If you make a habit of contesting matches that end 6-3, you better make sure you start winning them. Against Eddie Howe’s Bournemouth, that’s what Everton did thanks chiefly to Romelu Lukaku who scored four and played superbly. In a game of three thirds, the Blues’ early goal blitz was almost wiped and they had to hang on briefly before scoring another three and settling it. Clinical, complacent, then clinical again – two out of three ain’t bad.
Leaving two gifted youngsters out of an in-form side and switching formation will dominate the aftermath if you drop points. With James McCarthy and Gareth Barry in at Mason Holgate’s and Tom Davies’ expense, it took 31 seconds for Ronald Koeman to be validated. McCarthy pressed at once. His return passes allowed Lukaku to to curl home with aplomb.
Sideways passing enthusiast McCarthy and counter-attacking powerhouse Lukaku make an unlikely duo. How surprising then when they combined for a second. Again Lukaku got between the lines and laid it off first time before his abundant confidence saw him stroll past two opponents. McCarthy scuffed then accidentally rebounded the ball past Artur Boruc.
Lukaku’s first demonstrated his development in linking the play and speeding up attacks. His second, which arrived before the half hour, offered positive reinforcement in area he can improve. Perhaps influenced by Ademola Lookman who hunts for the ball with fine instincts, Lukaku pushed up. Simon Francis’ blundered pass across his own goal which compared to a fireman responding to a burning building with a Molotov cocktail allowed Lukaku a simple finish for three.
With his polite demeanour, possession penchant and attacking football, Howe has been likened to Roberto Martinez. For Howe, that made a particularly unedifying comparison on Saturday. All the tropes were there. Dominating the ball without shooting. Allowing space everywhere. Careless passing which invited pressure. There are few worse ways of differentiating yourself from Martinez than losing 6-3 at Goodison.
Bourne of frustration
Howe was however able to encourage an impressive fightback. After the break, Bournemouth pushed Everton back and attacked more directly. Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori’s reluctance to get tight allowed Jack Wilshere to find Josh King who poked home. 10 minutes later, lax marking from a corner allowed King to divert Ryan Fraser’s cross for a second. At that point, the whole mood shifted.
Martinez’s Everton made a habit of dropping points in games they should have won 4-0. Goodison’s exasperation was unpleasantly familiar. Suddenly it was all Bournemouth. Mark Pugh turned Schneiderlin before firing wide wildly. Harry Arter drilled low to Joel Robles’ right before blasting at him again from the resultant corner. The fear was palpable. Fans stopped wondering how many Everton would score and started panicking over whether they could draw.
Everton needed to keep the ball to seize control of a win that was slipping away. Calm, sensible passing helped them do precisely that. 21 passes culminated in Lukaku’s most long-range one-two of the afternoon as Coleman’s best cross this season opened up space for a soft volley. It was Everton’s third goal to involve a one-two forced by Lukaku. A minute later, there was a fourth. This time Barkley played the role of returner, his instinctive back-heel freeing Lukaku to slot home.
The goal was reminiscent of Barkley’s goal in September 2013’s 3-2 win over Newcastle – the previous best bit of link-up play between the pair. This is a hugely encouraging sign with Barkley being shifted further forward in recent weeks. Koeman has made it clear he wants more productivity. With five assists in his last nine games, Barkley grabbed his second goal in that time by trademarking a playground classic.
Following Arter’s sneaky finish off Robles, off the post, and off the pitch for 5-3, Bournemouth surged forward desperately. A Funes Mori wallop, a miscontrol from Barkley left the latter through. Barkley rounded Boruc and to the laughable ire of some celebrated before he scored. Given what a shell of insecurity he has been, it was uplifting to see him relaxed enough to be cocky.
On the right track at last
Koeman deserves credit for this, and too for Lukaku’s four goals which took him to the top of the Premier League scoring charts. Having been brought in primarily to make the side more cautious and balanced, Koeman has significantly improved Everton’s two main attacking threats. Both have retained their productivity while becoming more rounded, more complete players, as Barkley’s slide tackles and Lukaku’s one-twos bore out. Koeman has both players on the right track.
Ironically, it’s Koeman’s supposed speciality – defensive organisation – that leaves a lot to be desired. It was a freak game and Bournemouth’s goals weren’t freak occurrences. Williams and Funes Mori remain the weak links of Koeman’s Everton. Two weak links patrolling your penalty area sounds like a terrible idea. This will have to addressed in the summer but in fairness, only three Premier League teams have conceded fewer.
Barkley and Lukaku’s shift towards well-roundedness and balance under Koeman is also visible throughout the side. There is both risk to the side’s creativity and caution to their defence. And for the first time in a while, the focus is firmly placed on the top six. Koeman has Everton now patiently awaiting a slip up from the big boys. On the evidence of their 2017 form so far, the Toffees are ready to pounce.
By Chris Smith
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