Everton 1 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur
In the aftermath of what eventually became an absorbing 1-1 draw between Everton and Tottenham, Roberto Martinez hailed an improved performance from his men and while none of them have gone as far as to say they were "immense", many of the reports in the aftermath of the Blues's first game of 2016 appear to concur with his sentiments. The Catalan's team halted their home losing streak at two matches and stemmed the flow of goals conceded by restricting Tottenham to just four shots on target – all but one from outside the penalty area – and one goal.
Unfortunately, the result also means that by the time Swansea City come to town on 24th January it will be more than two months since Goodison Park last witnessed a victory in the Premier League and the sole clean sheet Everton have managed on home turf all season. As it stands after today, Everton's win column reads a paltry six – as many as Norwich City in 15th place – and they remain exactly where they were last May, in a progress-defying 11th place.
As negative as that may sound, it's the reality of Everton's situation: in the context of their target of challenging for a place in what is a wide open top four this season, the solitary point they earned today was as effectively inconsequential as the ones they were forced to settle for at Bournemouth, West Ham, Swansea and Carrow Road and against Watford Crystal Palace, Liverpool. It's victories and routinely picking up three points that propel you up the Premier League and once again Everton gave two away from a winning position, albeit against Mauricio Pochettino's impressive outfit. In failing to capitalise on what was, on paper, a softer part of the fixture calendar over the past 10 games, the Blues have left themselves with the Herculean task of carving out wins in places like the Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Britannia Stadium over the coming month if they are to remain in touch with the European quaification places.
A 1-1 draw with a Spurs side that has lost just one of their last nine and sits in fourth place is a start, of course, but that the outcome of today's game is being viewed as a positive result in some quarters is, of course, reflective of the extent to which Martinez is under-achieving with his Everton side and how well Pochettino has rounded his out team into one that is strong in almost areas of the pitch. Evenly-matched on paper, Tottenham have been markedly stronger in terms of defensive solidity and mentality this season and their lofty league position has been their reward.
They certainly looked the superior side in the first 20 minutes of this contest, a spell in which Everton failed to get anywhere near the visitors' area. Stung by leaking seven goals in the last two home games, Martinez had visibly adopted a more defensive posture at the start of this one but Spurs's domination in the early stages was alarming. The Londoners were cutting through the Blues' midfield with ease at times and but for a coat of paint they might have taken a 10th-minute lead when Harry Kane lined up a speculative low drive from 25 yards that cannoned off the inside of the post, flew across Tim Howard's goal and towards the corner flag on the other side.
If Martinez's strategy had been to hand Spurs the ball and try to catch them cold, it worked to perfection in the 22nd minute when Tom Cleverley, starting in midfield alongside Gareth Barry despite coming off against Stoke last Monday with an Achilles injury, delivered a precise deep ball into the heart of the opposition defence, Romelu Lukaku cushioned a header back to Aaron Lennon and the former Tottenham winger despatched a lovely half volley inside the far post to make it 1-0.
Spurs were largely undeterred by what they must surely have viewed as an injustice based on the balance of play and they continued to apply pressure while rattling the frame of Howard's goal again on the half hour. Ben Davies was left unmarked outside the area from a corner and he crashed a 25-yarded off the underside of the crossbar. Despite their more protective posture – one undermined to an uncomfortable extent by Kone's deployment as the square attacking peg in a round left-midfield hole – Everton were generally failing to get down the fundamentals required, allowing visiting players too much space to exploit on the overlap down the flanks and not pressing the ball as a team.
And when on the rare occasions they got forward themselves in the first half, they took the wrong option; the otherwise tidy Barkley ignored the marauding Leighton Baines in one such instance and misplaced his pass to Lukaku while Barry passed up the easy ball to Kone who was in acres of space and ended up gifting it straight to a Spurs defender to spoil that rare counter-attacking opportunity.
Nevertheless, it was all "so far, so good" heading into first-half stoppage time until the defence switched off for the second week running and Dele Alli was allowed to plunder an equaliser. Seamus Coleman failed to track either Toby Alderweireld's raking ball foward from inside his own half or Alli's run to meet it and the young England international took it down on his chest and fired past Howard in one motion to send the two teams into the dressing room all square.
It was, no doubt, part of Martinez's plan on the day for his team to come out of the interval in more adventurous mood and they eventually did, but it took an uncharacteristically early double substitution just before the hour mark to spark them into life. Lennon was unfortunate to be the one to make way for Gerard Deulofeu while Kone came off for Muhamed Besic and the energy injected by both players transformed Everton's performance almost instantly. It meant that the manager had effectively allowed his team just half an hour in which to really try and win the game but the improvement was hugely encouraging, especially from Besic who was a virtually irrepressible live wire.
It didn't immediately translate to a direct threat to Hugo Lloris's goal beyond a flurry of corners forced by Deulofeu's probing down the right wing but the Frenchman was forced into a making terrific one-handed save to deny Besic's excellent volley from the edge of the area with 11 minutes to go. And Ramiro Funes Mori almost capped a marked improvement in his own performance following a shoddy first half by heading home the resulting corner but his effort flashed past the wrong side of the post.
That sparked a frenetic final 10 minutes in which Everton were an entirely different proposition and Spurs, having hitherto proven so difficult to play through, found themselves scrambling back to defend a succession of counter-attacks as the Blues tried to force home a winner in the closing stages. Unfortunately, Lukaku blazed a rare chance over under pressure from Alderweireld and Barkley's shot from the angle at the end of injury time was parried away by Lloris.
Again, the draw may not have done much in terms of the quest to close the gap on the pack of clubs above in the Premier League but it will hopefully provide a shot in the arm for team morale, particularly at the back, as the players prepare for the all-important first leg against Manchester City in the Capital One Cup. The importance of that tie in the wider picture of the season grows larger with each passing League game.