New Model Blues
Making the long trip to England’s south coast and St Mary’s Stadium, a ground that had provided slim pickings in recent years, visitors Everton overcame a sloppy start (possibly due to a bit of rustiness coming off the international break) to boss the opening stanza from around the 15-minute mark. Their generally sound play resulted in few clear chances at the home side’s goal, Neal Maupay coming closest with a weak header from one of Everton’s inconsistent corners. Whether due to a deficiency of quality in the final third, or lack of sharpness, the final ball, cross or touch let the Blues down and ensured the scores remained level as the teams trudged in at halftime.
Frank Lampard’s men recommenced play in sleepy fashion and were punished then for an error which has become uncharacteristic of the side in recent games with Idrissa Gueye’s wayward pass — aimed somewhere in between Seamus Coleman and Amadou Onana (who was gesticulating for Gana to pass to Coleman) — capitalised on by the hosts. The Senegalese appeared caught in two minds, but aside from this mistake and his subsequent slip that allowed Joe Aribo a clear shot on goal, played an excellent game otherwise and gives the team such structural integrity. The Merseysiders have been brilliant this season in covering for mistakes, putting in crucial tackles and blocks to diffuse dangerous situations — as would be the case in this match also — but this time they were all at sea and unable to prevent the forward’s assured finish past the returning Jordan Pickford.
The reaction however was something that has defined Everton this season. The Toffees are showing real character and mental strength and showed that in spades to fight back immediately, no doubt sending the Saints reeling from the rapid turn of events. The visitors’ set-pieces had tested Southampton in the first half and havoc ensues when Onana is in the opposition box, Conor Coady’s calm finish from the big man’s knockdown off Gray’s free kick causing pandemonium amongst the 3,000-strong traveling contingent. The former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain is a shrewd capture and is already very much an Everton player. The 21-year old Onana was drawing plenty of attention for the second too, allowing Dwight McNeil acres of space to smash home and open his account for the Toffees.
It’s plain to see that this Blues side is a genuine team, already, despite many of its components being newly arrived at the club. It’s easy to forget that six of the starting eleven arrived during the summer, including almost the entire spine of the team; left back Vitaly Mykolenko was signed back in January and even Demarai Gray is only into his second season at Everton. Currently-injured first-choice right back Nathan Patterson, like Mykolenko is a January signing. This is very much a new side and the signs are hugely encouraging. Right now, they don’t seem to know how to stay beaten, or to think a game may be beyond their reach and how long-suffering fans have hankered after that.
Seeing out the Game
It is not my intention to focus on a negative aspect of what was otherwise an impressive road victory for the Blues, but I’d be remiss in referencing the nagging idea that the team came very close to throwing away a valuable three points at St Mary’s Stadium. It’s true that Southampton did not manage to find a way back into the game after Everton had taken the lead, though it wasn’t for want of trying. The hosts racked up 22 shots against Everton’s 12, which few fans (or viewers, for that matter) would have anticipated at the halftime interval, given they had generated little offense in a first 45 minutes which the Toffees had largely controlled.
Ralph Hasenhüttl obviously read his much-changed side the riot act in the dressing room and Southampton came out much more aggressively for the restart and caught the Blues unprepared. What concerns me though was the turn the match took after the Austrian had turned to his bench on the hour mark. Everton ceded possession and territory — though initially they dealt with this well enough — even looking the more dangerous of the two with a couple of counterattacks that they should have done better with. But from the 71st minute Lampard’s outfit were penned into their own part of the pitch, with few out balls or opportunities to relieve pressure. The Saints enjoyed almost 72% possession and the ball spent half the final 20 minutes inside the away third.
Ten of Southampton’s attempts at goal occurred during this period of dominance; Everton’s only effort was Salomon Rondon’s optimistic long-range pot-shot in the sixth minute of added time. The Blues put in their usual strong blocking which has become almost a signature of their defending (seven of the 13 on-target shots they faced were blocked). Their positioning was good and they didn’t seem to be just hanging in, or making last-ditch challenges, but even so Pickford was forced to make a great save to deny substitute Adam Armstrong and an unmarked Duje Caleta-Car could easily have levelled deep into stoppage time, which would have been a genuine body-blow. The Blues have dodged the bullet in the closing stages on a few occasions already and have to find a better way to see out games in a more controlled fashion - if only for the nerves of the spectators.
Onana has taken to the Premier League more quickly than anyone could have anticipated and possesses an exciting combination of attributes: a rangy physicality that makes him a nightmare for opponents to deal with, in addition to an eye for a pass and technical ability. He is very inexperienced however and the coaching staff could do with finding more ways for him to get on the ball in order to fully capitalise on what he can offer the team. His 35 touches on Saturday were comfortably lower than midfield compatriots Alex Iwobi (59) and Gueye (63); a little low even accounting for the fact the 21-year old was withdrawn after 73 minutes.
Game management: time for my weekly moan about Lampard’s use of the bench. He did use four substitutes, which is a plus but made none until the 73rd minute. True, the game required changes at that stage, but bringing on Tom Davies for Onana was questionable. Davies has played well this season but five touches of the ball, a 25% passing accuracy and just a single block and clearance was a contribution to forget. Abdoulaye Doucoure had only a handful of minutes to make an impact and is worth more than just a time-wasting appearance. Anthony Gordon at least helped out defensively, though positionally he was almost an auxiliary full back so deep were Everton as the match wound down.
Balancing criticism of Gueye for his poor pass which led to Southampton’s goal, the man provides immense core stability to this team, one that’s been lacking in recent years. The former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder is demonstrating what he learned playing three campaigns alongside some exceptional talents and particularly in the Champions League. His passing was impeccable (leading the Blues with 86.8%); eight of his ten long balls found their target. Gana mopped up effectively, leading the team with 15 ball recoveries and defensively totalled a combined eight tackles and interceptions, in addition to pressuring opposition players with a 42.1% success rate. He even won two of three aerial duels!