A year ago, after three consecutive draws, a stirring performance against Chelsea marked the beginning of Everton's season in earnest as Roberto Martinez scored his first Premier League win as manager. If today's victory at The Hawthorns wasn't quite as impressive in terms of performance or stature, no-one will mind very much, particularly if it proves to be anything like the catalyst that triumph over Jose Mourinho at Goodison Park ended up being for the 2013-14 campaign.
Indeed, it promises to have been a significant result in more ways than a first win of the new season. Having shipped 10 goals in the opening three matches, Everton's defence ? albeit a slightly changed one ? registered a much-needed clean sheet and Romelu Lukaku notched his first goal, injecting vital confidence at both ends of the pitch as the squad begins a gruelling spell of six matches in a little over two weeks.
Questions over Lukaku's barren start to life as a full-time Everton player have been mitigated somewhat by the fact that he started the season with no pre-season to speak of and then played through a toe injury against Arsenal and Chelsea, so the pre-match focus was centred largely on the porous nature of that hitherto reliable back line.
It's not clear if Martinez's assertion in the press yesterday that Phil Jagielka's status as club captain by no means guarantees him a place in the starting line-up was a precursor to him reshuffling things up at centre-half, but he was forced into a change to the partnership that was ever-present in the first three games anyway by a dead leg for Sylvain Distin. Fresh off consecutive starts for England, John Stones was drafted in to play on the right side of central defence and would dispel any lingering fears or doubts over his readiness that may have cropped up during his uncertain displays in pre-season.
His cause and that of the rest of the Blues rearguard was helped by the platform provided by Lukaku's early goal and a relatively toothless West Bromwich Albion attack, but there were important signs of solidity and that some of the lessons learned, particularly from the 6-3 defeat to Chelsea, have been heeded.
Perhaps getting off the mark very early was one of them because the game was barely two minutes old when Lukaku struck to give Everton the lead. A move started with a terrific first touch by Steven Naismith ended with Jonas Olsson gifting Leighton Baines's low cross straight to the Belgian and he took one touch before instinctively curling a perfectly-placed shot around Ben Foster's helpless dive. It was a world-class finish ? with his weaker foot no less ? but his celebration ? or lack thereof ? against his old club was fittingly classy as well.
The Baggies, also winless coming into this weekend but reeling from a comprehensive 3-0 defeat at Swansea at the beginning of the month, were forced to respond and did so for much of the first half, albeit without ever really getting on top of the visitors. Chris Brunt and Saido Berahino almost combined to good effect after 11 minutes but Stones's lunging block helped the latter's shot fly over the bar and Craig Gardner failed to trouble Tim Howard with successive direct free kicks in the first half hour.
Initially, it hadn't been so much a case of Everton sitting back and inviting pressure as West Brom needing to press forward but, as the half wore on, the Blues' use of the ball, particularly coming out of defence, become less effective and that brought undue pressure on the defence. Still betraying some suspect positional play, Jagielka could only head into the path of Brunt but, thankfully, he lashed his shot into the side-netting while Graham Dorrans was afforded the space he needed to swing a ball in from deep that fell to Berahino but his effort deflected behind off Seamus Coleman.
When Everton did come forward, they found their hosts difficult to break down and, with neither Baines nor Coleman able to raid consistently down their respective flanks and Aiden McGeady having one of those afternoons where nothing much went his way, the onus fell largely to Naismith, the lively Kevin Mirallas, and Lukaku to make things happen. The Belgian duo traded shots from 20-plus yards to close out the half but both efforts flew narrowly over. Pleasingly, though, Lukaku was looking much more like the player of last season than the compromised one that began this campaign.
The Blues emerged from the half-time interval in more purposeful mood and really should have been 2-0 up within six minutes when Naismith was presented with the kind of opportunity you'd bet he would bury on current form. His quick first-time pass had found Lukaku in a pocket in front of the Baggies' defence and a neat step-over meant he evaded Olsson before firing hard and low to Foster's left. The goalkeeper's one-handed save fell right into Naismith's path but the Scot scooped the rebound over from seven yards out.
Despite their greater vigour after the restart, Everton still found many of their attacks slowing down into pretty but largely ineffective triangles outside the West Brom box. They were more threatening breaking with pace or attacking the spaces in the home side's half as they did twice midway through the second half.
In the first instance, Naismith was presented with the ball by Olsson (who had a 'mare, it has to be said) but dallied on the ball and was tackled before he could release Lukaku. In the second, though, Mirallas turned inside following a throw-in on the left flank, ignored Naismith's intelligent run to his right and elected to bobble a low shot towards Foster's near post. It looked like a routine save but the ball somehow squirmed under the England international's body and ended up in the net. 2-0, game over.
West Brom had had a couple of moments of their own prior to that killer second goal: first, when Howard had to scramble the ball away from the feet of Brown Ideye as he tried to connect with Andre Wisdom's low cross; and then when Jagielka had to fling himself in front of a shot from the same player. But they looked a broken outfit for a good 15 minutes after that second goal went in and, were it not for Foster, the scoreline could have been more flattering to Martinez's men.
McGeady flashed a shot wide from the edge of the box before the 'keeper twice denied Lukaku's replacement, Leon Osman, in impressive fashion ? first with a reaction save to palm the midfielder's deflected effort behind, and then with another one-handed stop from Everton's best move of the match in which Mirallas's sublime heel-flick had fallen perfectly for Osman to drill goalwards with a first-time shot.
Everton's clean sheet was not automatic, though, and suicidal in-field passes from first Coleman and then the unusually profligate James McCarthy threatened to spoil it in the closing stages. It was left to Howard to keep his side of the scoreline blank with a superb double-stop in injury time when he parried close-range efforts from Berahino and Georgios Samaras. There was even time for Muhamed Besic to have another late cameo, marred by a harsh booking ? the hope, one presumes, being that he gets all his mistakes out of the way in meaningless situations at the end of matches.
Overall, while it wasn't a thorough examination of Everton's defence, the team will and should take great satisfaction and confidence from the fact that they went away from home, kept a clean sheet and won fairly comfortably without ever really hitting the highs in an attacking sense that they did for periods in all three of the preceding fixtures.
Crucially, the McCarthy-Barry partnership looked much improved, with the former far more diligent in closing down the opposition in those important areas around the edge of the Blues penalty box and Barry looking composed and effective throughout. With that pairing so crucial to the way in which Martinez's team plays, their return to more familiar ways augurs well for the immediate future.
Centre-back John Stones came in for Sylvain Distin (who was injured in training on Friday) to partner Phil Jagielka at the back, with the rest of the team unchanged. Romelu Lukaku was declared fit but Samuel Eto'o and Steven Pienaar did not make the squad. Osman was on the bench alongside Muhamed Besic and Christian Atsu.
Everton kicked off and played keepball at the back until the second minute when Naismith surged forward but the move looked lost until Olsson played a terrible clearance straight to Lukaku who, with a lot to do, curled a beautiful shot from the edge of the area beyond Foster and just inside the post. Great Start!
Everton continued to develop their passing game but did not take control effectively, with too many aerial balls, allowing the home side to finally see more of the ball, with Berahino getting a chance that needed a deflection to take it over Howard's bar. From the corner, it almost went in off Baines after 12 mins.
Despite the brilliant (if highly fortuitous) start, Everton looked less than impressive as the game developed and looking more and more vulnerable in defence, allowing West Brom more and more possession, while failing to build the kind of moves that offered real penetration.
Barry went in a little strong on Gardner, giving away a distant free-kick, Gardner firing over. An unneeded late challenge by Jagielka on Berahino then gave away a more dangerous free-kick in the Dee, Gardner picking up a yellow when questioning the 10 yards for the wall, which successfully blocked Gardner's rocket as Everton had to defend the corner.
Everton's much criticized defence was made to look very amateurish when Jagielka's header caused chaos and Brunt's fierce shot was deflected into the side-netting. A series of WBA corners ensued, with some silliness from Stones, who could have been called for a penalty if the ref had been watching him. It was as if the home side sensed all the defensive weaknesses Everton fans have discussed at length in the last two weeks since conceding six to Chelsea.
Everton finally relieved the pressure but McGeady's poor cross was chicken-feed for Foster, and the Blues were under pressure again. But more solid passing play finally allowed Mirallas to have a good strike at goal, his shot flying a foot over the WBA bar.
One brilliant forward pass by Barry should have led to more as he picked out Lukaku perfectly but again, the big man's first touch showed too much of the ball too the defender and any chance evaporated. Other than this, both sides were playing some dreadful alehouse football with too many horrible aimless hoofs forward, and head-tennis sessions. Naismith tangled with Olsson but the referee took a lenient view.
Lukaku did better with a ball he chested down, controlled, advanced and shot but the curl was not there this time as a rather disappointing first half of poor football came to a close, summed up by dreadful mis-handling of a corner by Howard.
After a poor start to the second half, Lukaku did really well to advance and shoot, forcing Foster to parry with Naismith following up for a tap-in that he amazingly blazed high over the bar! McCarthy was booked for a nothing sliding tackle... bizarre. But it did precede a good spell of Everton possession, if not really yielding even a half-chance
A couple more WBA corners saw a veritable wrestling match in the 6-yard box, with players dragging each other down, but Anthony Taylor was unconcerned. Mirallas went on a great run and passed the ball straight to a defender, summing up the astounding paucity of the game. Howard had to be alert to stop Ideye getting a sniff on a superb cross from Wisdom that beat the close attention of Baines.
There was a little more adventurism after the hour mark as Naismith surged forward but was tackled, then West Brom countered and Dorrans lashed a shot over after Barry gifted him the ball, and sure enough, it presaged the second goal for Everton, Mirallas firing in low and hard, the bounce presumably deceiving Ben Foster, who allowed the ball under his body and into the net for a rather soft and somewhat undeserved goal.
Lukaku was withdrawn, replaced by Osman with 20-odd minutes left. McGeady had a nice run and shot... wide or slightly deflected as the Blues finally started to look more comfortable on the ball. Could they retain concentration and focus for the required 15 minutes? McGeady kept trying his hand at shooting but it wouldn't go in for him. Mirallas jinked inside and went for glory but shot over again.
At the other end, it looked like Berahino would have an easy shot on goal but for an absolutely brilliant intervention by Stones. Then an Osman shot won Everton's first corner when it was deflected, then parried away from the top corner by Foster. Howard then had to save a low clip from Gardner.
Into the final 10 minutes and all the attention was on Everton's back line, with Jagielka (who apparently cannot head the ball) heading away a good looking cross, and Coleman giving the ball away dangerously, then a clearance ricocheting back off Barry for WBA's ninth corner. A real mixed bag.
Muhamed Besic was given a couple more minutes at the end in his painfully drawn-out bedding in process, McGeady making way. The best move of the game ensued down the left and deserved a goal from Osman, who's powerful shot was batted away by Foster after a great backheel flick from the unselfish Mirallas. Howard earned his win-bonus with a trademark point-blank stop to deny Berahino in stoppage time.
The game ended in a great away win for Everton, two goals from their strikers, three points, a clean sheet, no embarrassing defensive lapses punished... but a poor performance overall. Still... play bad and win. You can't ask for more.<
Coming just three matches in, the first international break of a new season is usually an ill-timed frustration but with Everton's disappointing start to the campaign and Romelu Lukaku's niggling toe injury, this month's interlude for tournament qualifiers and friendlies has afforded the Blues a fortnight for recuperation and regrouping.
Though many of the first team were in action for their country and therefore not at Finch Farm for some collective focus on putting right some of the ills that have dogged the first three weeks of the campaign, those players who did travel enjoyed either some fine individual performances, some good results, or both.
That will hopefully stand Roberto Martinez in good stead as he prepares the team for the first congested portion of the fixture calendar, one that will span three competitions and involve four games in the space of 10 days.
The good news is that Lukaku appears to have recovered sufficiently from that toe complaint that there is little doubt he will start this weekend as Everton travel to the Midlands to face Alan Irvine's West Bromwich Albion. Steven Pienaar returned to full training after missing almost all of the last two matches through injury and Arouna Koné is, according to his manager, "very close" to making his long-awaited return to action.
There are slight doubts over the fitness of Samuel Eto'o and Leon Osman, though, with the Cameroon star picking up a minor groin strain against Chelsea and the stalwart midfielder suffering a knock in the friendly match against Stoke City last week. Both will undergo late checks on their availability before Martinez finalises his squad.
West Brom have an almost identical record to the Blues coming into this one, with the two clubs sitting alongside each other in 17th and 18th place with just two points from nine so far. The Baggies were beaten heavily by Swansea on their last outing, though, and struggled to see off lowly Oxford United in the League four days earlier suggesting that Irvine is still finding his feet in his new role.
His new signings are also bedding in, including record singing Brown Ideye who will likely start on Saturday in place of former Blue, Victor Anichebe, who is struggling with a hernia problem that forced him to sit out of training this week. In their absence of goals from those two players, Saido Berahino has carried the main threat for Irvine and will likely be the one to watch for Everton's back line.
And it is how that defence performs that will be in particular focus on Saturday given how porous it has been so far this season. Martinez is unlikely to ring any changes to the back four so the onus will be on the central defensive pairing of Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka and the defensive midfield axis of James McCarthy and Gareth Barry to rediscover the organisation, tenacity and focus that helped the team to such an impressive defensive record last season.
On the evidence so far, if they can tighten things up significantly at the back, this could yet be an excellent season for Everton because they have shown that they can score goals... just not more than the opposition so far.
|Premier League Scores|
|Premier League Table|
|2014-15 Reports Index|
|Everton fans' reports|
|Pocognoli (Gamboa 77')|
|Brunt (Blanco 70')|
|Ideye (Samaras 70')|
|Subs not used|
|McGeady (Besic 88')|
|Lukaku (Osman 68')|
|Subs not used|
|Premier League Scores|
|Hull City||2-2||West Ham|
|13||West Ham United||4|
|19||West Bromwich Albion||2|