At the nadir of the season back in January following the FA cup defeat at Millwall, the defensive run that Everton have been on, particularly at home, since early February would have been inconceivable.
Marco Silva’s defence was an absolute shambles at the Den and though they managed a clean sheet at the one ground where they would have been expected to do so when they beat Huddersfield 1-0 at the John Smiths a few days later, the 3-1 home defeat to Wolves deepened the sense of deja vu among supporters for whom the collapse of Roberto Martinez’s reign is still fresh in the memory.
Since losing to Manchester City in the game after that, Everton have kept eight clean sheets in 11 games, haven’t conceded a first-half goal in that span — you have to go back to the title-winning season of 1986-87 for the last time a Toffees side managed that feat — and haven’t let in a goal at all at Goodison Park.
Amid that run, the defeats at Newcastle and Fulham stand as curious and unwanted anomalies, but in the context of Silva’s recovery from what was a very low point in the season and the future under the Portuguese, they offer examples of where to improve because the foundations appear to otherwise be in place.
Goodison Park has indeed become a fortress again and this was a pleasingly routine win even if it left you feeling a little unfulfilled at the way Everton eased off the pedal in the second half. Perhaps there was a certain confidence bred from their recent home form or from the fact that in the opening 10 minutes, the Blues registered over 90% of the possession and were 2-0 up with 20 minutes gone. Silva’s side were wholly dominant in the first 45 minutes and didn’t allow Burnley to have their one and only shot on target of the match until more than an hour had elapsed.
That early pressure yielded a series of set-pieces and one chance for Richarlison when he was threaded through beautifully by Gylfi Sigurdsson but his shot deflected behind for corner. It wasn’t long, however, before the same combination yielded the first goal.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin was set down the right touchline by Richarlison himself from deep in his own half and the Brazilian would then make up the ground to be in place outside the box to receive Sigurdsson’s lay-off after the striker had drifted inside with the ball and found the Icelandic midfielder.
Richarlison took a couple of touches to set himself up and then lashed a 25-yard shot towards goal that took a slight but decisive deflection off Ben Mee and flew into the bottom corner of Tom Heaton’s goal. Mee would, unfortunately, be credited with the goal because the effort looked to be going just wide but it was a tremendous strike and the goal was everything Everton deserved.
And they didn’t have to wait long for the second which came the end of a sustained attack during which Calvert-Lewin and Lucas Digne both had shots blocked before the Frenchman smashed one of his Exocet missiles from distance Heaton could only palm into the path of Seamus Coleman alone in the box to head home.
Ashley Barnes had a well-taken volleyed ”goal” ruled out for offside at the end of a rare Burnley attack before Lee Westwood was booked for a reckless tackle on Morgan Schneiderlin but it was Everton who finished the first half the stronger with Calvert-Lewin putting a header over the bar into the Gwladys Street End and Sigurdsson firing over from a tight angle when he might have been better served slipping it square for Calvert-Lewin to convert from close range.
The second half was much more of a non-event and it was mostly consumed with Burnley trying in vain to make inroads in the Everton defence where Michael Keane and Kurt Zouma were like impregnable rocks. On another day, Keane might have conceded a penalty when he appeared to put his arm on the back of Matej Vydra and his feet accidentally tangled with the substitute’s, sending him sprawling to the turf but the officials waved play on. And Aron Gudmundsson almost got on the end of a deep Barnes cross at the back post but couldn’t keep the ball down as it skipped off the turf in front of Jordan Pickford’s goal.
In between, Richarlison was forced off with a recurrence of the rib injury that he initially sustained at Fulham and which necessitated his substitution around the same time of the game as against Manchester United. It was a shame because the Brazilian, who is been fairly inconsistent over the past few months, had been having one of his most effective games of the season.
He has been guilty at times of being too selfish, over elaborating in the final third or simply running into trouble but this evening he was alert, productive and responsible for some very intelligent balls in various areas of the pitch.
Still very much in control in the destination of the points, with Morgan Schneiderlin continuing to look like a player reborn, the home side didn’t threaten as often as they had in the first half but they did create some decent openings nonetheless.
Calvert-Lewin had time to size up a shot as the ball came out to him around the edge of the box but he swept his shot high into the Park End, Coleman saw an attempt to chip the ball across Heaton’s six-yard box foiled by the keeper when a low cut-back might have found one of four blue shirts queuing up to tap in and Digne then sent Calvert-Lewin in with a nice pass but the striker produced a weak effort that was comfortably saved.
Bernard’s industrious but mercurial evening’s work came to end when he was withdrawn with 17 minutes to go in favour of Ademola Lookman and the young forward wasted little time displaying his obvious talent. Cutting back on a run across the edge of the box, he whipped a left-footed shot that clipped the crossbar when it deserved to dip a few inches lower.
Lookman would get a simpler chance after Theo Walcott had squandered another good opening with just Heaton to beat when the ball rebounded to him around 15 yards out but his powder-puff effort failed to unduly test the keeper.
There was enough time at the end to give Phil Jagielka a couple of minutes of stoppage time to come on for what could be the final appearance of his long and impressive Everton career before referee Chris Kavanagh called time on another home win for the Toffees.
So, three points that put the ball back in Wolves’s court as they entertain Fulham tomorrow knowing that a win would put them beyond Everton’s reach and guarantee that only Leicester could deny them a seventh place finish in their first season back in the Premier League.
Regardless of where Silva’s team finish, though, there are clear signs of progress now under the Portuguese. Replacing the likes of Idrissa Gueye and Zouma, for instance, two players who were again outstanding tonight, would be very, very difficult if it comes to that but there is, at least, confidence and defensive solidity about the squad as a whole not to mention an identity and evidence of an outfit capable of far out-performing their efforts this season next term.
Sometimes it feels like a bit of a blessing when the curtain comes down on a season - last season certainly felt like a relief to get it over with. Our current momentum however has brought much-needed life back into Goodison Park and smiles on the faces of supporters. Such is our form it’s a shame the season is simmering to a close. As we sat in the pub pre-match we reminisced about how quickly the campaign has flown by, and couldn’t resist a “what if…” moment in relation to Jordan Pickford’s Anfield howler of course.
At that point of the season we were in great form - five wins, one draw (at Chelsea) and a solitary defeat (thanks to an Anthony Martial dive at Old Trafford). Following that blooper we won only three of our next 13 games, in a run that included poor defeats against Brighton, Southampton and Wolverhampton Wanderers and a wretched 2-6 Christmas hammering against Tottenham Hotspurs. We were dumped out of the FA Cup by Millwall and on the way back from an unfortunate defeat at Watford my fellow Blues on the train were scratching their heads on if Everton could even muster enough points to stay in the league this season. Conversely, this kickstarted Liverpool’s campaign and they won their next six games handsomely and could now still win the league.
Having got back on track following a lengthy break between that Watford game and our comfortable win at Cardiff City, it’s largely been a joy to watch Everton these last few months. With home games coming up against Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, Evertonians would have been forgiven for looking at them games with some angst but aside from our goalless draw against Liverpool which, let's face it, was satisfying, we have won them all without conceding anything. Eight clean sheets in 10 games is terrific, and I really wish the season had another six games to go. We really have to make sure we carry this momentum into the 2019-20 campaign.
Having finished our drinks in plenty of time, we walked onto Goodison Park, stopping to take in the fabulous new statue of The Holy Trinity — Kendall, Harvey and Ball. We were then into the Gwladys Street and I can’t emphasise enough what a great job the guys are doing there to generate pre-game atmosphere. It’s probably no coincidence that there has been such an uptick in performances while this has occurred. The sirens are a hit and as the team comes out the atmosphere is buzzing.
We lost the toss and so attacked towards the Park End in the first half. Everton unchanged from their draw at Crystal Palace. We began on the front foot and took the game to Burnley from the start, Sean Dyche looked rather agitated on the touchline as Everton pressed early doors, and the pressure told when Richarlison’s distance drive was deflected on target by the very impressive Ben Mee. Tom Heaton couldn’t readjust in time and Everton had an early lead.
We doubled our money just three minutes later when Tom Heaton could only parry Lucas Digne’s effort from outside of the penalty area into the path of the lurking Seamus Coleman who headed in well. Everton 2-0 ahead and good value for it. Tom Heaton may feel he should have done better.
Everton were pretty comfortable from then forth. Ashley Barnes did have the ball in the back of the net but it was ruled out, rightly apparently, for offside. Come the break you had to be satisfied with the effort.
In the second half, Everton were disciplined and saw the game out well. It was a bit of a ‘David Moyes’ win in that we got the job done and finished the job while preserving the clean sheet. What I liked about the game was that it was played in the right spirit - no rolling around, no trying to get players in trouble. Jack Cork took two tough blows to the head in quick succession but there were no complaints - just handshakes and getting on with the game. It’s what I much prefer to see. The referee helped as well in that he let the game flow and wasn’t too whistle happy.
Burnley should have had a penalty when Matej Vydra was pushed in the penalty area by Michael Keane - I’d certainly have wanted a penalty for that - but it was waved away. That may have set up a grandstand finish. There was time for two significant Everton substitutions. Firstly Ademola Lookman was unlucky not to score when he rasped the crossbar from distance. That was a touch unlucky.
And in the dying minutes, Phil Jagielka was given the opportunity to get out on the Goodison Park turf, presumably one last time, and he received a richly deserved reception from the Goodison Park crowd. What a player he has been for us over the years. I don’t know if that’s it for Leighton Baines also, who has also been sublime for us for a long period of time. I certainly wish both of them all the best.
I’d have liked to have to have stayed around for a bit of the lap of honour, but my pub plans were too important and I was away. That’s it for Goodison Park for one season. The most impressive players of the evening for me were our three French lads - Lucas Digne, Kurt Zouma and Morgan Schneiderlin. They all did ever so well. I wasn’t convinced we should sign Kurt, but given how well we have defended these last 10 games I now feel it would be foolish not to.
A good start, a terrible middle and a fantastic end to the season has left me ever so optimistic for the next one.
Pickford: He didn’t have much to do but I was a bit disappointed he didn’t come for quite a few crosses. It’s certainly an element of his game he can improve on but he’s young enough to do that. 5
Digne: An excellent game from a player who’s had quite the début season. Criminally overlooked for the PFA team of the year, but you’re always going to be if you don’t play for the top 2. 8
Keane: A bit lucky not to have conceded a penalty, but it will have been a satisfying win for Michael against his old club. Interestingly, the fella who sits near me was telling me that before the game he was chatting to some Burnley supporters and they were saying that Michael Keane and James Tarkowski have a lot to thank Ben Mee for with how their careers have gone as he has done a great job of nurturing them through and sweeping up behind them. 7
Zouma: Had a very good solid game. 8
Coleman: Good and solid. Great to see him back to his best. 7
Gueye: Spot on defensively as ever. I really hope we can keep hold of him this season. His performances tell me that teams will be in for him this summer, and at 29 he won’t get many more opportunities for a big move left. 7
Schneiderlin: A great effort from Morgan who has had a challenging season. My man of the match. 8
Richarlison: Was very good in his 49 minutes. I expect him to carry on where he’s left off next season. 7
Bernard: Has got better as the season has wore on and I expect him to hit the ground running next campaign. 7
Sigurdsson: Was always a threat in the penalty area but I thought he laboured through the game somewhat. Still, a good solid season from Gylfi. 6
Calvert-Lewin: If only he could add that killer instinct into his game he’d be an awesome player. But he’s more than doing the job currently and we’re winning games. It’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for Dominic. 7
Walcott (for Richarlison): A solid contribution from Theo. 6
Lookman (for Bernard): A lovely cameo and he was unlucky not to score. 6
Jagielka (for Sigurdsson): He was only on for a few minutes so it’s hard to really rate him. However if I was to rate him as a player for Everton over the years I’d give him a solid 8. He’s been exceptional for us and always seems respected by his colleagues. Just a shame he was never able to bring home that trophy for us. Thank you and good luck Phil.
Everton play their final home game of the 2018-19 season tomorrow night looking to keep their Europa League hopes alive when they entertain Burnley.
The Blues can put pressure on Wolves and Leicester, the two teams above them coming into this penultimate round of fixtures, with a victory over the Clarets but the West Midlanders can clinch seventh spot, and with it a place in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League if Manchester City win the FA Cup, with victrory over relegated Fulham on Saturday.
Whether it happens this season or next, qualification for Europe is one of Marco Silva's central goals and he expressed as much in his pre-match press conference.
“For us as a club always playing in Europe has to be our aim. We have to do that to keep growing as a club and [pit] our players at that level.
“When it happens, we have to prepare a deep squad to play in [all] competitions.”
Regardless of the wider connotations, Marco Silva will be keen to finish the season in front of the faithful on a high and three points would represent a fifth game unbeaten at Goodison Park and four home wins on the bounce.
Burnley, meanwhile, have secured their top-flight safety for another season after plumbing the depths for much of the campaign. Three consecutive wins, over Wolves, Bournemouth and Cardiff, and then a draw away at Chelsea helped Sean Dyche's men to the magic 40-point marker over the last month.
In terms of team selection, while he might harbour desires to run the rule over certain players who haven't been involved much recently, while there is still a mathematical possibility of finishing in seventh, the manager is unlikely to make too many changes to the team that started the goalless draw at Crystal Palace last weekend.
That means that the likes of Cenk Tosun, James McCarthy, Tom Davies and Ademola Lookman will probably have to settle for the substitutes' bench again. Morgan Schneiderlin, a solid performer when standing in for André Gomes in recent weeks, is a good bet to keep his place while the Portuguese serves the last of his three match ban.
A rare Friday night game under the lights at the Grand Old Lady should provide a lively atmosphere as Evertonians look ahead to next season with renewed optimism based on the uptick in the team's fortunes in recent weeks.
Burnley have been known to be spoilers at times in the past and, indeed, the recorded what was for them a long-awaited win at Goodison when they beat Ronald Koeman's Blues in this fixture 1-0 in October 2017.
They have won three times away since the turn of the year but all three victories came against teams with them down in the bottom six so an Everton performance anywhere near those that saw off Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United would surely secure three points for Silva's charges.
Kick-off: 8pm, Friday 3 May, 2019
Referee: Chris Kavanagh
Last Time: Everton 0 - 1 Burnley
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Zouma, Digne, Gueye, Schneiderlin, Sigurdsson, Bernard, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin