On too many occasions during this frustrating season, this Everton team has not only fallen massively short of expectations, it has struggled to simply do the basics — find a man with the ball, string more than a couple of passes together, move into space, get men into the opposition box and defend set-pieces in their own — and it left you wondering how what is undeniably a talented group could have been so unable to get the fundamentals right.
The debate has often boiled down to Marco Silva’s powers of coaching, motivation and inspiration which, as manager, it inevitably must but there is undeniably a huge psychological dimension to the Blues’ travails this season. Inject a little confidence and self-belief into those collective veins and this can be a very different outfit.
Despite concerns to the contrary, Silva appears to have done that despite the potentially crippling mental blow of the 3-2 reverse at Newcastle and a first-half against Chelsea that could have been just as damaging. What Evertonians have witnessed since the halfway stage of that game against the West Londoners at Goodison a fortnight ago has been a completely different side and if it’s any indication of what could lie ahead under Silva, there is reason to be very optimistic indeed.
Because today was easily Everton’s most complete performance of the season; a robust, energetic and dominant display that should — and but for an ongoing lack of clinical attacking would — have been even more emphatic. 2-0 flattered a shell-shocked West Ham side who were described afterwards as shambolic, a term that ignores the visitors’ role in simply overwhelming them.
Kurt Zouma returned to central defence after being unable to face his parent club last time out and resumed his increasingly important partnership with Michael Keane and but for one hairy moment when Marco Arnautovic escaped to collect a ball over the top but lost the chance to challenge Jordan Pickford one-on-one when he slipped over the Blues’ defence was impregnable.
In midfield, Idrissa Gueye was back to his fatigue-defying, machine-like best, tackling everything that moved, while the majestic and seemingly effortless André Gomes who had wowed Evertonians when he was finally able to make his debut last September returned in full force alongside him.
Add in two rampaging full-backs in Lucas Digne and Seamus Coleman, a much-improved performance from Richarlison, the tireless work-rate of Gylfi Sigurdsson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin and top it off with a man-of-the-match outing from Bernard and you had the recipe for a hugely enjoyable and encouraging afternoon.
The notable exception to that list is, of course, Pickford, who had his quietest afternoon of the season which, in the context of his efforts to refocus for club and country following the events at St James’s Park earlier this month, will have suited him down to the ground.
Everton restricted their hosts to just three shots all afternoon and while the statistics who West Ham had one effort on target, it’s hard to recall where it came from. This was all about Silva’s team and a new-found relentlessness that belied any potential disruption from the international break and helped them to a handsome victory, their first in the Capital for two years.
Importantly, they were at it from the off with the kind of intensity with which they began the second half against Chelsea and it yielded a goal inside the first five minutes. Richarlison, deployed on the right flank once more, won a corner on the right and the resulting set-piece from Gylfi Sigurdsson was swept into the box where Zouma rose over Issa Diop to bounce a header off the turf and into the top corner of Lukas Fabianski’s goal.
Exploiting the right-hand channel again in the 12th minute, Sigurdsson sprung the offside trap to release Calvert-Lewin who made a beeline for goal but his shot from the angle was repelled by the keeper and Fabianski made a second save to parry the Icelandic international’s follow-up shot.
Twice Calvert-Lewin was inches away from connecting with balls slid across the six-yard box, one from Richarlison and the other from Bernard, and Digne forced another parried save from Fabianski as Everton kept their foot on the Hammers’ neck.
That pressure told again in the 33rd and it came as the result of the sort of movement beyond the ball and precision passing that has been so lacking at times this season. Coleman and Richarlison exchanged passes down the right wing, the Brazilian picking out the Irishman’s run beyond the fullback with a perfectly-weighted ball and he squared it across goal to Bernard who had the simple task of tapping it home from five yards out.
Gomes was running the show in the middle and after gliding passed his man in the centre circle he fed Richarlison with an accurate ball down the channel once more and the winger forced another stop from the keeper who denied him with the an out-stretched boot. Gomes himself might also have scored with a rasping volley but was foiled by Pablo Zabaleta’s excellent block.
Of course, with the memory of the Newcastle collapse so fresh in the memory, no one was taking Everton’s 2-0 half-time lead for granted but there would be no capitulation on this occasion. With Pellegrini having made two attacking changes at the break, the Hammers did enjoy a spell of possession early in the second half where they tried to make inroads into Everton’s stubborn back line but they would be constantly repelled.
Arnautovic was the star of the show at Goodison in the reverse fixture but he cut a frustrated and ineffective figure before he was withdrawn midway through the second half. Bernard, meanwhile, was enjoying his best game for Everton so far, the latest chapter in the story of a player growing into his new surroundings, finding some consistency and getting better and better each week.
After Calvert-Lewin had missed with a couple of efforts, the diminutive winger left his marker for dead brilliantly on the left but Aaron Cresswell ensured that he wasn’t able to create a goalscoring chance for Calvert-Lewin but his compatriot probably should have put the icing on Everton’s cake in the closing stages.
Another Calvert-Lewin effort that had deflected behind off Angelo Ogbonna handed Digne the chance to swing a corner in from the left and Richarlison met it on the run, completely untracked but his header thumped off the crossbar and back out and Fabianski was there again to catch Gomes’s bouncing drive from the rebound.
West Ham used to be Everton’s favourite team to play and, to date, it’s still the club against which they have racked up the most points in the Premier League era but in recent years they have inflicted some painful defeats on the Blues. Indeed, the 3-1 reverse at Goodison Park earlier this season was a sobering reality check on the early season optimism and Everton had failed to win on their two visits to the London Stadium.
This was a pleasing return to form against the Hammers and a performance that once again points to a potentially bright future under Silva. It was almost everything that Everton promised to be under the Portuguese — incisive, dynamic and fluid — but have failed to deliver so often this season.
With the pressure on their collective shoulders easing, Everton are starting to express themselves once again and Silva appears to have found a settled formula that will underpin the push to finish seventh over the remaining six games before the summer business begins.
The key now, of course, is consistency because Blues fans have been here already this term and seen their mounting optimism shattered by a collapse in form but with this performance they laid down a marker for how this team should perform.