Everton so close to passing first true away test in 18 months

Lyndon Lloyd 21/08/2021 14comments  |  Jump to last
Leeds United 2 - 2 Everton

After 18 long months of almost exclusively empty stadia, away days are back. That means a much-anticipated return for thousands of Evertonians to the incomparable experience of travelling the length and breadth of England to cheer on the Blues from packed away ends. It also returns to the players, however, the challenges of playing teams in their own arenas, replete once more with their own raucous, baying faithful and all the noise and intimidation that comes with it.

Everton won 11 times on the road last season in 18 games played in empty grounds (the 19th was at Manchester City in front of 10,000 where they were humiliated in Carlo Ancelotti’s last match in charge); there is almost no way they will win that many this season but they could have repeated the result they achieved at Elland Road earlier this year had Dominic Calvert-Lewin been more clinical at one end and the defence been more resolute at the other.

As it was, Rafael Benitez had to be content with a point, again nothing to be sniffed at in the context of Leeds United’s first Premier League match in front of a full house since 2004, but he and his players will feel disappointed they didn’t come away with all three points.

The travelling Blues will, no doubt, feel the same way but they will have been encouraged by another performance that suggests Benitez’s Everton are a lot more effective going forward than the version that struggled in that respect so often last term under Ancelotti. Calvert-Lewin played despite an ongoing toe problem, scored an excellent penalty but might have put the game beyond Leeds just before the hour mark. Abdoulaye Doucouré again revelled in his more box-to-box role, picking up an assist and almost bagging a stoppage-time winner via a heavy deflection. But it was Demarai Gray who further underlined what a bargain buy he could be by grabbing his first goal for Everton.

If he added nothing else, the former Leicester winger would have been a decent acquisition purely for his pace. Everton had so little of it last season that it felt like mana from Heaven when he arrived over the summer with plenty to prove

for himself but fairly low expectations on the part of the Blues’ faithful. Thankfully, he also adds close control, trickery and an eye for goal which he proved with another superb outing.

If things are looking good in attack — another attacking signing before the transfer deadline feels like an imperative but we’ll have to see what happens — the defence is a cause for concern, particularly without Ben Godfrey who missed a second successive game, presumably because he is isolating in line with Covid-19 protocols.

With Yerry Mina now deemed to be match fit following his late return to training following the Copa America, Benitez deployed the Colombian alongside Michael Keane in place of Mason Holgate as one of two changes to the team that started against Southampton last week. Keane’s error was a potentially damaging cause for concern against the Saints and he had another costly slip this afternoon that will only deepen the yearning for Godfrey’s immediate return.

That would come just before half-time with Everton already a goal to the good having weathered the early storm from Leeds. The Blues had the game’s first chance when Doucouré bounced a shot wide as early as the first minute but the hosts soon assumed control of possession and Raphinha put their first effort on target in the 10th minute while Richarlison’s drive at the end of a purposeful run was charged down at the other end.

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Marcelo Bielsa’s men forced a couple of corners off deflected shots from distance but it was the Blues who were making better inroads into the opposition box, with Gray almost finding Calvert-Lewin’s out-stretched boot with a low cross from the right and Lucas Digne then attempting to find the striker near the penalty spot with a delivery from the left.

Calvert-Lewin was visibly tugged back by the shirt by Liam Cooper during the latter incident but it took a trip to the pitch-side monitor by referee Darren England before the penalty and yellow card were eventually awarded.

Calvert-Lewin assumed responsibility for the kick himself and buried it into Illan Meslier’s net to give Everton a 30th-minute lead.

Raphinha tried to bend one around Jordan Pickford shortly afterwards and dragged another effort even further wide in the 40th minute but Everton were pretty comfortable until Keane was caught horribly flat-footed and was unable to cut out a ball aimed at Patrick Bamford which allowed the Leeds striker to race towards goal and set up Mateusz Klich to fire past Pickford and make it 1-1.

Doucouré, alongside Gray Everton’s stand-out performer on the day, tested Meslier with a low drive and Alex Iwobi lashed an ugly half-volley over as the visitors finished the first period the stronger of the two teams.

That continued into the second half which was less than five minutes old when the Blues struck again. Doucouré played a tempting ball into the box to pick out Gray who stepped over it and appeared to have let the chance go begging but, instead, he cut a shot back across the keeper with his left foot and found the inside of far side of the goal.

Keane blocked a goal-bound volley from Raphinha after Calvert-Lewin had forced a save from Meslier as Leeds tried to respond but it was Everton who might have put the match beyond the home side had Calvert-Lewin been more clinical with a sublime through-ball from Iwobi. The pass was perfect for the England man but instead of dinking it over the advancing keeper, he fired straight at Meslier and the chance was lost.

Successive Leeds corners with around 20 minutes to go were cleared but when the second was swung back into the box, Digne and Seamus Coleman got in each other’s way, Bamford was able to lay it back to Raphinha and the Brazilian, who scored in both games against Everton last season, curled an impressive shot around the players in front of him and inside the post to level things up again.

Still, despite Leeds having more of the ball, it was Everton who looked the more likely to win it with Calvert-Lewin making a bit of a mess of a header from Iwobi’s centre and Richarlison going agonisingly close with a bending effort from the edge of the box.

The final chances fell to Doucouré and Keane in injury time but the Frenchman’s shot took a heavy deflection and Elland Road held it’s breath as it bounced past the wrong-footed keeper and wide of his right-hand post. Keane got his head on the resulting corner but could only put it into Meslier’s arms and both sides had to be content with a point.

Again, given the return of supporters and, with them, a truer reflection of the demands of playing away from home, a point was a decent result for Benitez and his men. Leeds were energetic and inventive but, in the final reckoning, failed to cause the Toffees any real problems other than the ones they created for themselves with questionable defending.

The three points eluded Everton but their directness and purpose from an attacking perspective offers hope that this will be a much more productive season than many fans believed possible. Benitez arrived with a reputation among some as a defensive, overly pragmatic coach but the Blues have exhibited a much more positive posture when they have the ball under the Spaniard so far.

Where under Ancelotti, the first instinct was to play the ball sideways and backwards, under Benitez they appear to be encouraged to go forward and, importantly, trust their own ability to do so. That faith in the players has translated into a more pleasing team to watch and with tighter defending at the back and more deadly finishing up front, might have yielded back-to-back wins to start the new season. As it is, an unbeaten start is still a positive and provides a platform from which to further build as the new boss gets his feet under the table.

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Reader Comments (14)

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David Pearl
1 Posted 22/08/2021 at 20:26:19
Sums up the game and our feelings perfectly.

A defender and another forward before the end of the window aside, l'm hoping one of our midfielders actually learns to put his foot on the ball. All too frequently we cede possession. I think for this reason, if he stays fit, we may see more of Delph who bought some assurance when he came on.

Gray gets about a bit but l don't think l want to see many more starts from lwobi. From the bench maybe...

Are James, Gomes and Godfrey available for Tuesday?

Don Alexander
2 Posted 22/08/2021 at 20:41:45
It's refreshing to me to see some of our players at last shooting on target from outside the box. Long may it continue, and improve!
Jerome Shields
3 Posted 22/08/2021 at 21:35:44
Keane was apparently wrong-footed as the ball deflected off Digne. At the time, it looked a Keane error to me, but it is not as clear as that on examination, and by the account of an Everton fan who was sitting in the stand beside it. So maybe he is not such a crisis.

Actually, both him and Mina were quite good in defence and looked as if they could get up to speed with a pushing forward Everton. As Rafa said, with more games and training, they should improve.

Originally, I did think that Everton would be defensively minded this season and was quite disbelieving of a poster who advocated an attacking Everton. He was right and I was wrong.

The midfield is better. The need to play without dominating possession is a remnant from last season, which is in Rafa's game plan as well. No doubt Gray adds pace and ability, but Iowbi has played two games at a high level that we had only seen once before when he was a second-half sub for Silva. Iowbi did tell us that he was not been played in his best position under Ancelotti.

More chances are being created and Calvert-Lewin is getting into the right positions and attacking the near post at last. Shots are coming in from various sources. Again improvement is possible with more games and training, as Rafa stated. Maybe Calvert-Lewin will get his feet sorted out and get that right one-touch that Ancelotti talked about.

Nicholas Ryan
4 Posted 22/08/2021 at 21:44:02
I know it's only two games, and it could all still go horribly wrong: but we are level with Manchester United, ahead of Manchester City, unbeaten, and found the net 5 times. We have 4 points, while there are 5 teams with no points. That'll do for me!
Phillip Warrington
5 Posted 22/08/2021 at 22:00:19
We have started well... but we have started well with the last four managers only to fall in a heap. But I really do believe Rafa is a stern manager and will not let the players get complacent.

I just wish someone would improve Keane's sharpness. Once he's settled, he's okay... but the first few seconds when he gets the ball or if he's turned in a different direction, he seems to go through a brain freeze.

Gray proves the benefit of having pacey wingers. Moise Kean is a disgrace to the Everton shirt when he came on. Again, he showed no interest in chasing players or enthusiasm compared to when he was playing in Paris.

Richarlison has earned my respect – he chased lost causes all day

Danny O’Neill
6 Posted 23/08/2021 at 07:04:40
Within reason, I always try to focus on performance over result and statistics, especially in the early stages of the season.

I'm a bit old school in terms of the modern use of statistics and rather call a performance how I see it. But using the BBC statistics, barring a couple of defensive lapses (the latter punished by an elegant finish) and a few missed chances, this was almost the complete away performance as we knew them.

70% possession for Leeds, 30% for Everton. We've been there with Martinez right? But even though I only had extended highlights to go off and reports on here, it didn't feel like that?? What a difference it makes when you attack with intent when you do have possession.

17 attempts on goal for both teams. We go to watch football to be entertained. Well that sounds like, and looked like, it made for an entertaining match.

But, despite the possession, Everton's 8 shots on target to the home team's 4.

Like I say, almost the complete smash-and-grab away performance.

Bill Fairfield
7 Posted 23/08/2021 at 09:07:57
The last three seasons have been hard to watch. It’s been a positive start to the season. Good to see attacking football at last.
Chris Locke
8 Posted 23/08/2021 at 09:41:01
Danny @ 6.

I watched the full game live and it didn't feel like a 70/30 split in possession. If we'd won, it definitely wouldn't have been a smash and grab.

I know it's hard to believe after all these years but Everton seemed to actually have a positive game plan. We used the ball much better than Leeds over the 90 minutes and created the better chances. I think Bielsa's post match comments said as much.

At least 25% of their extra possession was passing between defenders which is something we have seen way too much of.

I'm not however too disappointed at the 2 points dropped as I reckon we passed the ball forwards more in this game than we managed in the last 10 games combined under Carlo.

If we carry on like this, it might actually be fun to watch Everton this season!

Danny O’Neill
9 Posted 23/08/2021 at 09:47:44
Exactly Chris. There's a case for possession and controlling it, but if you don't do anything with it, then it becomes dull and turgid to watch.

It could have been 3, but a good away point and early days.

As always, the season ends in May and I've no doubt there will be the inevitable rollercoaster ride on the way to Wembley and European qualification. Let's just hope we can enjoy this one and not have our spirit and balloon popped with a pin and fizzle out like last time out.

Paul Birmingham
10 Posted 23/08/2021 at 09:54:54
It’s refreshing to see the increased speed and tempo of Everton’s games so far.

Under the last manager every team could do a walking or static press such was the ineffectiveness of the draining sidesways, back and across and back techniques deployed in most of the games. The reluctance to shoot from outside the box, was numbing too.

The spiritin the squad and belief is there, and Duke shooting on site is great, long may it last.

So a good start and let’s see what can be russled up in the next week, in view of FFP, bearings., and any transfers in and out of Everton.

I recall a few seasons back that Chelsea couldn’t spend, but they always have at least x3 squads of players whom are always on loan.

But I’m pleased so far and Rafa, has brought some belief and work ethic into Everton, and are cutting their cloth to suit. Hopefully the financial prudence will evolve and there will be no more £30M, duff transfers and has been players.

Now for Huddersfield.

David Pearl
11 Posted 23/08/2021 at 10:38:01
Paul, it didn't hurt Chelsea having some top class kids coming through and it actually helped them.

We also have 3 central mids that haven't played a minute so far. Rafa has a good squad already in my opinion. All in all it's going well so far as long as the players remain mentally strong and confidence grows, we can have a good season. Although still pissed we missed out on Dumfries.

Terence Leong
12 Posted 23/08/2021 at 11:17:53
I saw the last couple of minutes of normal time and then a little into stoppage time.
We certainly didn't look like a team that was trying to protect the one point, or hanging onto our coattails, like so many seasons prior to this.
It's refreshing to see that; so it was a surprise when I saw the stats on possession and the number of passes.

I agree with those here, that it's definitely not smash and grab (which usually entails direct balls, and purely counter-attacking); there was a bit passing. To see that at the end of the game is pleasing.

Tony Everan
13 Posted 23/08/2021 at 12:09:11
It's a good start for us, it is very early days though so any optimism is still tentative.

Still we have been under pressure against Southampton due to Keane's error and the team collectively responded. Leeds is an awkward fixture for any team and we showed good mental strength there too.

We are looking more like an organised team with players knowing their roles. Instruction and advice is clearly being taken on board and is helping. Demarai Gray's quality, pace and directness has given us something we have been crying out for. At £1.8M, he is the best signing of the summer! There's a confidence building and a team spirit forming. The transfer business over the next week will give us more strength in depth which will be definitely needed as the season progresses.

John Boon
14 Posted 23/08/2021 at 21:05:38
Agree with the general support and enthusiasm shown by this Everton team. Centre backs will HAVE to be sorted our before we can have some sort of belief that we may have a team on the rise. Much better to watch than the tail end of last year.Don't really care that Ancelott has gone to Real Madrid because he had lost the plot at Everton

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