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.
By Chris Smith
Follow me on Twitter @cdsmith789

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