With little over ten minutes of normal time remaining in Saturday’s fixture, and with the score at 2-1, Chelsea were threatening.
The atmosphere was rippling with nerves. Above all else, Everton needed to defend efficiently.
Everton 3 – 1 Chelsea: Heroes And Enigmas
The ball fell to Brendan Galloway inside the Blues’ penalty area and the 19 year-old lashed the ball out for a throw-in to the opposition. To acknowledge the young defender’s good decision, a wave of applause swept through the crowd.
Yet not all inside Goodison Park were happy.
Romelu Lukaku, unseen by Galloway and indeed most others on the field, was voicing his frustrations that the teenager had not managed to bend his clearance to land perfectly in front of the Belgian and set up an attack.
The isolated striker gestured animatedly. Yet, when the priority for the Blues at that stage in the game was to close it out safely and claim the three points, Lukaku’s objections were unreasonable. The left-back, who was in fact giving an admirable performance, made sure to take no risks at that crucial period of the game.
Even though Lukaku’s criticism mostly went unnoticed, it highlighted a significant issue within Martinez’s Everton side. The striker was evidently frustrated at his own quiet, sub-standard performance. And most reading this will likely be aware that the 22 year-old has a tendency to slip in and out of anonymity.
From hero one week to passenger the next, Lukaku’s split personality frequently leaves Everton with an issue they are forced to address: when Lukaku’s form suffers, who can the Blues look to as their stand-in hero?
Arouna Kone has flirted with the role. Ross Barkley often strives to fulfill it. But on Saturday lunchtime, the protagonist in the thrilling narrative was the unorthodox Steven Naismith.
After Besic departed the field of play through injury in the ninth minute, the Scotsman took his place on the left of midfield and became the main character in Everton’s expert dismantling of Mourinho’s uninspiring Chelsea.
Seven minutes after the substitution, the Blues were leading 1-0 through a neat, intelligent goal. Hovering on the edge of the area, Naismith played the ball out to his left. Upon receiving the pass, Galloway lifted a perfect cross into the box for the head of the springing Scot who flicked the ball past Begovic into the Park End goal. A dream start.
A well-drilled strike from the protagonist under five minutes later, and the 2-0 score-line was complimented by an atmosphere that Goodison has missed yet is well-suited to – that electric feeling of superiority and elation.
After the depressing times of late, the buzz that washed over the stands following Naismith’s second goal was much needed to say the least.
Matic’s responding strike was enough to deflate the Toffees somewhat, and nerves began to set in for a large portion of the game.
Lukaku was frustrated, yet Everton still managed to look sharper in attack: Naismith wound the Chelsea players up from the moment he came on; Seamus Coleman continued to resurrect his best form; Arouna Kone, despite not being the most gifted of players, never once lost desire; Aaron Lennon complimented the team well once being brought on; Barkley looked increasingly composed and mature going forward.
Chelsea attacked in a tame, blunted fashion with no real conviction or desire. Everton’s back line, led by the professional and intelligent partnership of Stones and Jagielka for the majority of the game, gave a performance worthy of a clean sheet (and new signing Funes Mori slotted in rather well when called upon).
The invaluable John Stones defined everything the opposing defence lacked and barely broke a sweat doing so. He is, without a doubt, most definitely worth the money Chelsea were willing to part with.
Naismith’s third and final goal to complete his perfect hat-trick also completed a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Barkley’s swift pass sliced through Chelsea’s defence, leaving them guessing as the elusive, forward-thinking Scot materialised behind them, controlled the ball and stroked it through Begovic’s legs.
It was a fitting end to a match throughout which the strings had been well and truly pulled by a player many deemed increasingly peripheral.
It was a fantastic day for Naismith. However, as already mentioned, there are two sides to every coin – and specifically that of Everton’s strike-force.
Lukaku’s performance will not live long in the memory of anyone. Although he may appear moderately threatening in a highlights package, the striker’s overall performance was underwhelming. For all of his inconsistencies, the Belgian is a fantastic player and can be truly devastating on occasion.
And exactly which occasions stand out to fans since Lukaku began his Everton career are noted below (the following is the result of a quick Twitter poll):
@sturdy8: West Ham 2-3 Everton, September 2013 (his debut) and Southampton 0-3 Everton, August 2015.
@bluenosethomas: Everton 3 – 2 Newcastle, September 2013, and Everton 3-3 Liverpool, November 2013.
@Keogh_NB: West Ham 2-3 Everton, Everton 3-0 Arsenal April 2014, Southampton 0-3 Everton, August 2015.
@Markthablue wrote the following:
Newcastle (H) 3-2 – A game of 2 halves but in the first half Lukaku looked brilliant, his physical presence and link up play with Barkley was mouth-watering, scoring clinically, sweeping home from a Mirallas ball in, then a setting up Barkley before sensing an opportunity, taking advantage of some awful Geordie defending to make it 3-0 by halftime…utterly ruthless.
Liverpool (H) 3-3 – Lukaku this time providing 2 clinical finishes in a game which showed Everton’s attacking prowess under Roberto Martinez in full force. Lukaku with a low shot and a bullet classic Gwladys Street header to show his threat on the ground and in the air against the old enemy.
Arsenal (H) 3-0 – Lukaku along with Mirallas, Barkley and Naismith were devastating, attacking with purpose against the gunners. Big Rom sealed a fine performance with a rampaging run and powerful shot past Szczesny making it 2-0 before half time.
West Ham (H) FA Cup 3rd round 2015 – With the team performing abysmally, losing its previous four games, Lukaku equalised from close range in injury time to force a replay but it was his hunger and desire that stood out dragging the team up with his positive vibrant display.
Young Boys (A) 4-1 Europa League – Lukaku taking full advantage of Young Boys dodgy offside trap was ruthless in a ruthless Everton attacking display in Switzerland. The perfect hat trick rewarding a menacing display with a header, right foot and left foot shot following in Alan Ball, Andy Gray and Yakubu’s Everton European hat trick footsteps.
Southampton (A) 3-0 – Lukaku with 2 clinical finishes. One a terrific header back across Stekelenburg following a swift counter before Lukaku ran onto Barkley’s beautifully weighted pass to sweep home confidently, helping the blues to a deserved victory. Lukaku’s overall play showed why we paid £28m for him.
(In addition to these performances, I really enjoyed watching him when Everton defeated Wolfsburg 0-2 away from home in November 2014).
So then – what makes Lukaku tick?
Naturally, football players are always going to have good days and bad days. However (in my opinion at least), Lukaku appears to thrive when he is positioned deeper or when the Blues set up to counter-attack (of course, Roberto Martinez knows far more than some blogger, I just can’t help but notice this).
Now this tactical analysis is very basic, but when the Belgian can run with the ball, or exploit space in front of him, he strikes true terror into the eyes of defenders. Just think about his goals against Wolfsburg, Southampton, Arsenal, Newcastle and Young Boys from the above list.
He showed rare glimmers of this positioning and intent against Chelsea on Saturday. In addition to this, his aerial ability, and presence in the six yard box, can also be incredibly effective. Given the space in front of him he can create goals too, as a result of the sheer havoc he causes when running at the opposing defence.
However it does not feel as if Martinez plays to Lukaku’s strengths. Of course, it wouldn’t be right to set up to play the counter-attack every game.
Yet in a significant portion of the matches he plays in, the striker is almost elusive; against Tottenham he was poor and against Manchester City he was enigmatic too. Understandably Martinez is more likely to take a more cautious and rigid approach to fixtures against ‘bigger’ clubs, however the fundamental issue persists: Lukaku is incredibly inconsistent.
When Lukaku is on his game, he can be unstoppable – and no doubt every Evertonian wants him to become the world-beater he can be and fire the Blues to success.
The comparisons between the manner in which Everton have played in spells so far this season and Martinez’s initial campaign in charge are truly exciting. The level the Blues reached during that season was something else.
Just imagine how fantastic Lukaku can be when in form.
Imagine effective, creative wingers, wing-backs returning to their best form and Ross Barkley (who increasingly looks like fulfilling his potential) bossing the midfield.
Imagine the solid, unbreakable partnership of Stones and Jagielka, with McCarthy shielding the back line.
The Blues would have an excellent shot at ending the agonising trophy drought and cementing themselves once again as top-four challengers – for this starting eleven Everton have now is undoubtedly the most talented in years.
If Martinez can manage to mastermind the Toffees to an outstanding level once more, we could well be in for a thrilling season.
And after all the misery Evertonians have put up with throughout last season, we deserve it.