From late January to date has seen Everton’s Under-21 squad endure a massive congestion of five fixtures in less than three weeks.
The latest games have been a mix of Cups and League action with a depleted squad for Paul Tait as there are some continued injury absences (Charlie Whitaker and Sean MacAllister), loan and transfer departures (Tom Cannon, Seb Quirk and Joe Anderson) and elevations to the first team squad (Stan Mills and Reece Welch).
What that has meant is that we have seen regular appearances by defender Ishe Samuels-Smith, midfielders Matthew Apter and Callum Bates, and forwards Frankie Okoronkwo and Katia Kouyate. To put that into context, one 19 year old, one 18, two 17 and a 16 year old in Samuels-Smith. The only real experience in the team comes from full backs Kyle John and Mackenzie Hunt at 21 years old.
The most recent action saw the young Toffees make the short trip to high-flying Manchester United on Saturday afternoon for what was their third game in six days. Unfortunately for the Blues, while they gave a good account of themselves, the clinical finishing came from the players wearing red on this occasion and the Toffees were made to pay for the missed chances.
There were large slices of luck about the first two United goals as firstly, in the 28th minute, a cross bounced high off Eli Campbell’s back and kindly into the path of striker Hugill who put the Red Devils ahead. 0-1.
The second goal 5 minutes later again saw attempted clearances by Campbell and Ishe Samuels-Smith fall to United’s man-in-form, winger Omari Forson and he rifled home left-footed. 0-2.
In between those goals a fine Blues move saw Samuels-Smith carry the ball from deep allowing Matthew Apter set up Liam Higgins for a shot well saved. In the ensuing scramble Frankie Okoronkwo skillfully set up Apter who fired just over.
The Blues did reduce the deficit 8 minutes before half-time and it was a trademark goal featuring great play by Samuels-Smith, Okoronkwo and Apter with the latter playing the ball wide for Higgins to finish at the far post. 1-2.
With the young Blues in the ascendancy, another good passage of play saw an acrobatic, powerful volley from skipper Isaac Price well saved by the United keeper.
The turning point and great chance to bring a deserved equaliser at the start of the second period fell the way of the in-form Okoronkwo. Interesting that as he broke forward beyond United’s last defender he was clearly and forcibly pulled back by the shoulder. He managed to get a powerful shot away just over the bar but, on another day, had he gone down, United would have had to play out the remainder of the game with 10 men and the result could have been so much different.
With the game finely balanced, United extended their lead in the 77th minute via the impressive two-footed Forson who created room for himself on the edge of the area. 1-3.
Blues’ ‘keeper Zan-Luk Leban demonstrated his fine shot-stopping ability to deny Forson shortly after that but the young United player was to grab the match ball in yet more fortunate circumstances as, in stoppage time, United forward Hugill, under minimal pressure from Kyle John went down as though shot by a sniper. Not sure there was any contact whatsoever. Forson made it 1-4 sending Leban the wrong way.
Previous games had seen heartbreak for the young Blues as they exited the Premier League 2 Cup at the hands of an experienced Bristol City team. Two early goals in the first 10 minutes were enough for the South West club to secure victory although a spirited display did see Okoronkwo notch his 7th cross-competition goal which is good going as he was hardly in the side prior to Cannon’s loan departure.
Joy came along 3 days later last Wednesday night at Walton Hall Park, complete with crowd, as they overcame Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia in the Premier League International Cup to reach the knockout stages. It was a somewhat feisty encounter which saw 4 yellow cards in 15 minutes for the Zagreb side and a red card for a bad foul on Blues’ Isaac Price in the closing stages. The Blues had to wait until the 52nd minute to take the lead and it was that man Okoronkwo again, losing his marker centrally to steer under the goalkeeper from Liam Higgins’ low cross.
The second and clincher came 20 minutes later and it was some goal. Kouyate, who had only been on the pitch for 30 seconds as Okoronkwo’s replacement, powered his way into the right hand side of the penalty area before firing left footed across the goalkeeper into the net. 2-0 is how it ended.
With all of the recent fixtures, it has been interesting to see how the team have not necessarily mirrored the formation we saw in Sean Dyche’s first game in charge of the senior side. That may be largely due to the personnel available to Paul Tait as, with the promotion of Reece Welch and departure of Joe Anderson the squad does not have a towering centre back so the current deployment is a back 3 of John, Eli Campbell and Samuels-Smith.
Assistant coach Keith Southern speaking to evertonfc.com, after the United game made reference to the punishing schedule of games. He said:
“It’s been a difficult week with it being the third game in six days, but we showed great character and resilience. I think the only thing missing was the quality in the final third to take one of those terrific chances we had”
Referencing the United defeat he added:
“The score was flattering towards them. Their coach said as much after the game as well.
“Our second-half performance was excellent. We dominated the game and dominated the big moments with the chances we created. We had two or three glorious opportunities to draw level.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t take them, and when that happens you leave yourselves vulnerable at the other end. They had an outstanding player in Omari Forson, who played wide left, and he scored a hat-trick.”
Next up for the Under 21s is Premier League 2 action with the Friday visit of Spurs.