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And so, after a 13-year footballing lifetime that bore every club trophy, that encompassed the all-time scoring record for England and for England’s most successful club, Manchester United, that has seen his brutal intensity gradually deplete, Wayne Rooney is once again an Everton player. Now the question is how best to use him.

Wayne Rooney celebrates a goal at Goodison during his original Everton spell with Toffees legend Kevin Campbell in the background.

This is complicated by the fact Rooney currently has no fixed position. Emerging as a second striker as 4-4-2 largely gave way to one-striker systems, he has switched between a 9 and 10, featured out wide particularly during his younger days, and uncomfortably in midfield in recent times. At first, this was a reflection of the varied nature of his talent; latterly, a consequence of his inability to command a starting spot. As power and speed diminished, Rooney became caught in an unconvincing act of reinvention, a false 10, often deep enough to slip into a later years Steven Gerrard tribute, all Hollywood passes and conceded throw-ins.

Everton don’t need him in midfield. Davy Klaassen will surely be positioned ahead of Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin, and come August, Koeman may also have Ross Barkley and Gylfi Sigurdsson available to him. He could field Tom Davies, Kevin Mirallas and Ademola Lookman there, and later in the season, Yannick Bolasie and perhaps even Kieran Dowell. Everton’s number 10 needs to score, assist, press, tackle and generally combine midfield and attack. Rooney can do all that but he’s likely to fall short of the physical demands over the course of a season.

In comparison to Everton’s growing creative ranks, the striking department remains threadbare. With Enner Valencia and Arouna Kone gone, Romelu Lukaku’s Instagram-sponsored departure to Minochester United meant the Toffees had only Dominic Calvert-Lewin, best considered an Under-23 player or loanee this season, and the exciting but inexperienced Sandro Ramirez waiting in the wings. Everton have a vacancy for a striker, for two in fact.

If rumours of Olivier Giroud’s arrival come to fruition, he should be Everton’s first choice frontman. If not, a striker of similar capabilities should be sought. Koeman’s preferred style of play works best with this type of player – Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Ajax, Graziano Pelle at Feyenoord and Southampton. The gap between Lukaku and Everton’s midfield was too big last year – a physical distance reflected in the scoring charts. Giroud is the man to bridge that gap. £25m for a 30-year-old is a fair whack, but if Ibrahimovic’s longevity offers any hint of a seasoned hold-up poacher’s value, it could yet prove reasonable.

Varied approach

Building around a targetman could marginalise Rooney, and frustrate Ramirez, but this is surely part of the plan. Starting Rooney every week would be risky given his physical limitations. Similarly, throwing Ramirez in at the deep end seems unwise particularly with Everton facing last year’s top five in the first six weeks of the season. Koeman needs both to accept a limited role. Varying his strikers is the best approach to replacing Lukaku.

Wayne Rooney completes his return to Everton having been used as a makeweight in Romelu Lukaku's move to Manchester United.

Not only is it difficult to identify an affordable replacement capable of covering 25 goals alone (28 technically with Valencia’s three added), buying such a player is no guarantee of returns. We’ve seen plenty of strikers excel abroad only to struggle in England. If Rooney (13.2 league goals per yer on average) and Ramirez (14 league goals in his only full campaign) can each cover a third of that, by no means a certainty but entirely possible, the pressure would be significantly eased on Everton’s first choice striker, be it Giroud or anyone else.

Koeman should also earmark Rooney for a key role in Everton’s Europa League campaign. By far the squad’s most experienced European campaigner, and the former club captain of the holders of course, Rooney can provide the steadying influence and goals required. It would also make it easier for Koeman to leave Rooney out from to time which, all romanticism aside, will be vital.

It is a remarkable story, a uniquely positive modern tale that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions, but beyond the nostalgia and the idealism, there is a footballer who needs to be used properly. Rooney is neither the rampaging force he once was, nor is he the total dud he’s now made out to be. If Koeman restores him to his suited number 9 role, and uses him sparingly, it could work.

By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Everton are renowned for remembering their own, for delving into a rich history of superstars and silverware and honouring the club’s best. Sometimes it doesn’t work out so pleasantly. Circumstances can intervene, grievances take precedence. That was the case for T.G. Jones, the gifted, Welsh centre-half who lit up Goodison Park before, during and after the Second World War yet departed on bitter terms never to be reconciled. Once described by Dixie Dean as the “the best all-round player I’ve ever seen”, Jones’ life and career warrants closer inspection. 80 years on from the Welshman’s heyday, Rob Sawyer’s The Prince of Centre-Halves: The Life of Tommy ‘T.G.’ Jones affords us that opportunity.

The introduction begins with the plotting of an imaginary journey aboard a royal blue time machine, taking in Dean’s 60-goal season and the blossoming of the Holy Trinity before a trip to 1938 and T.G. Jones’ title-winning campaign alongside the likes of Ted Sagar and Joe Mercer. This point of departure is where I ended up having been fascinated by Jones. He was by all accounts a magnificent centre-half, one with a reasonable claim to be Everton’s best. He could flatten the biggest bruisers in aerial battles but anticipated well enough to chiefly avoid confrontation. He struck free-kicks with ruthless severity yet calmly nodded corners back to Sagar to fray supporters’ nerves. The literal descriptions of Jones as the play-making pivot of the Toffees’ three are some of the best passages. With an imported Roy of the Rovers charm, the Welshman’s exploits are utterly gripping and often hard to believe.

Tommy 'T.G.' Jones in his Everton days on the cover of Rob Saywer's new biography/The book tracks Jones’ start at Everton in the reserves beside the marginalised Dean through to his own estrangement and public feud with the club. Eventually, he turned his back on First Division football to combine coaching duties at Welsh League North, Division One side Pwllheli and District FC with a hotelier job. In between, there was an elegant league title, an RAF placement during the Second World War, and a disagreement over a Merseyside derby injury that s0wed seeds of discontent. Despite his terrific achievements in charge of Pwllheli, and indeed later at Bangor City, Jones’ return to Wales was tinged with frustration, not least due to a prospective move to Roma falling through.

Sawyer plunges deep into the archives and emerges with fascinating match reports and illuminating contemporary interviews. The tactical discussion and personal detail unearthed plays a crucial role in reconstructing Jones’ world, and shedding light on Everton’s forgotten legend. The Prince of Centre-Halves demystifies the folklore by exploring the relationships which defined Jones’ career. Sawyer both honours fans’ memories of T.G. as referenced early on in his father and grandfather’s discussions, but also probes the often jarring truth to provoke questions. Should Jones have handled it better with Everton? Could he have more purposefully sought a move abroad after the Roma deal collapsed? Did he intentionally price himself out of a step up at Cardiff?

A paradoxical pivot

Jones is presented as a complex figure, a paradox in several senses. A progressive player who became a regressive coach with little time for “the tactical side of the game” despite his clear interest in it. An early advocate of possession football who convinced himself he was old school until he was. A celebrity footballer revered everywhere he went (even during scouting missions abroad) yet weighed down by feelings of under-appreciation. Frequent holidayer who never really left Wales. T.G’s conflicted nature is reflected in the book’s lingering question: what if? What if the Second World War never happened? What if Jones was English rather than Welsh? What if his applications to become the manager of Everton then Wales were successful? What if, like compatriot John Charles, he had forged a life abroad?

Sawyer revives the partially forgotten memories of Jones’ unique talent. Compelling tributes such as a frequent comparison to Franz Beckenbauer gain credibility with every chapter. “The best right foot in the business”, according to Joe Mercer, “the most polished British defender of all time”, in the words of Gordon Watson. Top of Dixie’s list of course. Sawyer’s endeavour proves this was far more than nostalgic generosity. These sentiments were expressed right from the outset. Jones was noted for his “exceptional ability” and “all-round cleverness” as a 17-year-old making his second start at centre-back for Wrexham reserves in 1934.

His brilliance cannot be overstated nor can it be properly evaluated, but Sawyer’s contribution at least enables balanced speculation. The ’38 champions might have dominated the First Division. Jones could have been the star. He may have left a more substantial mark on Everton history and British football. Ultimately, T.G’s breakthrough proved his heyday, but what a stylish legacy to leave. “They called us the School of Science. There were games I went on the field and didn’t break sweat – it was that good”.

* * * * *

Rob Sawyer’s The Prince of Centre-Halves: The Life of Tommy ‘T.G.’ Jones’ is available now from Amazon and direct from publishers De Courbertin.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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One of England’s brightest, one of the Netherlands’ best snapped up for £54m in the space of a few hours. This is Everton, Jim, but not as we know it. Jordan Pickford and Davy Klaassen, two highly promising players on the cusp of their prime, have arrived to directly address two major weaknesses. Efficient, ambitious, impressive: Farhad Moshiri has taken the wheel.

Everton had to deliver this summer. The few good signings Ronald Koeman has so far made had been offset with poor ones. Desperate, late attempts to sign Moussa Sissoko had made the club look amateur, not to mention terrible judges of ability. Transfer tattle was dominated by whispers of Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley leaving and worse still, Wayne Rooney arriving. This time it had to be different.

The signings of Pickford and Klaassen unveil a new approach. A clear divergence from the hesitance and the haggling of the Bill Kenwright era. After decades of being too poor to afford ambition, Everton now possess the ability to plan and the financial backing to build. There will of course be headlines and memories about the £54m outlay on the same day but it’s the underlying thinking which requires attention.

New Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford punches the ball away during Sunderland's win over Hull at the KCOM Stadium.

Both deals convey a clear understanding of the team’s weaknesses. Following Tim Howard’s rapid decline, Koeman failed to forge a number one from two backups as Joel Robles and Maarten Stekelenburg each made 19 league starts. Everton average just under 50 goals conceded per season for the last three years. That had to change. Complacency and a lack of planning marked the goalkeeping department.

Koeman and Steve Walsh obviously got the message, and ended that lethargy with their decisive intervention. Pickford reported for Under-21 European Championship duty as a Sunderland player. Everton denied other clubs the chance to be convinced. The £22m up-front fee seems reasonable, so too the £8m possible add-ons, or success tax, which would make Pickford Everton’s record signing. “What price saving 12 points a season?” asked the greatest ever, Neville Southall, who presumably negotiated some pretty decent contracts over the years.

Beneficiaries of sound development

Few careers match the steady progression of Pickford’s. 29 Conference Premier games followed by 30 in League Two, 33 in League One, 24 in the Championship, and 31 in the Premier League. A 17-year-old debutant who became a regular in all of the top five leagues by 22. A representative of England at every level from 16 to 21, fledgling member of the senior squad. Bucking the trend, the system has worked perfectly for Pickford. Now Everton have made themselves beneficiaries.

As for Klaassen, he couldn’t be more welcome in Everton’s midfield. His natural talents fill enormous voids in the current side. Last season, Romelu Lukaku’s 25 goals were three more than the rest of the attack and the midfield combined. It was only two more however than Klaassen’s total of Eredvisie goals and assists in 2016/17. 14 goals, nine assists but moreover, a player who can control the game with his passing, press opponents dependably, and perform a variety of midfield roles.

Davy Klaasen celebrates one of last year's 14 Eredivisie goals for Ajax.

Like Pickford, Klaassen has packed a lot of experience into his career so far. He has made at least 36 Ajax appearances for the last four years, and has 44 European matches under his belt. Moreover, he has captained a massive club with tremendous backing and huge expectation for the last two campaigns. Klaassen may be 24 and arriving from abroad, but there is a sense he will become the driving force of Everton, a leader in the making for Koeman’s Blues.

The club’s proactive start to the summer adds credibility to talk of Burnley’s Michael Keane and Malaga’s Sandro Ramirez joining. Not only do Everton have the means, but like Pickford and Klaassen, these players fit the profile and would improve the side in precisely the way it needs to be improved. With both players highly sought, habit will urge Evertonians towards doubt but optimism is surely the appropriate response to the club’s new approach.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Everton fans may have watched Ross Barkley play his last game at Goodison. Or there may have been a lot of fuss about nothing. An event has occurred but we’re unsure how to conclude it. Things are coming to a head. Before they do, let’s take stock of Barkley’s season.

Ross Barkley audaciously celebrated before scoring the final goal in Everton's 6-3 win over Bournemouth.

Overlooked by England at the Euros, Barkley prepared for the new campaign with a new manager well-briefed in his struggles. “He needs to improve. He is not just a talent anymore“, said Ronald Koeman. “He needs more cleverness in his game“. After Roberto Martinez’s negligent indulgence, Koeman offered some tough love. Eventually, it began to pay off.

Barkley works harder to provide cover, wins 0.4 more aerial duels per game than last year (1.2), and has added ‘fouling Liverpool players’ to his WhoScored list of strengths. Going forward, Barkley has often controlled games and looked comfortable on the right. Unfortunately, he started no games in central midfield.

Barkley’s free role sees him drift into the centre, occupying familiar spaces with the added escape of the wing. Seamus Coleman proved the perfect foil until his season-ending leg break. He helped Barkley produce his best form – six assists and a goal in eight games at one point. There was however a new factor to consider.

Tom Davies arrived like a blessing and a curse, benefiting Barkley’s game before becoming another stick to beat him with. The pair combine well, their talents overlap, they both get between the lines. When one spreads the play, the other can get closer to Romelu Lukaku. Creative academy talents combining in midfield – all good, right?

Ross Barkley celebrates scoring with fellow Everton Academy graduate, Tom Davies.

Wrong. Some Evertonians see Davies’ (24-game) emergence as a reason to get rid of Barkley. Football is a game of opinions; that one is particularly mad. Like throwing out your favourite t-shirt because you bought a new one. If Davies and Barkley were fighting over the last midfield spot, there’s a discussion to have but let’s get Arouna Kone and Tom Cleverley fully out the system before we get to that.

Less is more

Koeman has reigned Barkley in this season. Just 2.8 attempted dribbles per game is around half what we’ve come to expect. Fewer shots also (2.3 per game down from 2.5 last year), and fewer from outside the box (1.3 per game down from 1.5). These adjustments improved Barkley and he’d do well to continue on this path, but perhaps inevitably, they led to a drop in productivity.

The bottom line is he has under-delivered. Five goals, eight assists: insufficient for a player with “Champions League” aspirations. These are not particularly worrying numbers during a season of addressing flaws, and Barkley has actually been pretty unlucky with his shooting, but succeeding at Everton, or indeed anywhere else, depends on him scoring more.

The benefits of Barkley’s graft will be visible next season but by that time, he must have ironed the chronic hesitation and flustered pass selection which undermines him. He still makes rookie errors to bemuse even his biggest admirers. But let’s not forget, only Christian Eriksen, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Mesut Ozil have created more chances than him this season. He needs to improve the quality of those chances but at 23, that’s not bad at all.

The endless speculation about Barkley’s future has been a distraction, but then he has contributed to this by not signing a new deal. He’s one of the most important players in the current squad, he’s been at Everton for more than half his life, he supports the club. So why is there no agreement?

Everton's Ronald Koeman offers some tactical advice to Ross Barkley.

Money? Perhaps. Everton offered Barkley a new deal before he produced his best form. If it is a low offer, the club is wealthy enough to correct that. It could be an issue with Koeman. The Dutchman has been good for Barkley but has overstepped the mark on occasion when willingly divulging ultimatums and club policy. Koeman’s honesty is well-received, so too would be his diplomacy.

Could Tottenham’s interest hold sway? Of course. Mauricio Pochettino is an impressive figure; he will lead Spurs into a new era full of confidence. But the move would be reckless in the short-term. With Spurs likely to add to their squad, and Erik Lamela to return, Barkley would be starting a World Cup year as the eighth or ninth best midfielder at a new club. Or he could keep getting indulged at Everton.

Throughout it all; the speculation, getting dropped, Koeman serving up headlines on a platter, recent personal issues away from football, being an unused England squad member for seven straight games; Barkley has done nothing wrong. No press leaks, no passive aggressive social media posting (about Everton), no unnecessary interviews, no tantrums, no sulking. Nothing. Given the stick he’s taken over the years, Barkley deserves credit for his conduct.

At the end of an interesting, eventful year, Barkley has improved but not sufficiently to persuade his doubters. He’s probably about five or six goals/ assists short and is yet to break his habit of making bad decisions, but under Koeman, Everton have a more well-rounded, more versatile player in their midst. While he’s always been capable, he has now proven himself to be coachable, but it may be too late for Everton to fully benefit.

With a bit of luck, we’ll soon be able to consign Barkley’s last Goodison goal to the far reaches of the mind reserved for end-of-season winners against Watford.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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The next time Ronald Koeman sees Antonio Conte, it will be too soon. Since the Dutchman arrived in England, no other manager has outwitted him so comprehensively. After Chelsea trounced Everton 5-0 in November, the champions elect strolled out of Goodison Park with a comfortable 3-0 win under their belts. Throughout the side, Conte’s side demonstrated their quality but yet again, it was a poor big game outing for Koeman.

Chelsea’s effective 3-4-3 caused the Dutchman to lose the plot earlier in the season. Koeman tried to match up carelessly forgetting that going man-for-man against a superior outfit is an inherently flawed approach. Something different was required at Goodison, but again Koeman fell short. It all began to go wrong when Morgan Schneiderlin was ruled out of his third key fixture this month.

Koeman’s reshuffle saw Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Enner Valencia drafted into the attack with Ross Barkley and Tom Davies dragged back to share the defensive burden. For the first half, it worked reasonably well with Calvert-Lewin hitting a post early on, Valencia coming within a whisker of assisting Romelu Lukaku, and Davies crunching Diego Costa with a challenge everyone bar the Chelsea forward knew was well-timed.

Chelsea's Eden Hazard is challenged by Everton's Idrissa Gueye as Tom Davies looks on.Man-marking Eden Hazard, Idrissa Gueye coped well. There was space available but Costa did little more than pretending to be fouled. But Chelsea were a threat. With Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses stretching Everton, Pedro surged forward. The Toffees were fortunate to escape his endeavours but last-ditch fouls by Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta highlighted Chelsea’s vulnerability.

Both Chelsea players were booked which presented Koeman with two clear targets for his half-time reformulating. Kevin Mirallas and Ademola Lookman represented two useful substitutes in this regard. With Calvert-Lewin already booked, it had to be a consideration. Koeman opted to stick with his starting eleven and for the first 20 minutes of the second half, it worked well.

Everton started to have more success going forward. Valencia began to hold the ball up more consistently which freed Barkley to push on slightly and allowed Lukaku to pull wide. Thibaut Courtois was kept busy but Chelsea’s first clean sheet for 11 Premier League games always seemed likely. Nevertheless, Everton were competitive by the time reached the hour mark – the time when Koeman tends to look towards his bench.

Opportunity lost

Valencia’s 58th minute yellow card gave Koeman further cause to reassess his attacking options. Both of his wide men had been booked, so too the centre-halves on their side of Chelsea’s defence. Direct running and some pace seemed likely to unsettle the visitors, if not forcing a key defender into a reckless challenge perhaps penning Chelsea back and forcing Conte into cautionary measures. Koeman hesitated. The 65th minute passed. And then… game over.

Pedro fires Chelsea ahead against Everton at Goodison as Phil Jagielka dives in.Pedro had been Chelsea’s liveliest attacker in the first half. He gave the game its definitive moment when he found space 25 yards out before rifling one in devastatingly into the top corner. It was brutal for Everton who were in the game until then, but from the moment the ball hit the back of the net, they crumbled. Koeman’s hesitance had proved costly, then he made it worse.

Eight minutes went by until finally Koeman made a change. Off came Calvert-Lewin and Valencia, on came Mirallas and for no obvious reason Arouna Kone. The Ivorian had appeared just once since September, just six times this season in total. Koeman’s inkling that he’d get back Everton back into the game was groundless, his view of Kone as worthier of playing time than Lookman truly bizarre.

The home side folded after the first goal. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea took advantage. First Hazard finally drew an error from Idrissa Gueye, the resultant free-kick poked home by luckiest man in football, Gary Cahill, after a predictable Maarten Stekelenburg error before Cesc Fabregas offered a mini-masterclass in spatial awareness to assist fellow sub Willian. It was a fair reflection of Chelsea’s superiority: more organised, more daring, more clinical.

Despite having Gareth Barry in reserve and working his creative midfielders to the bone in defensive roles, Koeman left one sub unused – the final error of his misjudged afternoon. A comprehensive upgrade of the squad is required in the summer, but Koeman’s big game mentality also has to improve. Everton cannot compete with the Premier League elite this season, but you can’t shake the feeling Koeman’s bodged reshuffles have made tough assignments even tougher.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Ross Barkley celebrates Everton's winner against Burnley by embracing fans in the Gwladys Street at Goodison.A week that began with a knock to the floor in a city centre bar for Ross Barkley ended with him standing tall on the edge of the Gwladys Street embraced by adoring fans. Deflections will stop him claiming the decisive goal in Everton’s 3-1 win over Burnley, but with his contract situation briefly forgotten, Barkley’s influential display and acknowledgement of supporters was just what the doctor ordered after a testing week for him.

Barkley had been at the wrong place at the wrong time twice this week. Once in the cross hairs of a senseless attacker hellbent on causing trouble, and once days earlier when he was punched in a bar. Against Burnley however, the opposite was true. Barkley twice cleared off the line before forging Everton ahead to seal a Premier League record for the Blues.

Eight consecutive league wins at home for the first time in the Football Wasn’t Invented In 1992, You Know era. The Blues have won all eight games by at least two goals, scoring three or more seven times, racking up 29 overall. They have conceded just six with five clean sheets. Romelu Lukaku’s ninth in consecutive home games ties an 83-year record held by Dixie Dean. Just 17 games on from Goodison’s annus horribilis, this is a remarkable turnaround.

Victory over Burnley was not without worry however. Burnley immediately took control. Sticking to their effective 4-4-2, the Clarets put Everton under pressure in possession. The Blues responded by holding on to the ball too long and back-heeling to their opponents. Burnley’s Direct surges through the centre, whipped crosses and consistent closing down made them a real threat. How they arrived with just four away points, and no away wins was a mystery. Sam Vokes forced a block from Joel Robles, Michael Keane nearly nodded in a corner, Phil Jagielka even set up Ashley Barnes. When half-time arrived and Burnley had failed to capitalise on a whole half of superiority, the mystery was solved.

Everton's Romelu Lukaku (centre right) and Burnley's Michael Keane battle for the ball in the ball during the Premier League match at Goodison Park, Liverpool.Sean Dyche rarely varies his approach so in the event of his side ensnaring you in a stalemate, a tactical reshuffle is never a bad idea. The visitors had pressed so successfully in the first half that they drew out Morgan Schneiderlin’s worst 45 minutes for Everton, and rendered Idrissa Gueye wholly ineffective. Koeman recognised his side were being overrun in the centre and changed it. He decided to keep the same formation, but the tweaks made all the difference.

The master tactician

Enner Valencia immediately improved Everton’s attack, combining with Lukaku and stinging Tom Heaton’s fingers with a snap drive. He maintained a threat throughout. Tom Davies dropped deeper and settled into the role well, propelling the side forward after regaining possession, and calmly picking passes from the centre. Everton were playing badly, Koeman intervened, they won comfortably. To quote the Dutchman: this is what we like.

Joel Robles stupidly fouls Sam Vokes in the penalty to hand Burnley the chance to equalise against Everton

In fact, Everton’s response would have been perfect had Joel Robles not… I presume… placed a considerable sum of money on there being a penalty. And if that is not the correct explanation, the genuine reason is arguably worse, and similarly ill-judged. Robles’ unceremonious booting of Sam Vokes who was sauntering away from goal out of the box was only the answer if the question was what is the stupidest thing you could do right now? Robles then completed the debacle up right of centre and diving early.

Robles has followed up nine clean sheets in 14 league games with some really worrying displays. He could have done better with the last seven goals Everton have conceded. Having once looked good enough to have been given chance, Robles’ recent displays have confirmed that should only be in a deputising capacity. All second-half concern arrived courtesy of Robles, both through the costly error and his subsequent alarm.

Other than some wasteful finishing particularly from Kevin Mirallas, that was probably it after the break in terms of criticism for Everton. Phil Jagielka scored for the third straight game, Ashley Williams assisted for the third straight game as the Blues’ notched their fifth goal from a corner in the last 305 minutes. And then it was over to Everton’s reluctant but beloved duo to ruin Keane’s otherwise impressive showing in front of the highly interested Koeman.

First, Barkley shot past Tom Heaton via deflections off Keane and Ben Mee, Burnley’s three best performers. Then like a super-powered Victor Anichebe, Lukaku turned Keane before thundering in his 24th league goal this year. It was harsh on Burnley after a competitive outing, but the Toffees seized the initiative and never looked back as they have done for months. Even off days are prolific days at Goodison just now.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Everton completed the double over champions Leicester as they ran out 4-2 victors of an entertaining clash. The Blues offset some abject first-half defending with three goals before the break. Thereafter, they took control of the game and shut Leicester down. Five error-strewn minutes aside, Everton were once again totally dominant on their own patch.

Tom Davies celebrates after giving Everton the lead against Leicester with just 30 seconds on the clock.

That’s seven home wins in succession for Everton. And in truth, Leicester ran them the closest of any of those beaten opponents. 2-1 up with nine minutes gone, and with Jamie Vardy and Demarai Gray’s pace to use on the break against two slow centre-halves, the game was there for the Foxes. The visitors exposed and exploited many errors in scoring their goals. They had to sit back and exploit them again. Such scenarios are generally food and drink for Leicester.

Despite Tom Davies’ sneaky 30-second opener, Everton had eight players within 40 yards of goal just three minutes later. Two missed tackles gave Islam Slimani all the time to calmly slot past the floundering Joel Robles. Once Vardy had turned Matthew Pennington and lulled him into a foul, Robles’ twitchy movements rendered Marc Albrighton’s whipped free-kick unstoppable and Leicester had a second. With 80 minutes remaining, they were hopeful of more.

At this point, Everton got their act together. In fact, the Foxes managed just a single shot on target after the 15th minute. The Toffees stormed back into the game, seized the lead then controlled the ball. In need of a catalyst, Ross Barkley stepped up. He bent his best ever cross around Leicester’s own slow centre-back duo with menace. Lukaku simply had to make contact to score. He didn’t disappoint. Once Barkley had settled, he began to run the game.

Phil Jagielka wheels away after scoring Everton's third in the 4-2 win over Leicester.

Phil Jagielka has been excellent since returning. Here he got his second goal of the week. After some Barkley naivety when almost past Kasper Schmeichel, Jagielka rose to glance home yet another goal from a corner. That was Jagielka’s second this week, Everton’s third in successive fixtures, with the decisive fourth arriving in similar fashion later on.

Minimising risk

Everton trailed after nine minutes despite scoring after 30 seconds. Leicester were behind at half-time despite that ninth-minute lead. So 3-2 at the break was open-ended: all three results were possible. Game awareness is a weakness for Everton, so too the focus on limiting opposition strengths and minimising risk. Here, they addressed all three weaknesses in admirable fashion.

First the tempo dropped. The ball was moved about the field in a manner approaching pure antagonism. 30-pass moves that opened up little but forced Leicester into frustrated chase. Perhaps allowing daydreams to drift to their Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, their early tenacity wore off. Once Lukaku had drilled in his 23rd league goal of the season, the second half was a breeze for the Blues.

Kevin Mirallas stands up to the absolutely massive Robert Huth during Everton's clash with Leicester.

It would have been Kevin Mirallas’ third assist of the afternoon had Jagielka not got the merest of glances. Still, Mirallas did not need that gloss to attract attention. He was excellent, first bursting forward to free Davies to score, before curling in an array of dangerous corners that ultimately gave Everton the win. After endearing himself to supporters during the week with a decent Scouse accent, Mirallas pushed the envelope here by grabbing Mount Rushmore-faced Robert Huth by the collar.

For the first time at Goodison, Koeman made just one substitution which was odd. An appearance from Ademola Lookman and Joe Williams would have furthered lifted the crowd. Both seemed feasible but Koeman decided otherwise, and to be fair, his judgement has Everton a game away from a Premier League record winning streak at home a year on from the worst home campaign in Goodison history. In front of his own supporters at least, Koeman really walks the walk.

Romelu Lukaku thanks Ross Barkley for a superb assist after drawing Everton level with Leicester.

Hired to balance attacking strengths with defensive improvement, Koeman has offered precisely this at Goodison of late. During Everton’s winning run, they have averaged 3.7 goals per game while the five goals conceded all occurred during 30 bad minutes against Bournemouth and during the five-minute lapse against Leicester. Errors still resurface but now only after lengthy spells of productive football.

Leicester had won all six matches under Craig Shakespeare. They were no pushovers. This was an opportunity for Everton to crumble, or for once to show maturity. With two youngsters in defence guided by Jagielka, two creative academy talents protected by Idrissa Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin, and a razor-sharp target man leading the line, the Blues seized the latter. Yet important development as the club’s upward curve continues.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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When Ashley Williams grabs his second assist in four days, you know Everton are pushing their luck. When he then lunges arm first at a goal-bound effort in the last minute and makes contact, the luck has well and truly run out. For the second time this season, Manchester United drew 1-1 with Everton though this time it was Jose Mourinho’s side who levelled with a late penalty. It was a harsh conclusion for the Toffees after a resilient display.

After Everton’s derby no-show, defensive improvement was essential at Old Trafford. With a back four, that’s what transpired. Williams and Phil Jagielka raised their game, Mason Holgate forced Marcus Rashford over to the right while Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye scrapped well. Joel Robles had experimented with a highly risky sweeper role at Anfield, but successfully reverted to goalkeeper here with some fine saves.

Phil Jagileka puts Everton ahead against Manchester United as Marcos Rojo and David de Gea look on helplessly.

Once Williams’ flick-on allowed Jagielka to expose Marcos Rojo, nutmeg David de Gea, and become Everton’s 17th different league goal scorer this season, the Blues managed the game well. Man Utd’s persistent crossing allowed Williams and Jagielka to take good positions and clear for the most part. The hosts’ only shot on target in the second half was Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 94th-minute penalty – a cruel end for Everton but a fair result overall after an encouraging display.

Frustratingly inadequate attacking cost the visitors with Romelu Lukaku the main culprit. Pre-match, plenty was spoken of his perceived big game inferiority. It’s a fair criticism. Lukaku’s natural talent does not align particularly well with the balance of play in such games, but here he had no excuse. This was the top six game Lukaku had been waiting for but ultimately his inability to marshal Everton’s counter cost his side two points.

Isolated with Rojo, Lukaku had the conditions he craves: space to run into, a quick player in support, a dodgy defender to take on. Instead, he kept demanding the ball in poor positions, telegraphing his movement then blasting against a nearby opponent. He overlooked two prime opportunities to lay in Mirallas and Barkley though he had more of an effect out of possession.

Clouded judgement

In terms of attack, Koeman himself fell short. Everton blundered on the breakaway – Barkley and Mirallas miscontrolled, Lukaku was lost in his own world – which made it the perfect opportunity to reintegrate Ademola Lookman. The youngster is yet to lose in an Everton shirt but has not appeared since February 25th. The space was there, pace was required. Koeman’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin appreciation, though clearly a good thing, clouded his judgement.

Neil Swarbrick gives Everton's Ashley Williams his marching orders at Old Trafford where the Toffees drew 1-1 with Manchester United.

Consequently, Everton were penned further and further back, unable to provide significant respite from Utd’s forays forward. It likely contributed to Williams’ error of judgement when he found himself four yards out between Luke Shaw’s late effort and the goal. Though it was erratic, Everton should not have been so deep. Lookman would have at least threatened United’s comfort on the half-way line from which they built pressure.

Still, avoiding defeat holds some significance for Everton. It means the Blues are unbeaten in five games against Man Utd, Arsenal and Man City this season, the sides immediately above them in the table. While the considerable weakness of those sides limits the extent of that achievement, it is likely to hold some psychological sway when Koeman’s side seek to finish above at least one of those sides next year.

Seven points ahead of West Brom, potentially nine behind Man Utd and Arsenal if they win their games in hand, seventh it probably is for Everton. That glass ceiling feeling is present again but this time, there is a significant difference. The squad’s limitations and the cushion from West Brom creates a rare, advantageous position, the kind of developmental opportunity that barely ever occurs in the top half of the Premier League.

Koeman simply has to play youngsters now. He has no choice. With Tom Davies, Holgate, Calvert-Lewin and Lookman all integrated to an extent, Matthew Pennington, Jonjoe Kenny and of course Joe Williams who made the bench at Old Trafford, now provide cover. Everton’s draw with Man Utd was tough to take but the hint at a youth-inspired end to the campaign was encouraging as the seniors showed some big game backbone for once.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Everton made a tough week much tougher with a weak, vulnerable Merseyside derby performance as they failed to win at Anfield for 18th straight year. Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho tore apart a slow, flimsy back three which saw Matthew Pennington repeatedly exposed, both Liverpool players scoring in a 3-1 win. Ronald Koeman’s post-match reaction completed a poor afternoon for him.

Coutinho celebrates after giving Liverpool a 2-1 lead against Everton, the Reds eventually winning 3-1The Blues were up against it both in terms of Morgan Schneiderlin, Seamus Coleman and Ramiro Funes Mori’s injury absences and in terms of the squad’s limitations. Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge were missing for Liverpool, but Mane, Coutinho and Roberto Firmino made a potent front three. Koeman’s plan to deny Liverpool space in behind worked for the most part at the expense of all the space in front.

First Mane then Coutinho picked up the ball in midfield before exploiting a multiple defensive errors. Everton’s initial response was hesitant, their eventual challenges flimsy. They took up poor positions and made bad decisions from there. They lacked an awareness of their opponents’ habits. Mane loves to dribble at pace, Coutinho likes to cut inside and bend it into the corner. Both did as they pleased as Joel Robes, apparently watching the action on a lagging stream, failed to react in time.

So too Koeman who was perhaps deceived by Pennington’s equaliser from a corner – a bitterly ironic effort that involved all of Everton’s back three combining nicely. A change was required and it was blindingly obvious. The back three lacked pace, the attack lacked width. Mason Holgate could be moved back, and Jonjoe Kenny introduced. Koeman had other ideas.

He replaced Pennington and Tom Davies with Enner Valencia and Gareth Barry permitting a shift to 4-4-2. This was fine and allowed Everton to become a threat in the game but it arrived seven minutes after Liverpool had made it 3-1. Presumably as an apology for Funes Mori’s stamp on Divock Origi during last year’s Anfield derby, Ashley Williams and Phil Jagielka stood as far away from each other as possible. A neat ball from Coutinho opened it up for Origi, Robles completing the apology by… erm…. running forward in the wrong direction and guessing wrong.


Undoubtedly, the game was lost in the space between Everton’s three centre-backs sitting deep out of position and the centre-midfield failing to successfully engage. However, the front three of Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and Dominic Calvert-Lewin didn’t help. Lukaku barely offered an outlet all game while Barkley and Calvert-Lewin’s attacking positions left Everton exposed in the centre. Barkley in particular was a hindrance.

BarkleyBarkely drew attention to himself this week after being overlooked for England. He had a point but all eyes were going to be on him anyway after he under-performed in the Goodison clash and was lucky to stay on the pitch. At Anfield, he repeated that display entirely. An early clip on Emre Can left Barkley fortunate to escape a yellow, a studs-up challenge on Lovren left him fortunate to escape a red. He improved after the break but in the most insignificant fashion.

In a different way, Lukaku let the occasion get to him, the occasion being another clash against a top six side. Once again faced with a half-decent centre-back, he totally crumbled. Not just losing a personal battle: anonymity. Not once did he seek to isolate Lucas though in truth he had little chance as Barkley hung on to the ball relentlessly and Everton crossed with little accuracy. Everton’s two biggest stars were brought down a peg.

So too the whole club after recent stadium-based optimism, and the team after a good start to 2017. This was a defeat that confirmed Everton’s inferiority, not just to Liverpool but also to the other teams above them. Chelsea away, Liverpool at home, Tottenham away, and Liverpool here – four changes of system from Koeman, four miscalculations, four crushing defeats. While Everton are unbeaten in four games against the rest of the top six, Man Utd pose a serious threat to that record on Tuesday.

Everton's Ronald Koeman looks dejected alongside Jurgen Klopp who won his third straight Merseyside derby for LiverpoolEverton missed several key players meaning they had no choice but to play some youngsters who were unsuitable for their roles, but this was simply not good enough from Koeman. We’ve been here before, the recent Tottenham game being the previous example. This season, Everton look competent against the bottom 13 and completely vulnerable against the top six. Worse still, he does not appear to be learning.

Evertonians need to patient. Though these problems could have been better addressed by now, they will be in the summer. However, that should not excuse the extent to which Koeman has fallen short in big games this year.
Click here to read ‘O’Neill reveals the flaws in his approach with latest response to Koeman’
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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Everton's Ronald Koeman donned a pair of glasses to read out a prepared statement criticising James McCarthy and Martin O'NeillWhen James McCarthy withdrew from the warm-up of Ireland’s clash with Wales, he increased the likelihood of his Everton exit tenfold. He also reignited the vociferous club versus country debate about his fitness. Ronald Koeman deemed it befitting of spectacles, Martin O’Neill felt it required a Friday night statement. Let’s examine the terms of this increasingly daft debate.

During his pre-Merseyside derby press conference, Koeman explained his displeasure at McCarthy’s latest setback. After just one start in 2017 and three weeks out, he believed “one full week of training sessions” was required. McCarthy trained just twice before mistakenly declaring himself fit. It’s not unreasonable for O’Neil to think he had recovered from a hamstring strain, nor is wanting Ireland’s best players available for their nine or so games per year, but this is not an isolated incident.

In October, McCarthy completed 171 minutes against Georgia and Moldova despite missing six weeks for Everton with a groin strain. Back at Finch Farm, he was described as “massively overloaded” by the club’s medical team. “You’re killing the player!”, said Koeman unequivocally. A week later, McCarthy broke down again. Despite not appearing for Everton for a month, he was then called up to face Austria before O’Neill decided, to Roy Keane’s dismay, to avoid risking him.

The Irish camp was having none of Koeman’s suggestions. “I totally refute that“, responded O’Neill. “James had declared himself fit”. That’s just not good enough though, is it? McCarthy has a well-established tendency to overestimate his fitness with a national game looming. He regularly gets that call wrong. O’Neill is exploiting McCarthy’s patriotism and reneging on a duty of care by leaving the decision in the player’s hands.

James McCarthy stretches in the warm-up for Ireland's World Cup qualifier with Wales before limping off.

O’Neill and Keane’s comments have often been antagonistic. Koeman has been mocked for “bleating about” McCarthy’s injury, his claims dismissed as “absolute nonsense” and “total rubbish”. Keane referenced the club’s trophy drought. Koeman has responded angrily from time to time, he has criticised O’Neill but he has avoided petty personal insults. His tone has been markedly more serious.

Take for instance O’Neill labelling Koeman “the master tactician of the blame game” in his Friday night statement. Or the suggestion that Everton’s pre-season, now six months ago, would “provide some enlightenment”. Well let’s see. After Ireland’s last Euro 2016 match on June 26, O’Neill believes McCarthy returned to Everton after a very short break “but only 11 days later, he played his first of three games, all within an eight day period”. With clear enjoyment but total naivety, he ended the recollection: “Overload?”

Everton faced Real Betis on July 30. That’s 34 days after Ireland lost to France, not 11. If “only 11 days later” referred to the time after McCarthy’s “very short break”, that’d be a 23-day break. McCarthy did start three games in eight days but look at how they were handled. 60 minutes against Real Betis, 66 minutes five days later at Man Utd, and 65 minutes three days on against Espanyol. Koeman also left McCarthy as unused sub for the first game of the tour. That seems pretty low-risk and reasonable to me.

In total, that’s 191 minutes of pre-season action in eight days with an extra day’s rest allowed. When O’Neill selected McCarthy against Georgia and Moldova, he put him through 171 minutes in four days. Overload? This surely what O’Neill is unwittingly suggesting here. And he’d be correct. After that, McCarthy got through 40 more minutes for Everton before aggravating his hamstring again.

Koeman has not made excessive or insensitive demands of McCarthy, he has merely asked him to prove his fitness. Anyone who has watched Everton regularly over the last two years will tell you this simply hasn’t happened. However, that has not proved a deterrent for O’Neill. He has continued to select him regardless, exhibiting carelessness where caution is required.

Martin O'Neill and Roy Keane share a joke during Ireland training.

Everton’s fitness tests have repeatedly shown McCarthy to be unfit at times when he has been passed for Ireland. What does it say about the Irish setup as a whole to repeatedly put a player at risk in such reckless fashion? Isn’t this a bit amateur? Isn’t this the sort of thing Keane walked out of a World Cup in protest? Are we to presume he’s suddenly in favour of such shoddiness now he’s swapped sides?

O’Neill can release all the smarmy statements he likes, Keane can continue to hypocritically question players’ loyalty. Soon however they need to stop overburdening and exploiting McCarthy, and to start adapting to his needs. It is the Irish camp, not Everton that would be served better by “quiet introspection“, with emphasis on the quiet.
Click here to read ‘Everton’s winless run at Anfield goes on as Koeman gets it wrong’
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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