The spring in the step of supporters, the lively discussion of new tactics, and the palpable sense of optimism was all testament to Ronald Koeman’s first Premier League match in charge of Everton being a success. For the second time in 2016, Everton and Spurs contested an enthralling 1-1 at Goodison that both sides could have won, although this time, home supporters witnessed significant improvement. Everton were tough, organised and hard-working – all the things fans had hoped for on their way to the ground.

New Everton manager Ronald Koeman makes his Goodison Park against Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs.Hampered by squad deficiencies and injuries to Seamus Coleman and Romelu Lukaku, Koeman named a 3-4-3 with Mason Holgate making his debut to Phil Jagielka’s right. Moving aside for summer signing Idrissa Gueye who tackled brilliantly alongside Gareth Barry, James McCarthy flanked the centre with Leighton Baines, both regularly dropping back into full-back positions. Ahead of them scurried a lively front three of Ross Barkley and Kevin Mirallas behind Gerard Deulofeu. All three were crucial to Everton’s perfect start.

Four minutes in, Deulofeu propelled Mirallas forward with a precision back-heel which forced Spurs debutant Victor Wanyama into a poor challenge – the first of four that could have earned a booking but didn’t. As Ross Barkley prepared to take the free-kick, Deulofeu stood in an offside position. Perhaps unsettled, Spurs left both Mirallas and Phil Jagielka free – Barkley’s whipped delivery passed both as it made its way into Hugo Lloris’ left corner. It was the goal the crowd needed to exorcise the habitual misery of the Martinez era.

Pre-season clearly included a crash course in pressing and defending as a team – new concepts to Everton’s squad. Again, the front three illustrated the change. Deulofeu, Mirallas and Barkley often receive criticism which centres around words like ‘attitude’ and ‘mentality’.  Here, they closed down, tackled back, interchanged positions and ran themselves into the ground. Only Jagielka (6) won more headers than Barkley (3); Mirallas made as many interceptions as Gueye (2); Deulofeu completely unsettled Jan Verthonghen. The Spaniard should have fired Everton further ahead on the stroke of half-time when Spurs sub Michel Vorm saved from point blank range. And so the game turned.

Fatigue and sunstroke

After the break, the heat and being the most unfit side in the Premier League last year really hit Everton hard. Spurs came out strong. Ramiro Funes Mori caught the eye with a series of interceptions, well-placed headers and searching long balls in the first half, but was soon chiefly engaged in clearing the ball. 30 clearances in total for Everton’s back three gives a fair indication of where the action increasingly occurred. On 56 minutes, Mauricio Pochettino introduced Vincent Janssen for Eric Dier, a switch which may not have seemed so sensible had Martin Atkinson booked Wanyama. Two minutes later, the visitors were level.

Everton debutant and man of the match Idrissa Gueye challenges Spurs goal scorer Erik Lamela.

Lamela out-leapt Holgate to steer Kyle Walker’s pacy cross astutely into the corner. As Janssen began to threaten Everton’s centre-backs and free up Harry Kane, that habitual misery, seemingly vanquished by Barkley’s opener, reared its head again. Doubt spread through the stadium and took effect in Everton’s 18-yard box. Just three minutes separated two magnificent saves from debutant Maarten Stekelenburg either side of a Christian Eriksen near miss free-kick. The Dutchman sprawled brilliantly to deny countryman Janssen from very close range before tipping onto the bar when Lamela seemed destined to score. But Everton survived.

Longstanding weaknesses – vulnerability from crosses, low levels of fitness, deficiencies both in attacking midfield and up front, a lack of width – were exposed again. Spurs equalised from a header, Everton were shot after an hour, all threat was lost as Deulofeu and Mirallas tired and were replaced by Arouna Kone and Aaron Lennon respectively. But long-term issues are being tackled head on. To that vulnerable, aerially inadequate defence, he’s added Ashley Williams who has not finished lower than fourth for total headed clearances since 2011. Yannick Bolasie will shortly arrive to add pace and trickery. Joe Hart may solve the keeper problem. Strikers are also being pursued.

And more generally, Koeman has already improved the squad, the club, the atmosphere. It was like the Goodison of my childhood again on Saturday, after a two-year hellish hiatus. Everton’s fitness was way up on last season. There were clear plans with and without the ball which were tweaked during the game. In a single outing, Koeman has got much more demonstrated he’s able to get the whole team working much harder. And there’s plenty of reason to believe further improvement will occur. With favourable fixtures until December and new signings to arrive shortly, there’s also the opportunity.
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By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789  

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