Midweek, at a freezing, soaked Bet365 Stadium, Everton failed one of the Premier League’s mythical challenges but nevertheless emerged with a point. After starting dreadfully, recovering minimally before eventually breaking into a somewhat acceptable away display, the Blues ended up disappointed with a 1-1 draw, particularly so when Lee Grant superbly denied Tom Davies a winner late on. All in all, a decent return on a bad day for Everton.

Romelu Lukaku celebrates with Seamus Coleman after the Irishman's deflected cross drew Everton level.

So fabled is the difficulty of the wet weeknight in Stoke, it goes without saying a basic level of defensive organisation is required early on. Similarly, defenders shouldn’t need a reminder to keep an eye on Peter Crouch eager to poach his 100th Premier League goal. And yet seven minutes in, following the most agricultural of punts from Charlie Adam and a basic centre from Marko Arnautovic, Crouch prodded home to leave Everton’s three centre-backs looking amateur.

It was a theme of the first half with Mason Holgate struggling, Ashley Williams all over the place positionally and Ramiro Funes Mori regularly losing track of Crouch. Joel Robles was forced to bail them out when he raced off his line to reduce two promising one-on-one openings to rushed, smothered efforts. Crouch headed tamely at the far post then drilled a swerving volley wide. Everton were really pushing it with Morgan Schneiderlin yet to make his presence felt in the centre. And then fortuitously the equaliser arrived.

Seamus Coleman was half-way through a poor display when he cut inside Erik Pieters and fired across goal with his left foot. Initially flagged as an offside strike for Romelu Lukaku, the goal was awarded once Craig Pawson had consulted with his linesman and correctly identified Ryan Shawcross as having the last touch. Coleman has had a hand in Everton’s last three goals after some crucial contributions over the festive period. Defensively, he has work to do to solidify his partnership with Holgate, but going forward, Coleman is back to being a real asset.

Still, half-time arrived and Koeman decided to address Holgate’s struggles by replacing him with James McCarthy. This displayed good instincts and an encouraging decisiveness though it resulted in Everton losing shape throughout the second-half. Still, the change provided insight into why Koeman has taken such a shine to McCarthy. It seemed not only possible but likely McCarthy would be cast aside. This week however, Koeman made clear that was never his intention.

New Everton signing Morgan Schneiderlin helps convince referee Craig Pawson to award Everton's equaliser away at Stoke.

If it’s McCarthy’s ability to carry out defensive instruction the Dutchman likes, he must have been pleased by his impact against Stoke. McCarthy effectively put Arnautovic out of action with a fair tackle as the Stoke man landed awkwardly. The Irishman made Everton more secure, he helped them see more of the ball, and allowed Schneiderlin to settle. The Frenchman’s kung-fu kick interception and a line-splitting reverse pass were evidence of this.

Together however, they served to affirm Everton’s struggles to create as the entire front three faltered after the break. Ross Barkley, more willing than everyone else, failed to pick the right pass, or manipulate defenders, or seize hold of the game as he has been doing. When Mirallas’ performance dipped, transfer window anxieties were given the opportunity to surface. Ademola Lookman, the single attacking arrival, was summoned from the bench. He thrilled supporters once again with his dribbling and eagerness, but the lack of credible alternatives highlighted the abundantly clear striker shortage.

Although in fairness, Davies, fast becoming Everton’s attacking thrust, could have won it after Coleman dug out a fine cross from the by-line. Lee Grant who unexpectedly has established himself as a decent Premier League keeper palmed Davies’ header away magnificently, young Lookman well-intentioned but unable to find goal or a teammate with a blasted follow-up. Everton were inches away from a hugely uplifting winner from one of their teenage prodigies. For a match that started so badly, this was a reasonable way to end.

There was nevertheless an air of disappointment, not only for the points dropped but also the generally inadequate performance, though Everton fans should be encouraged by what they’re seeing. The Toffees have scored at least two in six of the last nine games. At the other end, Koeman’s defence is not yet sturdy and reliable but only Chelsea (16), Tottenham (16) and Man Utd (21) have conceded fewer than Everton (24). Joel Robles has allowed just four in eight league games. and begun to genuinely resemble a quality keeper. This is still the early phase of the top-to-bottom improvement required.

Everton may have failed to do it on a wet, cold Wednesday night in Stoke but there was virtue in weathering the storm. Besides, winter has, in the main, been kind to Koeman. His side has emerged with an identity and developed a backbone. On the face of it, a drab 1-1 draw at Mark Hughes’ flawed Stoke is tough to get excited about, but showing resilience where once Everton would have crumbled is yet more evidence of progress.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789 

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