacking play the Blues also showed their defensive resolve on several occasions demonstrated perfectly in the 73rd minute. Blues goalkeeper Pat Nash (named after the great Irish goalkeeper Pat Jennings) rolled a ball out to centre back Eli Campbell 25 yards from goal. Campbell unfortunately lost his footing and with a United striker clear through on goal we saw an immaculate and lightning fast sliding block by Campbell’s centre back partner Reece Welch. Excellent defending, covering for each other and the two goal advantage intact.
The Blades who, though outplayed in the second half especially, got some rewards for their part in a very entertaining game when, in the 87th minute, Sachdev powered home a great header past Nash’s despairing dive and just inside the post following a corner. 2-1 to the Blues and that’s how it stayed.
In summary, this was an impressive showing from one of the best youth teams I have seen in many years of watching. There were some great individual performances notably Okoronkwo who can play as a left sided attacker or main striker. He’s a big unit and fast, almost like a young Romelu Lukaku in style although right-footed not left. He was a constant thorn in the side for the young Blades to try to deal with. For a 17 year old he literally stood head and shoulders above the Sheffield defence and his hopeful progression through the ranks will be eagerly anticipated. Mills and Welch too, perhaps reaping the rewards of playing with the Under 23s from such a young age, were outstanding.
Key to it all is though is that they play as a team and the team is really good. Although we can pick out individuals the togetherness is really obvious, the balance of the side is excellent, they work hard off the ball and if they get past the hurdle of Manchester United in the next round of the Cup, who knows?