With little to play for other than the maximum possible Premier League merit payment by virtue of league position — not an insignificant factor given football and Everton’s uncertain economic climate — this was the kind of match where you wanted to see something on which to pin your hopes for next season.
Signs that there is enough in this Toffees side that it won’t require a complete overhaul (not that one is possible, of course), that there is fight and passion in the ranks, and that a rediscovery of their attacking mojo was possible. Evertonians saw plenty to inspire hope on all those counts this evening as Carlo Ancelotti’s men edged Europa League-chasing Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since Blues fans reacted in anger at the Blades’ 2-0 win in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park last September. Everton have gone though another managerial crisis, appointed one of the game’s most decorated managers and yet still managed to this point to end the campaign with a whimper. Sheffield United, of course, emerged as the surprise package of the season; at one stage occupying the top four and looking for long stretches as though a top-six finish was very much on the cards.
As such, this fixture had morphed from being a potentially comfortable away day for an Everton outfit that initially had designs on European qualification themselves into being a somewhat daunting date on the calendar and probable defeat, especially given the fact that the Toffees came into this evening winless in four games and bearing all the enthusiasm for completing the season of death-row inmate awaiting his last meal.
How refreshing, then, that not only did Everton win their second away game since the post-lockdown restart but they did it with the kind of defensive resilience and resurfacing attacking enterprise that they will need in order to make 2020-21 a much more successful endeavour. The second half, in particular, will have demonstrated to the manager and the fans that there is enough of a foundation in place on which to add what we hope will be the targeted quality names to be added in the coming weeks, particularly when the mentality of the team is right.
With young Jarrad Branthwaite visibly growing into his role alongside Michael Keane in the heart of a defence that gave the Blades precious little by way of goalscoring opportunities, André Gomes building on those last few minutes against Aston Villa as he rediscovers his talents going forward, and Richarlison weighing in with an excellent striker’s goal, there is cause for optimism once more as thoughts remain with what next season might hold.
Importantly, there was an intensity about Everton from the first whistle this evening, with Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin setting the tone for an effective pressing game that restricted United’s ability to play through them. With the Blues struggling to play out from the back themselves in the early going, it made for a fairly uneventful contest for the opening quarter of an hour until Jordan Pickford was called into action for the first time.
Everton got caught trying to pass their way out from the back, Lucas Digne ended up fouling Sander Berge and Pickford helped Oliver Norwood’s curling free-kick on to safety with his palm.
But then, in the 20th and 24th minutes came glimpses of the Toffees’ abilities to pick their way through the lines, first when Gomes played Theo Walcott in down the right channel with a nicely-weighted pass but the winger could only drag a shot across face of goal and, second, when Gomes curled a pin-point ball behind the defence from the touchline to meet Calvert-Lewin’s run but the striker’s first touch was too heavy and it got away from him.
As the first half was coming to a close, Branthwaite’s errant pass ended with Pickford palming Chris Basham’s cross away and Pickford having to save a deflected shot from Ben Osborn. In between, however, Everton should really have gone ahead. Richarlison won the visitors’ first corner, Dean Henderson punched Gylfi Sigurdsson’s delivery out to the other side of the box where Walcott clipped a teasing cross back into the far post. Calvert-Lewin rose well over his marker but could only plant his header onto the post.
It would take Everton less than a minute to find the net following the start of the second half. Gomes was fouled midway inside Sheffield’s half and Sigurdsson improved on the flat delivery that had only found the head of the first defender in first-half stoppage time by picking out Richarlison with a sweeping free-kick.
The Brazilian steered it expertly beyond the goalkeeper with a header to score his 15th of the season and what proved to be the winning goal.
Gomes then sent Walcott away down the right again but while the former Gunner’s cut-back looking for a Blue shirt was disappointing, it was heartening to see Everton starting to create openings again.
Branthwaite prevented an early reply from the hosts by David McGoldrick when he charged down the forward’s shot after Tom Davies had run into trouble near the touchline and been dispossessed but the Blades wouldn’t really get another chance to threaten Pickford’s goal until five minutes from the end when George Baldock headed a decent chance over from about eight yards out.
In the intervening 35 minutes, Everton had stuck to their task diligently, stifling a Chris Wilder team that is normally difficult to repress – this was the first time they had been restricted to no shots on target at home since August – particularly in the closing stages of matches, and it was the Blues who could have added to the scoreline.
Calvert-Lewin, playing at Bramall Lane for the first time since leaving the Steel City for Everton four years ago, did well to out-muscle John Egan and made a bee-line for goal but his shot was partially blocked by the covering defender and Henderson was able to beat it away.
With 10 minutes to go, Everton’s best passing interchange of the match on the edge of United’s box ended with Walcott firing in a cross that was too far ahead of Richarlison before Gomes raked a 20-yard effort narrowly wide. Then, in stoppage time, substitute Anthony Gordon and Calvert-Lewin sprinted away into what was, briefly, a two-on-one situation but the teenager’s cut-back went straight to a red-and-white shirt and the ball was cleared.
If Ancelotti has been unmistakably frustrated with his charges since the win over Leicester at the start of the month, this performance will have given him much more encouragement. It was also pleasing to see some flexibility from the manager in terms of the formation, with Sigurdsson appearing to play in a more central role alongside Richarlison and behind Calvert-Lewin. Again, the ingredients were here to make up the kind of side that had, until that soporific defeat at Spurs, one of the four best records in the top flight since the Italian came on board.
It wasn’t perfect by any means — the repeated attempts to play out from the penalty area and cycling of the ball back from the fullbacks to Pickford get a little mind-numbing and, occasionally, heart-stopping; Davies suffers from occasional lapses in judgement in dangerous areas that put the defence under unnecessary pressure; the way they so often go to pieces in the final third is maddening; and Calvert-Lewin’s ongoing goal drought could become a psychological hurdle if it goes on too much longer.
But as evidence for optimism for next season it’ll do, particularly if Bournemouth can be despatched in some style on the final day next Sunday.
After another dreadful first half, Richarlison brilliantly headed home Sigurdsson's free-kick to briefly set the game alight.
Everton make four changes for tonight's game:
Out: Coleman, Holgate, Bernard, Iwobi
In: Sidibé, Branthwaite, Sigurdsson, Walcott
Moise Kean doesn't make the matchday squad but youngster Ellis Simms does for the first time, on the bench with Anthony Gordon. Former Blues Phil Jagielka and John Lundstram on the bench for The Blades.
In the early action, Richarlison got his foot trodden on and stayed down in pain, but no free-kick. Digne was next to suffer the same assault, this time seen by the ref, but not deemed worthy of an early yellow card for the home side.
Everton resorted to that awful slow sideways and backwards nonsense passing, Digne then launching it aimlessly out of play, while The Blades were eager to swing balls in as soon as they could.
Everton were unable to get out of their own half, playing out from the back but losing possession and then giving up the foul, gifted a corner by Pickford's needless palm. Pickford was almost caught out by a bold inswinging corner that drifted less than a foot in front of the far post.
Branthwaite was at least trying to make forward passes from the back but they weren't coming off for the lad. At least 15 mins had gone before Richarlison played probably the first Everton ball into the opposing penalty area, easily repelled, and soon back with Pickford.
Finally, a decent move from Everton, but the 'strikers' not on the same wavelength as Walcott, whose cross deserved a little more interest. Still, an excellent chance created by Gomes, dropping the ball perfectly in front of Calvert-Lewin to control off his chest... but no, the Everton No 9 tries to score with his chest, rather than cushioning the ball and shotting with power, like a true professional.
Pickford decides to launch a long goalkick to Calvert-Lewin, who watches it all the way but makes no effort to get under the flight of the ball, and it goes all the way back to the Everton keeper. Richarlison feels a gentle arm on his head and collapses in a heap. Walcott gets fouled more obviously, and Sigurdsson makes a strongish captain's protest over something (probably the lack of a yellow card for the Sheffield man.
And finally the referee shows yellow, but it's to Davies for one of his classic horrible mistimed tackles to the ankles. Everton under pressure again from a corner, Stevens lashing over. From the goal-kick, another ridiculous demonstration of "playing it out from the back", the ball going nowhere but back to Pickford.
For once, a beautiful ball from Sidibé was taken properly this time on the chest by Calvert-Lewin and crossed but Richarlison was too easily driven wide. Pickford needed to parry a shot-cross from Basham as Sheffield Utd increased the pressure on the Everton defence.
Richarlison did well to chase a long Gomes ball, earning a corner, and on the rework, Calvert-Lewin rose beautifully at the far post to meet a great cross from Walcott but decided he should aim full on for the face of the post rather than into the goal. Better technique thou!
Osbourn looked like he could score off a long Henderson punt but didn't connect properly. Richarlison was caught again in a 50/50 challenge and Norwood was shown a rather odd yellow card. Sigurdsson curled in a lazy ball that triggered nothing more than the half-time whistle after another shockingly poor half of football in which Everton incredibly hit the post.
Everton won an early free-kick after restarting and, simple as can be, Richarlison glanced it brilliantly into the far corner, superb body position, superb timing, fantastic body technique, use of neck muscles, perfect aim and direction! Incredible! Just like watching Brazil!
Another nice Everton move saw Walcott feed in a perfect cross but Calvert-Lewin had decided to go the wrong side of the defender and had no chance of getting the ball. The Blades responded with a fine strike from McGoldrick, the game an unrecognizable all-action end-to-end showpiece! Even some handbags from Baldock, standing on Digne's ankle.
The home side became noticeably more frustrated that they were behind, but Everton looked the better team suddenly, moving the ball around a little better. Calvert-Lewin this time took Pickford's long ball perfectly on his chest, turned and sprinted ahead, shooting — but his shot catching a defender and deflecting very kindly for Henderson to save in the home goal.
A fantastic vignette before the drinks break: Gomes plays an incredible ball off the outside of his boot, curling around 2 or 3 defenders and perfectly paced for Walcott to cross low and hard into the mixer? No ... behind everyone!
Everton finally had something meaningful to play for, even if the season was now devoid of meaning. Everyone seemed that but sharper, more alert, and more careful with the ball. A pity the ref had snot stepped up his game, giving a very soft free-kick to the home side, and very much bemusing the Everton players.
Wilder's men kept pressing the Blues back, harder and harder, looking for the equalizer but the Blues seemed happy to soak up the pressure. Calvert-Lewin was rather poorly punished for a gentle face massage on McGoldrick, who stayed down far too long.
Controlled play from the Blues saw Walcott pass his cross in directly to a defender's feet. His next was better but again, no-one expecting it. Gomes decided to shoot from distance, fractionally wide.
Walcott gave way to Gordon with less than 10 minutes left. But Sheffield United were getting closer after Zivkovic had come on, a header flying over Pickford's bar.
Richarlison got a soft yellow for blocking an even softer free-kick awarded against Calvert-Lewin for nothing at all. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes on Everton's last away game of this hugely blighted season, they needed to see out 4 minutes of added time.
Digne took a cross full in the face, and it was bodies thrown every which way to keep The Blades attack at bay until they could break, Gordon going on a beautiful run but crossing behind Calvert-Lewin in a move that was well worthy of a second Everton goal.
Ancelootti thought about bringing on Iwobi but changed his mind as the clock ticked on past 4 minutes to account for treatment to Digne. McGoldrick slipped and scooped the ball skyward to end the game in an amazing Everton win.
Scorer: Richarlison (46')
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Henderson; Basham (83' Zivkovic), Egan, O'Connell; Baldock, Berge, Norwood [Y:45+2'] (69' Lundstram), Osborn (60' Sharp), Stevens; McBurnie (60' Fleck), McGoldrick.
Subs not Used: Moore, Jagielka, K Freeman, Robinson, Clarke.
Everton (4-4-2): Pickford; Sidibe, Keane, Branthwaite, Digne; Walcott (84' Gordon), Davies [Y:33'], Gomes, Sigurdsson (88' Coleman); Calvert-Lewin [Y:78'], Richarlison [Y:90'].
Subs not Used: Stekelenburg, Virginia, Baines, Iwobi, Baningime, Bernard, Simms.
Referee: Stuart Atwell
VAR: Martin Atkinson
Everton are on their travels for the final time in the 2019-20 campaign as they face the surprise package of the season, Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
The Blues sit 16th in the “away table” having won just four times away from Goodison Park and given the respective form of the two clubs coming into this game, it's hard to see Carlo Ancelotti's side improving on that record.
Thursday's 1-1 draw was Everton's fourth without a win, a sequence that has condemned them to a bottom-half finish for the first time since Roberto Martinez's final season while the Blades, who only came up from the Championship last year, sit two points off fourth place.
That is down to the astounding work done by Chris Wilder in fashioning a side short on star names but long on endeavour, spirit and cohesion, qualities that have been sorely lacking at Everton this season and which have looked in even shorter supply over the past few games.
The Yorkshire club's challenge for the European places looked to be on the wane when the Premier League emerged from the coronavirus lockdown. They failed to win any of their first three League games following the restart and were knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal but three wins out of five in July means that should they beat Everton on Monday evening for the second time this season, they will be in with a shout of claiming sixth place on the final day of the campaign.
Ancelotti, meanwhile, will just be hoping to end the season on a positive note, knowing that the real work starts during the transfer window and when his first full season as the Toffees' manager begins in September. The game offers him another chance to assess both the suitability and attitude of his players but he will forced into at least one more change to his side due to injury.
Mason Holgate, Yerry Mina and Fabian Delph have all been ruled out of this fixture and the Bournemouth clash. Delph has been battling another soft-tissue injury since before the current season began while Yerry Mina sustained a thigh problem just before the end of the coronavirus lockdown but while he returned against Leicester at the start of the month, he suffered a recurrence of the complaint during the defeat at Wolves last week.
For his part, Holgate injured his shin in the defeat at Tottenham and missed the next two matches before breaking down again himself just 15 minutes into Thursday's draw with Aston Villa.
“All three are out for the rest of the season,” Ancelotti said in his pre-match press conference ahead of the trip to Bramall Lane on Monday. “We only have eight days left and they will not be able to recover.
"When players have injuries we are always disappointed but we've had a lot of games and, honestly, we were lucky in this aspect."
The injuries to Holgate and Mina provide another opportunity to impress for teenage centre-half Jarrad Branthwaite who made his senior debut at Molineux when he came on for Mina and then replaced Holgate against Villa.
While his first few minutes against Wolves were a little rocky — he conceded the free-kick that led to their second goal and was beaten to the ball by scorer Leander Dendoncker — he was the standout performer against Villa with an assured display that belied his tender years.
"[Holgate and Mina] are two important players but we have the opportunity to give experience to a really young player who did well in our last game," Ancelotti continued. "We have confidence in him and so it can be good for us and for him to play these games.
"Against Aston Villa he did really well considering the fact that he's really young. He's showing in his play character, personality and concentration. He can be a really good player, I'm sure of this."
Whether any of the club's other younger players are given a chance to impress in what will be a tricky game remains to be seen. Moise Kean has yet to start a game since the restart, Beni Baningime has frequently been on the bench but hasn't seen any minutes and there has been talk of Ellis Simms getting the nod to join the match-day squad but, as yet, he hasn't been included.
Again, Ancelotti may decide that this isn't the match to make those kinds of changes and he could hew towards the same players as the past few weeks but with some alteration to the line-up. Theo Walcott's goal against Villa last time out may have earned him another start and both Anthony Gordon and Gylfi Sigurdsson could return as part of a player rotation strategy.
You've got to assume that Ancelotti will once again be paying close attention to which players are delivering for him as part of his and Marcel Brands's team-building plans. For the side that did so well under the Italian prior to March, this wouldn't necessarily have been a daunting fixture regardless of the Blades' form and position in the table but you feel that on the evidence of the last four games, Everton will struggle to live with Wilder's men. Plenty of scope, then, to under-promise and over-deliver!
Kick-off: 6pm, Monday 20 July, 2020
Referee: Stuart Atwell
VAR: Martin Atkinson
Last Time: Sheffield United 1 - 1 Everton (March 2007)
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Branthwaite, Digne, Davies, Gomes, Walcott, Gordon, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin