Whilst on Tuesday night last week Everton Under 21s had faced robust and physical League One opposition in the shape of Burton Albion, on Friday they were back to playing against their own age-group and, just as importantly, size-group with Arsenal the visitors.
In amongst the expectant crowd on Tuesday night were Sean Dyche and Ian Woan and they watched on as the Burton team played strong-arm tactics and high pressing against a team they knew could not physically match them. Nothing wrong with those tactics at all. If the learning on the night for the Everton boys was accompanied by a few cuts, bruises and aching limbs on Wednesday morning then it was well worth the experience. The referee let quite a lot of physical stuff go and in the opening 15 minutes or so it was becoming obvious that Paul Tait’s team were in for an unforgiving evening.
2-0 down after 20 minutes with a couple of well-taken goals it was not looking promising at all for the young Blues. The fact that they held on to that scoreline was a bonus as the half-time whistle sounded.
Chance-wise, Katia Kouyate was unlucky when he got on the end of a headed pass from Tyler Onyango and saw his good header clawed away. Also, from a well-worked Blues corner routine, Jenson Metcalfe picked out left back Mackenzie Hunt on the edge of the area and his well-struck volley flew narrowly wide.
An interesting thing happened as the teams came out for the second half. Only one team appeared initially and they were wearing the blue of the Toffees. It was a full 3 minutes before the League One team arrived to give their second dose of physical punishment and more goals or so they thought!
I’m not sure what was said at half-time, you could certainly not fault the effort in the first 45 but there was an immediate sense of belief. The team almost looked “bigger”. Within those first few minutes of the second half the bone-shuddering tackles were now shared not just from the team wearing the yellow of Burton. It was a bit of a mismatch still, a little like a middleweight boxer taking on a heavyweight but it was pleasing to see the team not getting bullied any more. If that was the only learning point on the night it was a valid and important one as these boys look to make progress in a professional football career either at Everton or facing opposition like Tuesday’s.
If it sounds like it was just a free-for-all of crunching tackles then I am doing the game an injustice and especially the second-half Blues. Chances were created but not taken, Katia Kouyate blazing wide when well-placed and, at the other end, Billy Crellin, in goal for the Blues, was relieved to see two wobbles go unpunished. In the end, not conceding any more goals in the last 70 minutes of the contest was a positive.
Best players on Tuesday night I thought were centre back Eli Campbell who stood up well physically and youngsters, both substitutes, Bradley Moonan and Jack Patterson who gave as good as they got.
So, next, on Friday night, at a sparsely-attended Southport ground, Ian Woan again looked on along with Director of Football Kevin Thelwell and a large gathering of scouts, presumably from League One and Two clubs looking at both sides ahead of the January transfer window.
Everton started very brightly against 3rd placed Arsenal but the first 5 minutes of the game not only set the pattern for the rest of the game, it summed up the way their season has gone so far.
The young Arsenal team were intent on playing the ball out from the back much as you might expect thier first team to do under Mikel Arteta. The problem at this level is that they hit the self-destruct button with alarming regularity to gift Everton chances. Chances they did not take.
After just 45 seconds, a ridiculous square ball across their own defence was easily intercepted by Katia Kouyate 15 yards from the goal. He did everything right initially in wrong-footing the covering defender and goalkeeper but instead of keeping calm he thrashed the ball at the crossbar and the chance was gone.
Two minutes later Francis Okoronkwo took advantage of poor play on the touchline by a Gunners defender, worked a clear shooting opportunity, chose to get the ball onto his right foot by which time he was surrounded by 4 defenders plus the goalkeeper and his shot was easily smothered.
On the 5 minute mark, a Blues corner was headed out to the unmarked Jenson Metcalfe and though he made good connection his half-volley was straight at the goalkeeper.
The Toffees were almost made to pay for their profligacy as the half progressed and relied on a brave Billy Crellin save and a glaring Arsenal miss to keep their goal intact at half-time.
The Blues did fall behind after 55 minutes however and, typical of their luck, Gower’s goalbound shot, which would have been a comfortable save, took a wicked deflection off the side of Ryan Astley’s head and wrong-footed Crellin. 0-1.
That goal did open up the game and chances fell to both teams with Azeez for Arsenal striking the crossbar with Crellin well-beaten and Blues’ substitute Isaac Heath missing his chance after good work by Kouyate.
The equaliser did arrive at the 81st minute mark when the impressive Bradley Moonan, on as substitute for Astley, showed great determination to head home from a corner kick. 1-1.
As the game headed towards a deserved draw for the young Toffees they still had to rely upon a good save in the 91st minute from Crellin.
Once again on Friday night, Eli Campbell was very solid and youngster Moonan impressed from the bench but clear man of the match was Jenson Metcalfe who was outstanding on the night, both defensively and offensively.
Although it is about development at this level, results breed confidence and scoring 6 and conceding 19 in 8 games is a concern. Paul Tait shared that view after the Arsenal game.
“I thought our pressing was brilliant and we deserved to score one or two goals early on but, in football, if you don’t take your chances you can get punished.
“The boys showed character to respond to going behind to get back into it, though, and we deserved a winner. It was a really good team performance.
“The lads have played a lot of football in recent days. The subs played their part and I’m delighted for Brad to come off the bench and grab his first Under-21s goal.”
There is quite a wait now for the Under 21s as they do not play again until 25th October when they have their first game in the Premier League International Cup against Athletic Club.