Rafael Benitez began his reign with a rousing season-opening victory over Southampton as Everton welcomed a practically full house back to Goodison Park for the first time in almost 18 months.
The Blues were booed off by some at half-time as the team trailed to a sloppily-conceded Adam Armstrong goal but the Grand Old Lady was bouncing by the end as a comeback, inspired by the indefatigable Richarlison, ended 3-1, the first time an Everton side has won when trailing at the break for six years.
The Brazilian returned to Finch Farm in midweek straight from his international adventures at the Copa America and the Tokyo Olympics and it was his equaliser two minutes into the second half that sparked Benitez's side into full life.
Abdoulaye Doucouré then put Everton ahead and Dominic Calvert-Lewin wrapped things up with a striker's header.
The win was hugely important, not only for Benitez's need to get off to a positive start but because the Toffees came into the first game of the season with five players in isolation due to possible exposure to Covid-19 and another still on bail pending a police investigation.
James Rodriguez and Ben Godfrey were the key absentees from the squad but the new manager was able to deploy both of his new signings, with Andros Townsend lining up wide on the right, Richarlison on the left and Demarai Gray playing off Calvert-Lewin in the middle.
Buoyed by a positive reception for Benitez from the fans, Everton made a positive start, setting the template for their performance by getting the ball forward early and Allan had an early sighter of goal but it was too close to Alex McCarthy in the Saints' goal before Gray picked Calvert-Lewin out with a cross but he couldn't keep it down.
Southampton played their part in what was largely an open game, with new signing Tino Livramento at right-back a particular stand-out but it was another new arrival, Armstrong, who profited from a horrendous error by Michael Keane.
The defender, playing alongside Mason Holgate with Yerry Mina on the bench due to his lack of pre-season activity following a delayed return from the Copa America, was caught dallying on the ball midway inside his own half and was robbed by Che Adams. He prodded it forward to release Armstrong who made no mistake, lifting the ball past Jordan Pickford and into the top corner of the goal.
Richarlison was booked for simulating a foul with half and hour gone as the Blues tried to force their way back into the match but they went into the interval a goal in arrears and with the displeasure of Goodison ringing in their ears.
Benitez's half-time talk and a tactical shift that swapped the positions of the two centre-backs and moved Gray to the left with Richarlison into the centre did the trick, however, in spurring his charges into more purposeful action. Gray won a 47th-minute corner that was only cleared as far as Townsend. He nodded a looping header back towards the six-yard box where Richarlison anticipated the opportunity, stole behind the static Mohammed Salisu and stabbed it into the roof of the net.
That ignited the home crowd but it would take another half an hour for the next goal to arrive as Southampton responded in what was a very even encounter until 15 minutes from the end. Even so, despite a couple of nervy moments claiming aerial balls from a flurry of Saints corners, Pickford didn't have a save of note make after denying Armstrong in the first half.
Instead, it was McCarthy who was picking the ball out of the back of net following a wonderful strike by Doucouré. Operating much closer to the opposition box than was the case in the latter stages of Carlo Ancelotti's tenure, the Frenchman was involved in the build-up to the goal when he fed the ball out to Seamus Coleman on the right flank.
The Irishman's scooped pass found recent substitute Alex Iwobi who headed it back to Doucouré just inside the area. He took one touch to turn his marker and then unleashed a fabulous effort into the top corner to make it 2-1.
That became 3-1 in the closing stages and Iwobi was involved again. Picking up the ball on the right from Richarlison, he then threaded a perfectly-weighted pass between two defenders and the Brazilian whipped a peach of an early cross to the six-yard box where Calvert-Lewin stooped to force a diving header into the net off McCarthy to set the seal on a superb afternoon for Everton.
It was a performance wholly at odds with the team's struggles at home under Benitez's predecessor and a victory earned by playing to the Blues' strengths as a side.
Last season's games in an empty home stadium were too often a story of capitulation and attacking ineptitude but today the character and response from the team was exactly what was required.
Much was owed to Richarlison who was excellent in the second half and a driving force in attack but both new signings played important roles and the new boss got his tactics spot-on on the day.
More importantly, true football was back with the return of a ground full of supporters who were treated to a stirring victory that will begin to banish the cloud of pessimism with which many fans approached the 2021-22 season.
Everton’s 2021-22 Premier League campaign kicked off with the visit of Southampton as Rafael Benitez took charge of his first competitive match at Goodison Park in front of a full house and produced a magnificent comeback win.
With a whole raft of Everton's players — including some of the best ones on their books — missing for a mixture of reasons, Benitez was unable to call upon the services of Rodriguez, Kean, Gomes, Gbamin, Godfrey and Sigurdsson.
But at least it was an opportunity for Benitez to chose players he fully trusts in new signings, Gray and Townsend, who both need to demonstrate to the Everton fanbase at least that they can deliver end-product at this level in the Premier League.
So no real surprises and limited inspiration — unless Richarlison would decide to show everyone why he is a Gold Medal Olympic winner! Nine players on the bench: some youngish players, but only one goalie! Yea, Rafa!
For the visitors today, former Everton player, Theo Walcott, starts.
With fans finally back in attendance after 18 months of a horrible pandemic, only possible through the work of brilliant scientists who created highly effective vaccines in record time, Goodison Park was in fine form as Referee Andy Madeley got things under way at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon.
Southampton were up for the pressing game from the off and it was all very tight, especially when Everton wanted to move forward... and they would end up going backwards all too often. A Calvert-Lewin cross was deflected back for Allan to run onto and fire at goal. A Southampton free-kick wide left was heavily glanced behind by Armstrong.
The diagonal play to Richarlison that James Rodriguez could deposit on a sixpence was wasted three times by other players, easily intersected each time. Gray did fashion a good cross but Calvert-Lewin popped it off the top of his head rather than directing it with his neck muscles.
Everton had to pay full attention when Southampton attacked, the defense hopefully less shakey than it had been the previous weekend at Old Trafford. Allan slid right through Adams, getting only a stern word from Madeley.
Stevens cleared out Richarlison as he expected an easier passage forward with the ball. A long pass finally fell for Richarlison for him to overlap but he launched his cross too far ahead of the incoming Calvert-Lewin. At the other end, Coleman gifted the ball to Djinepo who was allowed to run right in to the byeline but surrendered the pull-back.
Richarlson was upended by Ward-Prose and the free-kick led to a great cross whipped in by Townsend but again, but no blue shirts in front of the defenders to benefit from it. A dreadful mistake by Keane, showing complete incompetence, and he was mugged; Adam Armstrong got free, firing home with consummate ease into the top corner. What an utterly shameful shambolic goal to give up!
The goal further enlivened The Saints, who were first to every contested ball as Everton struggled to present something approaching a response. But we know from previous occasions that showing spirit when going behind is anathema to most of these players. It remained to be seen if Benitez has been able to change that mentality...
Richarlison did his best to forge a path in but was blocked and then basically dived over the penalty box line and was shown a yellow card for his trouble. Romeu took out Richarlison again and this time he got a free-kick — way back in the Everton half. But it led to a foul on Calvert-Lewin (well won by the Everton man) in a dangerous position, where Everton have been painfully reluctant to take such opportunities... and so it proved with Digne's poor effort into the wall.
Another nice cross came in from Townsend to Calvert-Lewin, bouncing off the top of his head and behind. More nervey nonsense at the back ensued with Everton determined to live as dangerously as possible, but Ward-Prowse's corner was cleared effectively by Allan, before The Saints came right back. Townsend's next cross was absolutely shocking.
Another poor miskick at the back and Southampton were in like Flynn, lashing a shot that Pickford had to save. Everton basically showing no idea how to counter the physicality and speed of thought that was condemning their efforts to repeated failure as half-time approached.
Townsend whipped in a fine corner but McCarthy got his glove to it and Everton were repelled again with no reward. They played out the single minute of added time with yet another weak surrender of possession that was at least redeemed, if briefly, and the whistle came to a round of well-deserved boos from plenty of the faithful. Totally uninspiring.
Calvert-Lewin kicked off the second half and Richarlison won a corner but Digne could not beat the first defender. Another corner and Townsend returned the ball to Richarlison, who poked it rather cleverly into the roof of the net! Fantastic finish to put Everton suddenly right back in the game!
There was a free-kick to defend that caused mild panic at the back but Everton cleared well to win another couple of corners. They should have had a second when Richarllison dummied Digne's cross for Keane to strike but Ward-Crowse was across him instantly to block his goalbound shot. But much better intensity after what must have been a storm of broken teacups from Rafa in the break.
Better flow saw Townsend with another cross from the right but its trajectory and the positioning of players were rather haphazard at best. Gray got a tasty cross in from the left but Calvert-Lewin picked the wrong side of the defender, who gave away another corner.
Southampton weathered the 15-minute storm to win a corner that Pickford had to claw away from under his bar. Then more silly arses trying to play out from the back, Pickford panic-clearing into touch. But Allan got free and Gray crossed into McCarthy's hands with Calvert-Lewin again the wrong side of the action.
Everton could not repel The Saints, who came back for another corner, Pickford having to improvise again. They won another disputed corner that Pickford caught this time. Townsend was fouled but McCarthy could watch it all the way and set up another Saints attack that was only thwarted by some narrow margins.
Saints kept attacking in droves as Everton lost the inspiration, another corner given up, defended by Richarlison, who then did a nice nutmeg and drew the foul. Townsend then got a free-kick wide right but the delivery was poor, behind the line of Everton attackers. Townsend was then replaced by Iwobi but the pattern was maintained: another corner for James Ward-Prowse that came to nought.
A rubbish pass by Keane drew plenty of opprobrium from the crowd as Everton seemed to be slowly sinking back into the bad ways of the first half. A nice ball fell for Iwobi but there were opposing players threatening his space and he backed off. Then a nice cross came right to Iwobi and he just wailed at it as only he can.But then the moment of the match from Abdoulaye Doucouré, simply fabulous. It came from a very smartly taken free-kick that Doucouré touched out to Coleman, and his cross was flicked back by Iwobi a little awkwardly to Dooucouré who trapped the ball, spun around 360°, and then fired it exquisitely to absolute perfection into the top corner, just evading McCarthy.
With Hassenhuttl making changes, Richarlison and Iwobi combined on the right and Richarlison delivered a cross that could only be converted with a diving header close in, and that's exactly what Calvert-Lewin produced this time, overpowering McCarthy for it to trickle over the goalline!
With the pressure off, Calvert-Lewin then got a dropping ball to pivot onto but he couldn't quite emulate Doucouré, firing well wide. A free-kick for Ward-Prowse won another corner off Calvert-Lewin. Iwobi was then gifted by Richarlison with a great free run and a fabulous chance for glory but he finished as only he can — with an utterly dreadful powder-puff pass to the keeper.
Richarlison came off a minute before the end (good move by Rafa!) to milk plenty of applause for his all-conquering exploits, which had turned this match on its head after an absolutely attrocious first half.
Scorers: Richarlison (47'), Doucouré (76'), Calvert-Lewin (81'); Armstrong (22').
Everton: Pickford, Coleman, Holgate, Keane, Digne, Allan, Doucoure [Y], Townsend (70' Iwobi), Gray (83' Mina), Richarlison [Y:] (89' Gordon), Calvert-Lewin.
Subs: Begovic, Kenny, Delph, Davies, Branthwaite, Broadhead.
Southampton: McCarthy, Stephens, Romeu (80' Diallo), Ward-Prowse, Armstrong, Adams, Perraud (83' Redmond), Djenepo, Livramento, Salisu, Walcott (80' Tella).
Subs: Forster, Walker-Peters, Armstrong, Elyounoussi, Bednarek, Valery.
Referee: Andy Madley
VAR: Darren England
A Feeling You Just Can’t Buy
After a little bit of confusion as to who was driving to the game, Gaz eventually rocked up and drove Ste and I through the tunnel under the River Mersey. Eager as ever, Dan and his family were well ahead of us.
Stepping into the pub almost felt like a dream come true. It’s the little things you miss, I suppose, but walking into the pub and seeing it exactly how we remembered it from 18 months or so ago really put smiles on our faces. “Alright lads!” said the Landlady with a huge grin. It was great to be back and see some of the old staff… and even better to learn they are still providing free hot dogs.
It seemed that many attendees were concerned about difficulty accessing Goodison Park with the new digital season tickets expected to cause carnage. This is Everton after all and you learn to expect the worst with these situations. Visitors to Goodison Park were that concerned about getting into the stadium that the pub had drastically emptied out by 2:15 pm. We stayed on a little later and, come about 2:50 pm, it was remarkably quiet on Goodison Road with most supporters presumably already inside the ground. We entered the stadium hassle-free, the digital season ticket working perfectly.
It was awesome to hear the sirens prelude the Z-Cars theme as the teams came out. Rafa Benitez was afforded a modest reception, with any hecklers, perhaps smartly, drowned out by whatever music was being pumped out. Getting to my seat, it was great to see the old familiar faces around us and everyone thrilled to be back. It’s amazing how quickly you return to type.
Everton likewise, if the downbeat first-half showing was anything to go by, as the Toffees struggled to get out of second gear in a very lacklustre first-half display, the highlight of which being a wicked cross from the right by Demarai Gray which Dominic Calvert-Lewin could only nod wide of the far post. The lowlight? Why Southampton’s goal, of course. Why, why, why, Michael Keane???
The England centre-back got himself into a bit of a muddle but was afforded the opportunity to get out of jail as the ball sort of came back to him and he should have sunk it into Row Z. Instead he tried to be clever, was robbed by Che Adams and, with Mason Holgate stranded, the impressive Adam Armstrong finished with aplomb to give Southampton an advantage.
We didn’t respond well and the crowd were getting restless, the mood not helped by Kevin Friend’s decision to card Richarlison for simulation. I was too far away to see the incident so I have no idea how clear a dive it was or not; I wish only for consistency with those decisions, ie, when Mo Salah does the same thing, for example, it should also be a yellow card.
With about 5 minutes left of the half, I’d seen about enough and went down to grab a half-time beer. That was the plan anyway, though I hadn’t accounted for the rest of the Gwladys Street End having the same idea and I was too late with the queues already very, very long. Instead, I spent my time at the break back up by my seat and having a natter with those around us.
Everton began the second half on the front foot and forced a corner-kick quite early in the half which Richarlison eventually thrashed into the net. Mohammed Salisu will regret watching the ball sail over his head in what was a big mistake by the Southampton defender. That made it one goal-costing error all.
Everton kept their foot on the gas for a short while, though Southampton soon wrestled their way back into the game and were largely on top for a lot of the 29 minutes between Richarlison’s goal and Abdoulaye Doucouré’s goal, albeit without reward.
While Abdoulaye was running around nutmegging himself following Alex Iwobi’s excellent knock-down, it was hard to see what the reward would be, though then, out of nowhere, he turned and smashed an unstoppable drive into the top corner of Alex McCarthy’s net, sending the crowd wild in the process. A feeling you just can’t buy.
Shortly after, Alex Iwobi made a very good run though was unable to finish when in the penalty area. It mattered not, however, as in no time at all we had wrapped up the points when Richarlison’s delicious cross was headed into the goal by Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Such had been Dominic’s limited involvement in the game, it felt like that was his first touch!
This made for an enjoyable last 10 minutes as Rafa Benitez shut up shop by bringing on Yerry Mina for Demarai Gray. We were away quite quickly after the game and home nice and handy.
And just like that, we’re back, almost as if we’ve never been away.
Jordan Pickford: Helpless with the goal and was generally sound with most of everything else he did. 7
Lucas Digne: I felt he began the game rather anonymously though did grow into the game well in the second half. 6
Michael Keane: Obviously he made a huge error with the Southampton goal but good on him for putting it behind him and having a good solid game after that. 6
Mason Holgate: Did quite well. 6
Seamus Coleman: One of our top performers on the day. 7
Allan: It is a mystery how he survived the game without picking up a yellow card. He had a good tenacious game and you got the impression he enjoyed the battle. 6
Abdoulaye Doucouré: It’s great to see him given the license to get forward more as you’ve got to love a good box-to-box midfielder, and he was rewarded with his goal, of course. It was a brilliant dominant display throughout from Abdoulaye. My Man of the Match. 8
Andros Townsend: Not spectacular but full of industry. 6
Demarai Gray: I’ve never seen much of Demarai previously and I’ll need to see a lot more of him before I can decide how good a player he can be for Everton, but he certainly has talent. Not a bad debut at all. 6
Richarlison: In an era when we all we so often hear is how tired footballers are for playing too many games, how refreshing is it to see Richarlison arrive straight back from Tokyo having also played in the Copa America, and then demand to play. Good on him for showing such commitment, and he got his reward with a goal and an assist. It’s great to have him off the mark for the season. Hopefully there’s many more to come. 8
Dominic Calvert-Lewin: I’m sure those who analyse football games more closely than I do will tell me about a lot of the off-the-ball work he did and how he occupied defenders, but I can barely remember him having a kick. Still, he was there when it mattered with a brilliant diving header to seal the win. As so many of Dominic’s goals seem to come in purple patches, let’s hope this is the beginning of another goal streak. 6
Alex Iwobi (for Andros Townsend): What a brilliant 20-odd minutes from Alex with one assist and an involvement in our third and final goal. I’d like to see him have a run of games in the No 10 role, as he says it’s his favourite position though has seldom had opportunities there. 8
Yerry Mina (for Demarai Gray): Helped shore things up at the back. 6
Anthony Gordon (for Richarlison): He got involved, but one moment stuck in my mind when he had the ball in space but was caught floundering on it and a Southampton player easily outmuscled him, won the ball back and went on the attack, leaving Anthony on the floor. That was right in front of Rafa, which won’t have looked good. 5
Everton's 2021-22 Premier League campaign kicks off this weekend with the visit of Southampton as Rafael Benitez takes charge of his first competitive match as the Toffees' boss.
A close season of ever-decreasing Evertonian optimism has yielded just three new signings thus far while a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the futures of James Rodriguez and Moise Kean — players who, if the media narrative is believed, could be two very unsettled squad members if they are still with the club come 1st September.
Kean has seen his dream of a return to Paris Saint-Germain wither over the summer before it was likely extinguished completely by Lionel Messi's arrival at the Parc de Princes this week. And while speculation persists that he could yet return to Italy, he remains an Everton player even if he has reportedly been training alone this week.
James, meanwhile, has been touted around the Continent by his agent, Jorge Mendes, to little effect thus far and, if what has been reported by Marca has any veracity, Benitez has made it quite clear that the Colombian doesn't fit with what he is trying to do at Everton.
Based on Rodriguez's own comments on his Twitch channel this week, it seems highly unlikely that he will be in the starting XI on Saturday or even in the squad at all. It would have been his first appearance in front of a capacity — or close to it — crowd at Goodison Park but Everton fans, who have waited a year to see James play in the flesh, are set to have hopes of seeing him play live dashed.
If so, the focus shifts to where the creativity will come from in the absence of James. Fitness permitting, both of the Blues' new outfield signings are expected to make their debuts against Saints and they will at least offer width and pace to a side that lacked both, particularly the latter, last season.
Demarai Gray has had more of an impact in pre-season but Andros Townsend brings the greater experience so it's hard to know which is the more likely of the two to be in the line-up… although it's possible that each could start on the flanks behind a strike-force of Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
Abdoulaye Doucouré and Allan are the favourites to start in a central midfield that could also feature Jean-Philippe Gbamin in what would be his first start for Everton in two years. Failing that, Alex Iwobi could be handed his preferred central creative role.
In defence, Yerry Mina's return from Copa America duty means that Benitez will need to parse two from the Colombian, Ben Godfrey, Michael Keane and Mason Holgate. That is unless he opts for a five-man back line with Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne as wing-backs rather than conventional full-backs.
If Everton's summer has been fairly dispiriting, Southampton come into the new season having made four new acquisitions to go with the permanent signing of Theo Walcott on a free transfer from the Blues after his Goodison contract expired but having lost top scorer Danny Ings and, arguably, their most dominant centre-half in Jannik Vestergaard.
Much will be expected of former Blackburn striker Adam Armstrong and fellow new arrivals, Armando Broja, Dynel Simeu and Tino Livramento from Chelsea as well as Romain Perraud who has come in from Stade Brest in France. Those key departures, along with the loss of Ryan Bertrand's experience, have many fearing that Ralph Hasenhüttl and the Saints face a testing season ahead.
That, combined with Everton's handsome home record against the Saints, bodes well for Benitez getting off to a winning start as Everton boss to keep at bay the opposition that has been voiced over his appointment. It will require a good deal more defensive organisation than was in evidence in the friendly at Old Trafford last weekend but the advantage of a packed Goodison will hopefully help tip the balance in the Toffees' favour.
Predicted line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Godfrey, Digne, Allan, Doucouré, Townsend, Iwobi, Richarlison*, Calvert-Lewin
*See clarification below