Spirit of the Blues
When the chips are down it is time to come out swinging (and mixing metaphors it appears). On Sunday, Everton faced a deflated Leicester City team, albeit one containing plenty of talent and maybe something to prove, given their exit from the Europa Conference League on Thursday in Rome. Manager Brendan Rodgers has come in for plenty of criticism from Foxes fans in recent months and no doubt would have seen this match as an opportunity for some damage limitation at the King Power Stadium.
Following back-to-back fifth placed finishes in the Premier League, Leicester have experienced an underwhelming campaign and currently sit deep in mid-table. Even their journey to a European semi-final was blighted by the knowledge of their failure in the group stage of the more prestigious Europa League, which resulted in them dropping into the third tier competition. Still, that’s a major step up from where Everton find themselves currently. Rodgers handed starts to some players that have not been first team regulars, but all decent operators happy to be given a chance to impress.
Entering this potentially tricky situation was a Blues outfit enduring a historically miserable run of away form, their last win coming way, way back on the 28th of August, long-forgotten now in that did it actually happen? Rafa Benitez era. Under Frank Lampard the Toffees have managed to right the ship at home: the likeable manager has bonded already with the fans and brought out improved performances from his players. His approach to road games has shifted away from its early naivety and the team is now set up more pragmatically, as the boss has realized the limitations inherent in his squad and had adapted to suit. What have not followed on the back of more solid performances, are results. Until Sunday.
Whilst Lampard and the team rightly deserve their plaudits, following an excellent 2-1 win over Leicester, the role of the fans in this must be acknowledged. Following on from last weekend’s massive effort, they excelled themselves at the King Power, comfortably out-singing the home crowd all game - and for a long time after the final whistle too! They brought the spirit of Goodison to the midlands for one day and played their part in helping the Blues over the line.
A Big Game Player
Everton fans can be somewhat defensive regarding Jordan Pickford. The England number one gets a lot of flak from pundits and journalists who question his place as the national team’s keeper based on his supposed poor form in Royal Blue. To an extent the reaction from the fans can be attributed to a pushback against outsiders putting the boot into (figuratively speaking) one of their own. Most Toffees supporters have taken issue with Pickford during his time at the club, whether regarding his mentality, susceptibility to shots from range, or his consistency and all of these are valid questions to pose.
Goalkeeper is a tough position as any error can result in a potentially game-deciding incident. Any other playing position can make mistakes, whether it be missing easy chances, poor passes, bad touches or missed tackles, as there’s always that last line of defence behind them; not so for the goalkeeper. It was not so long ago that Carlo Ancelotti was spelling Pickford with Robin Olsen - and there were not too many complaints from fans.
The ex-Sunderland man has improved his game since then, most notably in cutting out erratic decision-making since consulting with a private sports psychologist last season. But still, the raw stats suggest that Pickford performs at about the average level for a Premier League goalkeeper - at best - so there is something in the argument that he seems a better player for country than club. At least until recently.
With the pressure of a relegation battle at Everton, he’s raised his game accordingly. Player of the match outings against Chelsea and Leicester have followed as Pickford has stepped up in a major way. He’s always been a good reaction shot-stopper, but on Sunday some of his best saves were from cracking shots from range from Nampalys Mendy and Harvey Barnes, which have been a weakness in the past. This demonstrates improved concentration. Few of Everton’s matches - sadly - have had much on the line across Pickford’s Blues career. Along with his newfound maturity, maybe we are seeing the man who excels for his country in big tournament football?
Nothing to Worry About
When, towards the end of his ill-fated stint as Blues manager, Rafa Benitez fell out with Lucas Digne, first benching the team’s star left back before shipping him out to Aston Villa in undignified fashion, fans were in a pretty gloomy state. The club splashed the cash on the Frenchman’s replacement before he was even out the door: approximately £21m on Vitaliy Mykolenko from Dynamo Kviv. The 22-year old was a full Ukrainian international, but was a relative unknown, playing as he did in a lesser regarded league. He had been scouted by a number of major European club over the previous couple of years, so was considered a decent prospect, but few fans of the Toffees had much to go on, so the signing was a little underwhelming.
After all, Digne had been one of Everton’s key men since arriving from Barcelona. His class was immediately apparent as he seamlessly replaced the veteran Leighton Baines. A solid defender, the France international was one of the Blues most effective players in terms of creating goal-scoring chances, offering intelligent runs and clinical crossing.
Mykolenko, when he arrived in England, looked exactly what he was: a player arriving in one of Europe’s strongest leagues - midseason - and having to raise his game to a much stiffer standard of competition than he was used to back home. The word on him was that he was a decent athlete and a solid defender, but a bit “old school” and not exactly the prototype modern full back; so not a like-for-like replacement for Digne. In those early games, he struggled with the pace and physicality that are hallmarks of the Premier League.
It probably didn’t help that he spoke no English, was having to integrate into a completely alien culture and dealing with the spectre of war back home on the horizon. And that he was thrust straight into the starting line-up of a team that was plummeting towards the relegation zone. However, for the last month, the young full back has grown almost on a game-by-game basis, first showing improved strength and defensive play, then offering more in the way of supporting play, offering crossing options and making decoy runs and now, in the past two matches, showing he can take up good attacking positions. He was unfortunate not to score against Chelsea and his strike against Leicester was a marvel.
Far from looking like an inadequate substitute for an important player, Mykolenko is a young player with enormous upside that is proving himself to be a shrewd signing.