Remember the name, relive the elation. For the first time in 13 years, Wayne Rooney scored the winner for Everton as his return to the club ended with a 1-0 win over Stoke City. Now the Premier League’s most prolific opening day scorer with eight goals, Rooney’s effort and some vital half-time changes transformed a terrible first half into a reasonable win. At the other end, Jordan Pickford wasted no time in endearing himself to his new crowd.

Part of the reason for Everton’s first-half terribleness was Ronald Koeman’s decision to start with three centre-backs and no proper right-sided player. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, incorrectly described as a “winger” by Koeman, was named in a right wing-back role. Immediately however, Idrissa Gueye pushed across to the right to form a more straight forward but still strange 3-4-1-2. Though Gueye proved Everton’s best player before the break, the approach had to be tweaked. Thankfully it was, but before that, Rooney eased the tension.

Wayne Rooney rounds off a superb Everton move to cap his return with a winning goal.

It may not have been a show-stopping screamer like his 2002 strike against Arsenal, but Rooney’s second debut goal was a fine effort. A surge through the centre from Gueye allowed Rooney and Sandro Ramirez to make good lay-offs to the right where Calvert-Lewin found space. With Davy Klaassen dragging Kurt Zouma to the near post, Rooney sprinted to the far and wrong-footed Jack Butland before celebrating euphorically.

Desire to contribute and the ability to do so aligned to illustrate Rooney’s current value. Whereas his breakthrough screamer was an individual masterpiece as, to a certain extent, was Rooney himself during his early years, here he was at the heart of a well-crafted combination, and that is hope for the next few years. Calvert-Lewin, who was four when Rooney last scored for Everton at Goodison, picked him out superbly.

To Koeman’s credit, he acknowledged his selection errors at half-time and admitted them afterwards but these were errors he should not be making, particularly on opening day. A striker and a central midfielder starting on the right despite, with two right wingers and two right-backs on the bench – how does anybody come to that conclusion? If a striker and a central midfielder appear better options than at least four other right-sided players, why hasn’t there been an intensive focus on right-sided recruitment?

Rooney in his element

Koeman replaced Ashley Williams with Cuco Martina and switched to a 4-2-3-1. It was still a bit disjointed but Everton improved significantly with two proper full-backs prepared to get forward. Both players saw a lot of the ball in Stoke’s half, and that was simply an option they were denied the first half. With two new outlets plus Sandro and Calvert-Lewin ahead of him, Rooney was able to settle into a comfortable role dictating play from a deeper position. He took time on the ball, picked the right passes and made himself the central figure in Everton’s win.

In fact, Rooney was so effective in between midfield and attack, it questioned whether Klaassen was required. The Dutchman has settled in reasonably well so far, and played a vital role in creating space for the winning goal, but he played little part in the buildup, if anything seemed a little overawed on his debut. Koeman replaced him with Tom Davies, and the injection of impetus served to further bolster Everton’s search for a second goal, Calvert-Lewin the guiltiest party in failing to find one.

In between Rooney securing his triumphant return with measured possession and savvy free-kick-winning, a potentially more significant development was occurring. Late in the game, Jordan Pickford came for a cross which seemed fairly optimistic. Up until that point, he hadn’t put a foot wrong, but this was a sink or swim moment. Amidst a crowd of players, Pickford caught the ball with ease and lay down for some time, sending a small but greatly received message to Evertonians that everything was going to be alright.

Everton's Jordan Pickford catches the ball under pressure during the premier league match at Goodison Park, Liverpool. Picture date 12th August 2017. Picture credit should read: David Klein/Sportimage via PA Images

The vast majority of his post-Neville Southall predecessors would have flapped at or avoided such a delivery. Pickford took responsibility for his box like no Everton keeper since Nigel Martyn – the effect this will have on the crowd’s long-jangled nerves will be priceless. Decisive in defence, great on the ball, Pickford required only the clean sheet. It arrived, despite a 93rd-minute thunderbolt from Xherdan Shaqiri. Pickford slapped it round the post and the win was secure.

Overall, Everton played poorly. They will have to improve rapidly to cope with the mammoth challenge ahead of them now. The next seven implausibly tough fixtures pit the Toffees against all of last year’s top six bar Arsenal and Hajduk Split twice. Reinforcements will certainly be required to increase Everton’s chances, but so too some smarter thinking from the manager.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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On the cusp of a major leap forward for Everton, Ross Barkley, the diamond of the club’s academy, has decided to jump ship. Leading his new-look, newly rich boyhood club into the top four does not, unfortunately, represent the “new challenge” he is looking for, and so Barkley will be sold “100%” according to Ronald Koeman. It’s a sad day for many Evertonians; an indifferent day for many others.

“I knew what it meant to me when Wayne Rooney left. We were all down. I know how the fans felt. Now I want to help us push on. Signing a new contract is a dream. I’ve played for Everton most of my life. This is a big thing for me. It didn’t take any persuading. As soon as I got told about it I wanted to sign”.

Four years on, Barkley couldn’t be more removed from those comments. It’s tempting to slip into cynicism, both at the authenticity of those sentiments then, and at their absence now, but something has gone badly wrong here, and it’s not immediately apparent what that is.

Everton's Ross Barkley scores one of his finest goals to date away at Newcastle in February, 2014.

To attempt to navigate the quagmire of conjecture about Barkley, that 2014 contract signing is a good place to start. On the back of Everton’s thrilling fifth-place finish, and their Premier League record points total, Roberto Martinez, Romelu Lukaku, John Stones and later James McCarthy were given new five-year deals. Barkley, the other star of Everton’s new, youthful approach, only agreed to four.

Was this an early hint of scepticism towards Barkley within the Everton hierarchy? Probably not, given Martinez was pulling the strings, and Bill Kenwright was in charge of the money. Offering five-year contracts to all except a key player from the academy? That seems unlikely. The variable here is surely Barkley. Was this his own scepticism towards Everton surfacing for the first time? Months after his breakthrough season, was he already looking beyond Goodison Park?

Excitement and exasperation

Barkley has only lived up to that early promise in two spells since. Between August 2015 and January 2016, he scored six and assisted seven in 19 games. From January to April, 2017, he scored one and assisted six in eight games, and generally dictated play as Everton’s form rivalled the league’s best. There has been a regular hint of excitement and invention, but equally there has been exasperation and occasional bewilderment.

A fortnight on from the contract signing, Gareth Barry injured Barkley’s medial ligament in training. When he returned two months later, Martinez’s top four challengers had plummeted to 17th. Neither player nor club has fully recovered. As distance grew between the fans and the team, Barkley, the symbol of supporters’ connection to the team, suddenly became the personification of Martinez’s flaws. Recklessly attacking, defensively deficient, naive, soft, prone to unnecessary risk. As Everton’s swagger had defined Barkley’s breakthrough season, the Toffees’ aimless indulgence characterised his follow-up.

Everton's Ross Barkley receives instruction from Ronald Koeman as Tottenham's Mauricio Pochettino looks on.

Enter stage left Ronald Koeman, the legendary player and respected coach who immediately warned Barkley “he [needed] to improve“. After a goal and an assist in the first two league games, Barkley was made captain against Yeovil. Koeman: “It means a lot to him, an Evertonian young boy who starts in the academy“. He scored a second free-kick of the season, then followed up with an influential display at home to Stoke. In the next game away at Sunderland, Barkley was subbed at half-time.

Productivity had masked underlying problems, but he adapted well to Koeman’s methods. A closer look at games after he was dropped last season shows he responded well every time, which runs contrary to popular consensus. Only once in the five times he returned to the side did he fail to score or assist, and even then, he scored a week later. Many believe Barkley needs to be mollycoddled yet here he was disproving that, and somehow it went unnoticed.

Changing perceptions

After a poor spell over Christmas, and a fine one from New Year on, Barkley’s unsigned contract loomed large. Everton players don’t generally let contracts run down, surely a local lad wasn’t about to buck the trend? Koeman began issuing ultimatums and pressurising publicly. At first, it appeared he was forcing the player out of the club, but given he had already learned of his desire to go, Koeman may have been trying to keep him.

Ross Barkley celebrates his goal against Burnley by standing on the edge of the Gwladys Street.

The revelation Barkley categorically wants to leave Everton alters perception significantly. Koeman has been proven right to alienate a player who alienated himself – of course he expressed his frustration. Barkley cuts a different figure too. Kissing the badge, climbing into the Gwladys Street, appearing in new promotional material as he rejects the club in secret and says nothing in public. Confusion or manipulation? It remains a mystery.

He has valid reasons to leave of course. It’s reasonable to have expected a better contract offer. Since 2013, Barkley’s contribution to the side was eclipsed only by Romelu Lukaku. Plus, anyone would prefer to work under a boss who wasn’t, at best, completely indifferent towards their progress. Also, the appalling abuse he routinely receives from sections of Evertonians is enough to drive anyone away.

But none of those explanations will sit comfortably with fans who have bought into the boyhood Blue narrative Barkley has played up to consistently. These are obstacles to overcome in order to attain legendary status, tests of character that must be passed. Instead, Barkley is taking the easy way out in a manner that minimises Everton’s benefit, and favours whichever club he joins. You can’t talk about what it was like when Rooney left, then force Everton into a cheap sale. You can’t market what it means to be an Evertonian then subject fans to months of uncertainty before abandoning them.

That September night at home to Yeovil when he captained Everton for the first time, Barkley celebrated his goal by revealing a message underneath his shirt. ‘R.I.P SID BENSON’. Benson was the former coach who spotted Barkley and brought him to Everton, whose wistful recollection is now tinged with bitter irony: “Ross was such a big Evertonian, we had no reason to worry. ‘I just want to play for Everton, Sid’ – that’s all he would ever say“.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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