Following the first half of Monday evening’s fixture at the Stadium of Light it was evident to Ronald Koeman that something needed changing.
The substitution of Ross Barkley for Gerard Deulofeu was the most significant turning point in the game. Much to the delight of Koeman and the many watching Evertonians, Deulofeu dug in and was far more instrumental than the man he replaced. Evidently the plan was to supply Lukaku effectively and trust him to do the rest and the introduction of the Spaniard allowed Everton to do exactly that. From that point onwards Everton went on to play the most deadly and enjoyable football of Koeman’s reign thus far.
It was never going to be too long until Lukaku found his shooting boots once again; the Belgian looked relatively sharp in the first half yet was starved of adequate chances, except for one which resulted in an impressive save from Jordan Pickford. However in the second half the quality and intensity of the football enhanced. The opportunities carved out for him by the incredible Idrissa Gueye, the entertaining Yannick Bolasie and the re-energised Kevin Mirallas were perfect for Lukaku. It was his first Premier League hat-trick for the Blues and during the 11 minute spell during which the Belgian scored three times and struck the crossbar he appeared to be absolutely the player he believes he is.
Yet the strike-force was perhaps not even the most pleasing aspect of Everton’s performance; Koeman’s organised and astute defence, with the partnership of Williams and Jagielka at its heart, has turned Everton into a secure unit almost overnight. Add to that the cover from Gueye and Barry with Marten Stekelenburg between the sticks and the nightmarish defending of Martinez’s era seems a long time ago indeed. The Toffees have only conceded two goals this season and it was extremely satisfying to watch them cruise to their second clean-sheet in a row.
Everton’s excellent second half further highlighted the collision of the Blues’ past, present and future on the touchline. After his eleven years at Goodison Park I hope David Moyes does well at Sunderland, however it was impossible to ignore the difference in quality between him and Koeman and it represented the Blues’ change in ambition initiated by the investment of Farhad Moshiri.
Moyes is evidently aware his career has headed south somewhat since his departure from Everton and his reminiscent quotes in the build up to the match, specifically about what could have been achieved had he possessed a striker of Lukaku’s quality, proved exactly that. Furthermore, his comment that “the expectations at Everton have changed dramatically…with the money they’ve now got they’re in a position to really challenge the top teams” highlighted not only the changes that have occurred behind the scenes at Goodison Park but that Moyes’ natural level is that of Sunderland’s.
He is an expert at building up the opposing team in order to assume the role of the underdog. On the other hand Koeman’s level is very much the opposite and the way the two managers and their sides approached the game proved this. Both men are intelligent realists, however because of the shift in ambition at Everton recently they naturally operate at different levels.
The Dutchman’s comments after the match were particularly pleasing and emphasised that there is a drive within himself and at Everton to continuously improve. Jokingly, he said “if we play like the first [half], I think we will be in 13th or 14th place”, yet it was obvious he was dissatisfied. “I was really disappointed about our first 45 minutes”, he went on to say. “From the start, it was not the Everton I like to see. We lost a lot of easy balls – too many players were not on our level in possession.”
When on form Koeman’s well-organised Blues look exciting, and examining the transfer window retrospectively, it ultimately does not matter too much at the moment that Everton for whatever reason were unable to make that marquee signing. That will come in time.
What matters the most, and what is most pleasing about Koeman’s side, is that the performances of a group of players who largely underachieved last season have turned on their head. Thanks largely to the attitude of a certain Dutchman and the intelligent signings he and Steve Walsh have made, Everton display fine teamwork and a burning desire to win. By working continuously for one another Koeman’s side know how to attain three points in convincing fashion or by grinding them out.
And there lies one of, if not the, most pleasing aspect of the new-look Everton. So far this campaign they have been dynamic and adaptable; with Koeman in charge the Toffees are not afraid to alter their approach to a football match. Against West Brom the introduction of Lukaku and his holdup play midway through the first half proved as influential as Deulofeu’s exchange for Barkley at the Stadium of Light.
The first team is strong, fit and confident and the Blues are facing a run of four very winnable games. No doubt Koeman will be targeting seven to nine points prior to what will arguably be the most testing fixture of the season so far away to Manchester City in October.
Koeman’s strive for excellence echoes the values present in the club’s motto that have been neglected for decades. No longer do Evertonians have to live with being relegation candidates or the underdogs or the overachievers. No longer do Evertonians have to live with a delusional fantasist in charge.
The thoroughly enjoyable second half against Sunderland confirmed Ronald Koeman certainly believes that nothing but the best is good enough and he is not afraid to make bold changes in order to achieve that.
While I am of course aware that it was in a sense only Sunderland that Everton defeated, what is most pleasing and most significant for now is the attitude of the manager and players, rather than the results or the opposition. Finally there is somebody in charge at the club who expects the same level of quality and dedication as you and I.
There’s no feeling quite like the one after an outstanding Everton performance. I hope it is one we become well acquainted with over the course of the season.