What’s worse than dominating a game and losing at the last? Making a bloody habit of it. Over the last few years, Everton have certainly done that. At Turf Moor against beatable Burnley, it happened again. The Toffees made all the running, controlled the ball, created all the chances but left empty-handed after Scott Arfield’s sucker-punch. New era, same old malaise.
There was no excuse for this defeat. Put simply, Burnley are not very good this year and they weren’t even close to their best on Saturday. They were disorganised in defence – Everton found acres of space throughout – and limited going forward. All three of the Clarets’ shots on target related to their two goals – otherwise, there was nothing. In fairness, Burnley missed suspended frontman Andre Gray and anchorman Steven Defour which underlines the extent of Everton’s failure.
The visitors’ main weakness was the complete lack of cohesion in attacking midfield. While Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas’ returns to the starting lineup were welcomed by supporters, it continued Ronald Koeman’s unsuccessful policy of rotating his creators. Desperate to make an impact when given a chance, players tread individual paths. Consequently, there was very little co-operation and no consistent pattern of attack.
In the first minute, Mirallas turned down a simple pass to Romelu Lukaku choosing instead to fire a weak shot straight at an opponent. Soon after, Barkley cut inside to shoot at a comfortable height for Tom Heaton when he could have beaten his man and crossed. Lukaku himself refused a potential assist for Mirallas only to lose possession. Yannick Bolasie, a number 10 for the second half last week, spurned several crossing opportunities. Everton were dominant but in a disjointed, messy fashion.
Mirallas tucking in nullified any connection with Bryan Oviedo and with Seamus Coleman putting in the sort of dreadful shift it’s perhaps now fair to describe as a Seamus Coleman, Everton lacked effective width. After Koeman’s handling of Barkley, Coleman must be on thin ice with Koeman. Even worse for Everton, Lukaku came short so often, he shrunk the pitch and crowded the midfield. With all three of Barkley’s offensive outlets converging on the centre, unsurprisingly, his passing game struggled particularly in the second half.
Still, Burnley carried virtually no goal threat until Tim Howard’s, sorry force of habit, Maarten Stekelenburg’s howler. Scott Arfield evaded Ashley Williams’ foolish lunge to leave himself completely open in the centre. His incredibly weak shot – basically a pass – was neither going in nor seriously threatening goal and yet Stekelenburg slapped the ball into Sam Vokes’ path to present an unmissable chance. A hero to zero moment for the up-and-down Dutchman.
Everton responded well after the break. A noticeable upturn in tempo and intensity made them a much more credible threat. Barkley fired in a couple of tame left-footed drives before Ben Mee’s woeful misjudgement presented Lukaku with 40 yards, and indeed Bolasie, to run into. 2016/17’s most productive partners have struck up an instant friendship this season. Here, that was just as well, as Bolasie took the ball from Lukaku before lashing into Heaton’s right corner.
Heaton continued his excellent form to frustrate Everton. He may have got nowhere Bolasie’s drilled effort, but a fine tip over from the former Palace man’s whipped long-ranger and a last-ditch flick to deny him a crossed assist for Lukaku guaranteed him the last laugh. After that, Everton continued to probe but it was like picking locks wearing boxing gloves.
And then the inevitable. Arfield had received peculiar protection from beleaguered official Mike Jones having been booked early. A further four fouls, one a blatant trip on Gareth Barry who had long evaded him, went unpunished as Jones grasped to offset his impulsive spate of first-half bookings. Crueller still, Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s shot ricocheted off the crossbar into Arfield’s path enabling him to notch the winner in. A brutal but familiar ending for Everton.
Unfortunate as the Toffees were, there were some seriously worrying signs. Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka’s distribution from centre-half was dreadful. Coleman and Oviedo’s attacking threat (and indeed common sense) was virtually non-existent. More generally, Everton are struggling with the ball. Passing is mostly daft and clumsy with only Lukaku and Bolasie combining well going forward. Players aren’t working together to open gaps or isolate opponents. With Everton’s wide players regular appearing at number 10, there’s huge scope for confusion over roles. Koeman constantly altering his attacking midfield has undermined efforts to form partnerships, and it’s hit most players’ confidence. Rotation is having a detrimental effect at present.
Without doubt, Everton deserved to beat Burnley but unless Koeman gets to grips with his side’s glaring attacking flaws, there may be similar afternoons to endure.
By Chris Smith
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