The evolution of Everton under Ronald Koeman continues, as does football's tendency to demonstrate how quickly things can change. Despondency at the Blues' prospects for the remainder of the Dutchman's first season in charge was pervasive after the defeats against Watford last month and Leicester just a couple of weeks ago and there were more than a few doubting his ability to fulfill the huge expectations that greeted his appointment in June.
Now, while Evertonians shouldn't get ahead of themselves, it's hard not to feel optimistic again as a clear path to progress has been revealed following a victory at Selhurst Park that showed the continued emergence of a different Everton. An Everton that can marry the silkier, more possession-based approach aspired to by Roberto Martinez with the defiant, obdurate and robust one favoured by his successor.
It’s hard to imagine the Blues side of last season winning this game. Where last week was all about absorbing pressure and ruthlessly capitalising on opportunities, this was a match where Everton had to take the game to an opposition low on confidence and committed to defending as a first resort and it will have pleased supporters and manager alike how effective they were at times.
This was a much better performance than Everton will get credit for and one that probably deserved a bigger margin of victory than the slender 1-0 advantage that proved to be enough in the end. For all their troubles this season, Crystal Palace can be a dangerous side, particularly at home, and with Loic Remy providing the mobile foil for Christian Benteke’s aerial prowess, the Blues might have felt they were in for a more difficult afternoon than was ultimately the case. It certainly seemed that way early on when the Belgian headed onto the crossbar from James McArthur’s cross.
It was by no means easy, though, despite the fact that Palace were restricted to just one effort on target in the 90 minutes, a Scott Dann header in the 79th minute that looked for a few heart-stopping seconds as though it would punish Everton for not pressing home their dominance with goals on the one hand and conceding silly fouls in dangerous areas outside their box on the other.
Had Joel Robles not made a fine save to palm the centre-half’s powerful header aside for a corner, few among the 3,000 travelling Evertonians would have been surprised; it would have been so “Everton, that.” But this version of Everton under Koeman is morphing into an altogether more robust unit, adding a possession and passing game to its identity that was wholly absent in another away game of this physical nature at Burnley in October.
That day, the Blues were the better side in terms of chances but they had a suicidal inability to keep the ball and they were beaten by a last-minute goal that, coming at the of a stretch of five games without a win, served to starkly illustrate the amount of work Koeman had ahead of him after a misleadingly positive start to his tenure at Goodison Park.
With three impressive league victories on the bounce and as many clean sheets, that work looks to be bearing fruit and Everton are once again looking up the table rather than down.
Sensibly, Koeman kept faith with the line-up that had started the 4-0 demolition of Manchester City last Sunday, which meant Robles justifiably keeping his place in goal, Gareth Barry lining up alongside the star of last weekend, Tom Davies, and Morgan Schneiderlin named among the substitutes. It also retained the three man central defensive unit that has emerged as the foundation behind Everton’s recent revival and solidity at the back, one that was also wise given the physical threat posed by Sam Allardyce’s Palace.
Just as important was that the Blues looked like a proper footballing outfit for long periods of this game, passing and probing, looking for space and opportunities between the lines in a way that fans were crying out for earlier this season.
They had to be patient in the early going as Palace retreated into their half but by the quarter hour mark, they were starting to cause the home side problems in their penalty area, Kevin Mirallas picking up Romelu Luaku’s layoff but finding himself crowded out before Ross Barkley went on an excellent jinking run but flashed a deflected shot past Wayne Hennessey’s right-hand post.
The resulting corner was taken short but ended with Mirallas taking a cross down on his chest and volleying goal-wards but it was at a decent height for the ‘keeper to parry it away. And Hennessey was on hand to palm another Barkley effort over the bar before making his best save of the afternoon to deny a tremendous effort by Ramiro Funes Mori. The Argentine defender brought down Ashley Williams’s flick on from a corner, out-foxing his marker in the process, and fired right-footed towards the top corner but Hennessey got a hand to it to divert it behind again.
A few minutes before that, Lukaku, who led the line impressively throughout with strong hold-up play, had gone as close as Everton would come to breaking the deadlock before the break when he scuffed a shot off the post, Barkley denied a goal by the offside flag as he put the ball into the empty net.
With matters goalless at the break, you felt that it was developing into the sort of game where Everton needed to score when they were on top or they were going to be undone by a stupid foul and a set-piece. Koeman’s men had dealt with Allardyce’s aerial weapons off free kicks and corners well in the first 45 minutes, however, and as long as that continued in the second period, there was also the sense that a goal for the visitors would eventually come. It did, of course, but it arrived late in the match.
In between, the Blues continued their pattern of territorial superiority after half time and had two quick opportunities when Mirallas bobbled a mis-hit volley at Hennessey and Barkley smashed the ball across the face of the Welsh international’s goal after being sent away by a brilliant raking pass over the top by Davies.
The teenager continues to look completely at home in Everton’s midfield and with Barkley dictating the rhythm and tempo in midfield with perhaps his best display of the season from a slightly deeper role than normal, Koeman’s men looked impressive going forward. The 23-year-old himself epitomised that in the 56th minute when he surged into space in the box but, unfortunately, dragged his shot wide of the far post.
Three minutes later, Coleman collected the ball at the end of an excellent run by Mason Holgate, again looking every inch a top Premier League defender, and picked out Lukaku with a cross from the right but the striker headed narrowly over the crossbar.
Barry’s race was run with an hour gone and he was replaced by Schneiderlin and after Hennessey had made another stop to parry Barkley’s strong shot from 20 yards, Ademola Lookman came on to replace Mirallas. The teenager was involved immediately, latching onto a knock inside by Lukaku but shooting straight at the ‘keeper.
Still level with 15 minutes still to play, it was understandable that Palace began to sense an opportunity and their efforts to press forward more coincided with a loss of momentum on Everton’s part. When Baines bundled McArthur over in the right back position, handing the home side another free in a dangerous area, Allardyce’s side were presented with their best chance of the half. Thankfully, Robles was equal to it.
And when the Blues resumed the offensive in the closing minutes, they finally got their reward for a laudable all-round display, even if the circumstances surrounding it left Palace fans and their manager bleating. Playing on and sustaining pressure outside the home area with the permission of referee Anthony Taylor while Jeffrey Schlupp stayed down at the other end with what looked like cramp, Everton eventually made inroads when Hennessey spilled Holgate’s deflected low cross.
The ball was hacked clear by Joe Ledly only as far as Davies and he sprung the offside trap by playing in Coleman who had peeled into space off Damian Delaney. The Irishman took two touches, lashed the ball past Hennessey and sped off in celebration in front of the contingent of away fans to his right.
Again, it was no more than Koeman’s men deserved and they would earn the points with a defensive stand over the remaining six minutes as Palace pumped the ball into the box hoping something would break. Robles’s supreme command of his box and tip over the bar from Benteke’s header would ensure it would remain Everton’s day, though, as he helped preserve three vital points. It felt like a big result; now for another at Stoke.
Matchday UpdatesEverton travel to the Capital with an unchanged starting line-up looking to build on last Sunday's big win over Manchester City when they take on the Eagles.
New signings Morgan Schneiderlin and Ademola Lookman are on the bench, along with Bryan Oviedo.
The home side kicked off and put the visitors under some pressure, a soft free-kick awarded against Barkley failing to threaten. But Palace continued to press forward and not let Everton settle. Mirallas swung in an early free-kick that Benteke headed away. Ominously, Remy had played in two good undefended crosses from the Everton left. From the other side, McArthur put a great cross in for Benteke that smacked the bar behind Robles.
With 10 minutes gone, Everton started to see more of the play, but it was stop-start. Barkley got some time on the ball but found no space for a forward ball. Williams fired a long ball forward that Coleman headed back cleverly for Lukaku and Mirallas coming on was sandwiched but no spot-kick awarded.
Barkley had a tremendous little run and lashed in a good shot that was deflected over for a corner, taken by short by Barry, that eventually fell for Mirallas who put in a great shot that Hennessy somehow parried away.
The Yellows were taking greater control and some neat play saw Barkley fire in another tasty shot, though curling toward Hennessy. Funes Mori tried to man-handle Remy, and Everton attacked again with some impressive football that won a third corner but they weren't really threatening.
With a quarter of the game gone, Everton were now dictating the play, and moving the ball around well enough in midfield. But Holgate got caught a little and was booked for a loose challenge, giving away a dangerous chance but Cabaye's ball in was cleared.
Everton's midfield pressing was pretty much absent when the ball was turned over, allowing the home side a little too much space. Funes Mori got forward and put in a decent ball for Lukaku but a foul was called.
Remy put Baines under pressure to win Palace's first corner, then a second and a third, with lots of head-tennis until Barkley broke forward, Lukaku hit the post but Barkley clearly offside when he tapped in the rebound.
Good work by Coleman won another Everton corner, Mirallas putting it in the mix and Funes Mori lashing a brilliant shot goalward that Hennessy superbly palmed behind when it seemed a certain goal. Palace threatened at the other end, Remy almost sneaking in.
Barry committed a silly foul on Benteke, and Puncheon whipped in a great ball that Holgate or Funes Mori put behind. Barkley was fouled, giving Mirallas a set-piece chance but Palace broke fast and Everton recovered well from the advanced position.
Remy and Funes Mori were having a fair old tussle with the Argentinian most likely to see a yellow card but the whistle for half-time came with no time added by Referee Taylor.
Everton restarted and were bright, with Mirallas getting a chance but not connecting, then Davies playing in a great ball for Barkley whose cross was Deulofeu-esque, with Lukaku as usual too far back for the tap-in.
Palace tried to respond with a break of their own but the Everton defence was firm. The passing forward less-so, with lack of movement limiting the options, and too many balls played backwards.
Barkley tried the same move off a short corner but could not get it past Hennessy this time. Schlupp made a good run into the Everton area for a Palace corner that threatened but play was son back at the Palace end, Coleman firing in on goal from too far out.
Another tremendous run from Barkley, his shot across goal running wide with Lukaku not quite there to profit, another chance gone begging. Coleman crossed well for Lukaku who headed over. Morgan Schneiderlin replaced Gareth Barry just before the hour mark.
Davies won a free-kick with some determined pay wide right, Mirallas swinging in the free-kick but not to a yellow shirt. Perhaps it was time for Lookman to torment his former paymasters? Not yet, said Koeman, as he watched his players moving the ball backwards again.
Some fine probing and a good passing sequence ended with Barkley firing in on Hennessey as the minutes ticked away. A great ball from Lukaku set Davies free but his cross/pass was very disappointing. Ademola Lookman finally replaced Kevin Mirallas on 72 minutes. His first touch was to drive into the Palace area and fire on Hennessey. Great determination. The boy definitely has some great ball skills
Some great play saw Coleman cross for Baines or Lukaku but neither could convert at the far post. Schneiderlin was called for wrestling McArthur, giving Palace a chance to advance, Puncheon lashing over.
Coleman looked to have got past Schlupp but a superb tackle gave Everton the corner, another poor one, this time by Barkley. But Palace broke and Baines fouled McArthur. Dann headed in off Puncheon's superb delivery only for Robles to pull off a brilliant save low to his right.
Into the final 10 minutes and the knowledge that one goal would be enough to win this seemed to spur the intensity with tiredness leading to mistakes, Holgate mis-kicking and giving away the foul but Everton looked to break from it; however, it was too scrappy.
With Schlupp off the field, Everton continued to probe patiently, Holgate firing in fiercely and it was defended away but it came back around for Coleman, off a brilliant pass from Davies, and he drove in, firing high into the Palace net — an absolutely priceless goal for Everton, celebrated with a vivid blue flare on the pitch, as Palace bitched about Schlupp's predicament.
Townsend was thrown on to inspire a late surge by Palace, winning a corner with a difficult cross, parried behind by Robles, who was out strongly to gather the corner. Barkley gave away the ball again, but the Yellows defence covered well to protect their precious lead into 4 mins of added time. Jagielka replaced Barkley.
Palace attacked again, winning a corner that was once again claimed well by Robles with the last touch of the game, a very fine win for Everton.
Crystal Palace: Hennessey; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Tomkins, Schlupp (87' Townsend) ; Cabaye (68' Ledley), McArthur; Puncheon, Benteke, Remy (61' Lee).
Subs not Used: Speroni, Flamini, KaiKai, Kelly.
Everton: Robles; Coleman, Holgate [Y:26'], Williams, Funes Mori, Baines; Davies, Barry (59' Schneiderlin); Barkley (92' Jagielka), Mirallas (72' Lookman), Lukaku.
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, McCarthy, Valencia, Oviedo.
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Even if you believed that Everton's season was effectively over following the FA Cup defeat to Leicester — let's face it: very little in the Premier League is over with 18 games to play — there were still opportunities for the Blues to enjoy some memorable matches and to take the odd scalp along the way as Ronald Koeman continues to mould his team.
More than just an enjoyable victory over an expensively-assembled, title-chasing team, last weekend's thrashing of Manchester City was part statement, part revelation and all joy and, coupled with Manchester United's failure to win, it narrowed that yawning chasm between sixth place and seventh to seven points. Still a sizeable gap, of course, but nothing a run of victories wouldn't eventually close.
Therein lies the rub, of course. Sunday's victory marked the first time Everton have won successive Premier League games since September. Back then, the 3-1 win over Middlesbrough was their fourth win on the bounce and enough to take them second but it's largely been a tale of frustration ever since. They need to start winning regularly and a run of matches against teams below them presents the ideal opportunity.
Starting with the triumph over Arsenal a month ago, there has been a growing sense that Koeman is getting to grips with the Everton job, has identified his most reliable players and the best systems to get the most out of them. What was perhaps missing from game to game was the belief and mentality that they could win — those qualities were wholly absent in the Merseyside derby, where the Blues were almost non-existent as an attacking force, and they evaporated when Ahmed Musa scored twice for Leicester City in the FA Cup earlier this month.
If the 4-0 crushing of Man City does nothing else, it should instill confidence in a team that is beginning to acquire some swagger, not least because of the presence of a certain 18-year-old dynamo whose belated return to the first-team picture has coincided with the emergence of more drive in the middle of the park.
Tom Davies made only his third league start last weekend but by the final whistle he had stamped his authority all over the best performance under Koeman so far. With Idrissa Gueye on international duty now until early February at least — unsurprisingly, Senegal have qualified for the next phase of the Africa Cup of Nations — and Morgan Schneiderlin looking like he will need some time to get back to match sharpness, the teenager's coming of age has come at just the right time.
The danger, of course, is putting too much expectation on those young shoulders and Koeman will be aware of that so it will be interesting to see whether Davies is in the starting line-up for the fourth game running now that James McCarthy is fit again or whether he will be named as a substitute with the potential to impact the game off the bench.
The hope is, of course, that the manager opts for consistency in selection and names either an unchanged line-up or one very close to it for the game against Crystal Palace this weekend. That would mean retaining Joel Robles in goal at the expense of Maarten Stekelenburg and confirming a change in stance from Koeman over his preferred first-choice goalkeeper. Robles has admitted that the Dutchman informed him over the summer that he would be No.2 but, once again, the Spaniard has bided his time and taken the chance to impress afforded by injury to the man in front of him in the pecking order.
It would also mean Gareth Barry starting a third match in succession and it would require Leighton Baines overcoming a slight rib injury. Koeman indicated in his pre-match press conference that he expects the fullback to be fit to play but it presents an interesting team-selection decision should he not make it. Baines was nominally deployed as a wing-back against Man City to the left of three centre backs and Bryan Oviedo would be the obvious replacement but he has been out of favour recently.
Crystal Palace, for their part, come into this game mired in a relegation fight brought on by a run of just one win in 15 league games without a win which started in the reverse fixture between these two clubs at Goodison Park at the end of September. It cost Alan Pardew his job and while he picked up his first win since taking the hot seat at Selhurst Park in an FA Cup replay on Tuesday, Sam Allardyce is still searching for his first league win as the Eagles' boss.
Normally that is “cue Everton” but hopefully the Blues' new-found resolve and confidence will see them compound Big Sam's problems by collecting their third win on the bounce.
Kick-off: 3pm, Saturday 21 January, 2017
Referee: Anthony Taylor
Last Time: Crystal Palace 0 - 0 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Stekelenburg, Coleman, Holgate, Williams, Funes Mori, Baines, Barry, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku