It’s a testament to how good Everton are this season, that it’s now the club’s convention to allow the opposition a goal start, just to give them a fighting chance and make the game that bit more exciting for everyone involved.
In the last five games we’ve allowed our opponents the initiative, a trend that was continued yesterday against Sunderland. The goal came just before half-time, a sweet volley courtesy of Adam Johnson, the £10 million man’s first goal for the Wearsiders since joining in the summer.
In truth, Sunderland earned that goal. Belying their league position and recent inability to make efforts on target, they put together one of their best performances of the season to date.
Both teams in fact, contributed to what was an entertaining first half. It was almost incomparable to this fixture last season. Back then, Sunderland and Everton were very different animals. Each had endured a difficult season and had established a style of play designed to stifle opponents rather than out-play them; something which made for a fairly challenging viewing experience.
Yesterday’s game by contrast (in the first-half at least), contained two teams who were out to win the game from the off. Although Sunderland made the brighter start, coming very close to scoring on a couple of occasions, Everton eventually started to contribute to the game.
One of the key players for Everton when they are going forward is Kevin Mirallas. Since the Belgian arrived at Goodison, he has made his impact felt. Quick, intelligent and creative, in a very short time he has become one of those players whose possession of the ball sends a ripple of expectation through the crowd.
In the Goodison derby a few weeks ago, he terrorised the Liverpool defence, turning their right-back inside out and providing much of Everton’s creativity. It was arguably his absence in the second-half that blunted Everton’s potency and caused a premature end to the team’s growing dominance of the game.
Yesterday, his link-up with Belgian compatriot Marouane Fellaini was one of the high points of Everton’s performance in the first half. It was just a shame that he was compelled to come off following an injury, as it robbed Everton of one of their most potent attacking forces.
David Moyes has something of a golden touch when it comes to buying players. Despite the occasional Bilyaletdinov shaped mistake, Moyes has consistently picked up bargains in the transfer market, making a mockery of the lavish sums spent on considerably inferior players by bigger spending teams, such as Sunderland.
Mirallas, it seems, is shaping up to be another of these amazing buys. His presence in the side has contributed considerably to Everton’s adoption of a more attacking style of play this season. All he needs to do now is contribute a few more goals and he’ll be just about perfect.
Ultimately though, even in his absence Everton revealed that they still have enough creativity to cause the opposition problems. God knows what David Moyes said to his side during the interval, but it certainly did the trick.
Everton dominated the second-half, piling pressure on the opposition. For those ‘purists’ who believe that every team in the football league should be playing like Barcelona, here was a clear example that the ‘long-ball’ can still be a very effective tactic.
With Everton’s attempts at ‘passing-triangles’ proving increasingly fruitless against a stubborn Sunderland defence, Moyes displayed pragmatism. The side began knocking it long, searching out the mighty-afro, Fellaini. And it was a tactic that paid off. Midway through the second-half, over the course of three minutes, Everton scored twice, changing the course of the game and destroying the Mackems dreams of an away win.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering his form so far this campaign, Fellaini featured in both goals. Not only did he grab his sixth league goal of the season, but he also turned provider for the Jellyman, who thankfully seems to have rediscovered his shooting boots.
Overall, the win was probably no more than Everton deserved. They were the better side for the majority of the game, dominating possession and creating the lion’s share of the chances.
But the outcome could have been different had Sunderland come out from the interval determined to continue the form they had displayed in the first-half. Despite gaining the initiative via a goal before half-time, the Wearsiders were like a different team after the break.
Although it’s understandable, given the club’s league position that defending their lead was important to Sunderland, their decision to come out in the second-half and just sit back seemed to sell them short. Based on the form they displayed in the first-half, there was every reason to suggest that Mackems had the potential to create more chances and score more goals. But instead, they handed the initiative to Everton, a decision that ultimately proved costly.
Martin O’Neill is a good manager and when he arrived at Sunderland a year ago the club and the fans understandably expected an immediate transformation. But so far this has not been forthcoming. Not only do they have one of the worst scoring records in the league and taken fewer shots than any other team, but they have also managed an average of just one point per game this season, form which if extended over the course of the campaign could spell relegation.
But that’s for Sunderland fans to worry about. As an Evertonian I can only look on yesterday’s result with satisfaction. Not only did we show great resilience to come from behind, we have also managed to end our disappointing run of draws and consolidate our position in the top four. All we really need to do now is abandon this ridiculous policy of giving the opposition a goal-start each game. The way that Everton are playing at the moment, we’re exciting enough without this added element of jeopardy.