A cold, windswept evening in Stoke has never been anyone’s idea of an easy ride. It wasn’t so long ago that Rory Delap would cause panic in the Everton penalty area every time the Potters got a throw-in within bombing distance of their penalty area and, to be brutally frank, whether it’s called the Britannia Stadium or the bet365, things haven’t changed all that much in these parts.
Shorn of the mercurial talents of Xherdan Shaqiri, out with a calf injury, and with Bojan Krkic having been loaned out for the rest of the season, Stoke City had a rudimentary air about them in this game and the Blues left the Potteries with mixture of relief at avoiding defeat and regret at their inability to let their own class tell.
Evertonians came into this game buoyant after three successive Premier League wins, as many clean sheets and at the possibility that with a win, the Blues could be sitting just eight points off second place.
Old habits die hard with this Everton team it seems, however, and a failing that has plagued this season reared its head again this evening as Koeman’s team got off to another poor start and conceded the first goal.
It was symptomatic of a defence that was all over the place in the early stages and one ripe to be caught out by a routine ball over the top that left Marco Arnautovic in oceans of space and 36-year-old Peter Crouch galloping through completely unchecked without a blue shirt within 10 yards of him. The veteran striker was on hand to convert the Austrian’s well-weighted centre and put Stoke ahead, notching his 100th Premier League goal in the process.
It was an awful goal to concede from Everton’s perspective and it forced them once again to have to fight their way back into the game. Where their only possession prior to the goal had been back and forth across the back, they gradually started to make inroads into Stoke’s rearguard.
It was one of those nights when the pitch seemed that bit too hard and the ball that bit harder to control and it certainly seemed that way when Leighton Baines, collecting a wonderful cross-field ball by Tom Davies wide on the left, picked out Kevin Mirallas with a cross but the Belgian couldn’t quite get it under control and he ended up scooping the ball awkwardly over the crossbar.
It was a move that highlighted the spaces that were prone to open up in Stoke’s defence but the Blues seemed unable to create it. It didn’t help that Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku seemed to be operating on different wavelengths throughout or that Ross Barkley was having one of those games where very little was coming off for him. To his credit, he never stopped looking for the ball and trying to make things happened but the fact that he was name-checked again by his boss after the match for giving the ball away told its own story.
He wasn’t alone though. Morgan Schneiderlin, otherwise an impressive full debutant in central midfield alongside Davies, was guilty of a couple of dangerously lazy passes across his own half and Seamus Coleman was also having “one of those days” down the right flank.
The Potters, meanwhile, continued to carry the greater threat and could easily have extended their lead before half-time. First, Crouch volleyed inches wide of the post after Arnautovic’s knock-on had sprung Everton’s ragged offside trap. Arnautovic then found himself in the clear behind the Blues’s defence to collect Charlie Adam’s chipped pass over the top but just Joel Robles raced off his line to make an excellent save.
Further signs of life in Everton’s attack came when Coleman latched onto Mirallas’s deft touch at the end of a decisive move but with Bruno Martins Indi sliding in to block in front of him, he knocked his shot it over the top.
But the Irishman turned provider after being found by Mirallas once more a few minutes later but this time he cut back onto his left foot, curled a cross into the six yard box where Ryan Shawcross turned it past his own goalkeeper.
Everton celebrations were halted by the sight of the linesman’s raised flag indicating offside on Lukaku but after consulting with his assistant, referee Craig Pawson signalled that the goal was given.
With parity restored, the Blues almost handed the initiative straight back to their hosts on the stroke of half time when Crouch dissected their defence by flicking Eric Pieters’ direct pass into the path of Arnautovic but once agaain Robles came up big to foil him in a one-on-one situation.
Koeman’s half-time change, which saw Mason Holgate withdrawn in favour of James McCarthy and the side revert to a conventional back four, came as no surprise. The young defender had endured a torrid 45 minutes and there seemed little sense in employing three centre halves against a lone striker when they couldn’t cope with Arnautovic arriving from deeper.
The switch had the effect of largely nullifying Stoke’s attack but the extra congestion in midfield meant that the game descended into a ragged scrap until Ademola Lookman came on with 20 minutes to go.
Up until then, Everton had struggled to get on the ball while, even with Saido Berahino on the field, Mark Hughes’s side had largely resorted to giving the ball to Adam to simply hoist it in the general direction of Robles’s goal hoping to catch the ‘keeper out with the wind.
The change of pace and inventiveness that Lookman offered, particularly when he linked up with Davies, threatened to turn the game decisively in Everton’s favour though and the teenager almost scored with his first involvement. Davies found the new signing with a back-heel from the touchline and he rattled a low shot towards the near lost that Lee Grant did well to turn behind.
Berahino went close for Stoke when he tried to knock the ball over Robles’s head but Ramiro Funes Mori was on hand to head it over the bar before Everton looked to have won it at the other end. Coleman, Ashley Williams and Barkley exchanged quick triangle passes to open up the space ahead of them and the move ended with Coleman digging out a great cross from the byline that picked out Davies arriving near the penalty spot .
Grant made a terrific reflex save to turn his header to the side and Lookman could only rifle the rebound agonisingly across the face of Stoke’s goal and just past the far post.
Given that the home side had resorted to basic yard-dog, hoof and hope tactics in the second period, had either of those efforts gone it it would have represented just reward for Everton’s more joined-up approach, even if they weren’t really able to raise the standard of the fare much above agricultural.
As it was, they had to be content with a share of the spoils and a sixth successive league game without defeat. Attentions will turn to Saturday’s game against Bournemouth where the more familiar comforts of home should allow Koeman’s men to express themselves a bit more.
The starting line-up for that one will almost certainly include Schneiderlin who slotted in nicely into the midfield and showed some clever touches and impressive reading of the game, while also helping launch some of the Blues’ most dangerous attacks.
It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the name of Lookman on the teamsheet, most likely in place of Mirallas who had a poor game despite getting into some decent positions. The 19-year-old once again looked a real talent and his pace, inventiveness and eye for goal made a visible difference to an otherwise fairly staid display.
From My Seat: Stoke City (A)
A windy winter's night and what better place to head off to than Stoke. As always rumbustious with the home fans united against the world and from conversations Donald Trump has a fare few supporters. I believed the night was set up for two dead cert happenings. Crouch to notch his 100th Premier League goal and Coleman to notch one on his 200th appearance for the club. Well I got that 50% right and Coleman would insist I got it 100% right.
The game started and in no time at all you just knew we were in for a typical Stoke performance on a wet and windy night. Our first job was to stand up to them as the red meat they eat before kick -off was in evidence in their approach. The first minutes were a getting to know you session with Tom Davies prominent in mid field but he and others were slow in coming to grips with the Stoke long ball over the top. They did force an early corner with this type of pressing but thankfully it drifted out on the wind but our respite was short lived as first Mori and Robles gave the travelling faithful palpitations as the played one two’s with each other in and around the area.
The travelling Park End coaching staff suggested a better way of clearing it, they obeyed but just a minute later which put us on only six minutes we folded like a pack of cards as Holgate who had been targeted by Mark Hughes as all the balls were being played in his direction and on this occasion he was caught out by a ball over him for Arnautovic to run onto and enter our box and slide in a ball along the ground for Crouch to tap home with Robles helpless. Once again we are looking to come from behind but one thing about the goal was its timing left us almost a whole game to get back into it. Crouch did his ‘Robot’ celebration on his 100th goal.
The game resumed but we were still trying to work out who was where and our propensity to give the ball away was frustrating. I wondered if we were missing Barry’s organisation and savvy. We had plenty willing to run about and close down but no one to put there foot on it and dictate some play and if someone did they dallied to long and the ball was swept from them. We had plenty of endeavour but we just did not seem able to click when it mattered and attempts on goal we at a premium. We did force a corner which Mirallas took and it was bundled behind by a Stoke player for another which was cleared as far as Coleman who shot wide – very wide.
It took to the 20-minute mark before we looked like we were starting to play more like a team than a collection of players but Stoke with their lead were happy to soak up our pressure and then aim the long ball over Holgate’s head for the speedy Arnautovic to career into our box and from one of these Adam slid him in and it looked like another tap in but Robles was off his line like a robbers dog and made a fine block. It was Stokes turn to dominate but wouldn’t you just know it we put a slick move together on 40mins that saw the ball played crisply through the midfield with Davies and Barkley involved and the ball was fed to Coleman in the right wing position, he turned in and left footed shot and scored.
Pandemonium... then the ref seemed to have disallowed it then the lino is involved then a Blue shirted celebration took place whilst the red and white stripes moaned along with their wildly booing fans. It was hilarious really especially as it turned out to be an own goal. From my seat it looked like Coleman’s goal so to hell with it I’m giving it to him.
Three minutes were added and just when we were talking about going in all square at the break Crouch played a great ball inside Holgate and Arnautovic was in one on one but the robbers dog was out and even faster this time and just as the ball was to be slid home Robles again blocked away. The applause he got for that must have been uplifting to him. Then the whistle went.
We agreed that probably Stoke had the better of the half but we were tenacious if nothing else it was just the joined up bit that was missing from our football.
Second half and McCarthy replaced Holgate probably a good move before his confidence was further dented but it is these games that sort out the wheat from the chaff so I hope he learns from it and is back stronger. I am not sure what formation we had at the back but it seemed Williams spent a lot of time at right back and Schneiderlin operating between Williams and Mori with Baines back in the left back role leaving Coleman down the right. That got pulled about a bit but we did look that bit safer at the back even when they were on differing wavelengths they did manage to somehow sort it and get back on track.
I thought Joel did really well in shouting to them if he spotted danger before them. The second half was a right scrappy affair with both teams looking to win it if they could yet not prepared to push on to hard and lose it to a breakaway so given that scenario not the best of watches for the purist but plenty of excitement about as each team took it in turns to attack and defend. The hour mark arrived and Stoke blinked first and made a sub their new man Berahino coming on for ex red Allen.
Stoke got a free kick that Adam delivered with some aplomb and it caused mayhem in our area we feared the worst but a series of swipes, back headers and hoofs got us out of a hole but then we put some stuff together and see Barkley produce a peach of a pass to put the ever motoring Davies in, he got in the box and went passed two but took one touch to many and a great chance was gone.
We made our first sub when Lookman replaced Mirallas who had had a promising first half but was out of the picture second half. Lookman started like a house on fire and in no time he was in the box and shooting but the keeper did well and gathered at the near post. He seemed to fade a little after that and operated on the left wing without making any powerful runs or cutting in and going at defenders with pace that he has to burn. Schneiderlin was now settling better operating between the centre backs but stepping out into mid field and trying to calm things down and use his ability at both short and long balls. A younger Barry you might say.
We had a free kick taken by Barkley and Schneiderlin had come forward, got his head to it but his header lacked pace and the keeper easily gathered. Davies was still full of energy and they had kicked him a few times but he was all over the park but his final ball was just that bit out and possession lost and he was by no means the only one.
Near the end we had a fright when Berahino anticipated a long ball and from in the area lobbed Robles but Mori was alert and raced back and headed from under the bar at the expense of only a corner – that could have been worse.
Then I thought we had won it when Coleman was found by Barkley and the Irishman twisted and turned got to the by-line and hit one at pace back across the box for the inrushing Davies to dive at, connect sweetly and with GOAL in the throat the Stoke keeper Grant made a superb save pushing the ball wide but our new man Lookman was on it in a flash and smashed one across goal with venom that alluded everyone with Davies being the closest to it and it was just too fast for him. The ball was hit that hard I wondered if it was indeed a shot.
We had one more chance before the end when Lukaku and Barkley combined to put the marathon man Davies in again but his shot was well saved by the keeper. Three mins were added but were a barren three so we all trudged away neither satisfied nor disappointed. Three more points required for safety
MotM - Robles/Davies
A good trip out and I got what I expected to get, a hard fought match where for long spells football took a back seat. It always seems to be that way against Stoke.
I was quite satisfied with our transfer window for a couple of reasons one being that players of the substance required for our present ‘project’ are rarely available and secondly just looking at today’s game with our two signings getting game time plus our two youngsters still wet behind the ears you could see plainly we have good and maybe very good players but they will take time to gel and understand their role in whatever tactic the manager decides on game by game. Today teamwork wasn’t on the agenda and of course if the manager introduces to many at once then results may well suffer. I believe if he can get what he has got bedded in by seasons end then the summer incomings will find it easier just by speaking to our present players regarding the who does what in the team.
Still soon be Saturday. Another 3.00pm k/o home match, a couple of days to prepare and then off the rollercoaster goes again. See you there.
UP THE BLUES
With the distraction of the transfer window out the way, a leaner Everton squad prepares for a midweek trip to Stoke City looking to register a fourth successive win in the Premier League.
Ronald Koeman steered the Blues to the same feat back in August, a run of results that took them second in the table behind early pace-setters Manchester City; this time, the Dutchman is hoping for three more points to keep up the pressure on the teams sitting above Everton in the top six.
The transfer deadline may have closed without the addition of the one or two high-quality names that supporters were hoping would bolster the quest to finish in the European qualification places — seventh place might be enough if current top six teams win the domestic cups — but results in the league so far in 2017 have suggested that Koeman now has a settled system and a group of players he trusts.
A repeat of the performance that earned a deserved win at Crystal Palace 10 days ago would go further to strengthening that belief and raise optimism that, in contrast to Everton's stumbles through their previous stretch of supposedly “winnable” games earlier in the season, the Blues will capitalise on the current sequence of comparatively favourable fixtures to close the gap above them.
The manager is aided by a clean bill of health to all but long-term absentees Yannick Bolasie and Muhamed Besic and could name an unchanged line-up for the second game running if he is moved to do so.
He is likely to have Morgan Schneiderlin champing at the bit, however, now that he is bedded in and closer to match sharpness. The Frenchman made a move from Manchester United three weeks ago precisely because he wanted to play every week and after two substitute appearances in place of Gareth Barry, he might feel his time to start has come. With two games in the space of four days, too much for the 35-year-old Barry, that is likely to be at Stoke or at home to Bournemouth on Saturday.
Unless Koeman moves to change up his defensive formation — unlikely against a physical Stoke team that could boast Peter Crouch's aerial ability in its starting XI — it's hard to envisage many changes to the team that kicked off at Selhurst Park.
Joel Robles has already received the nod from his manager that he will be starting and the recency of Idrissa Gueye's return from Africa Cup of Nations duty has taken that difficult decision out of Koeman's hands for another few days at least. After putting in another impressively precocious performance at Palace, it seems inconceivable that Tom Davies would be dropped back to the bench but a selection headache in the centre of the park is coming.
Stoke, meanwhile, have returnees from Africa of their own who won't be involved. Neither Wilfried Bony and Mame Biram Diouf are expected to face Everton but their new signing from West Bromwich Albion, Sadio Berahino could make his debut, even if only off the bench. The striker's last couple of seasons at the Hawthorns were bogged down by controversy and debates over his temperament and attitude but he now has a new opportunity to get his career back on track.
Everton's performance at Palace should provide the template for a fixture that is never easy, even if they made it look that way last season in what was the last great away performance under Roberto Martinez. With just one win in December, the Potters have recovered somewhat since conceding eight in two games against Liverpool and Chelsea to close out 2016 by winning two in four but as Bournemouth and Wolves have shown in recent weeks, they are fallible at home.
By remaining defensively tight and restricting the service to Crouch from crosses, Koeman's men will create the platform to hopefully carve out sufficient chances at the other end to keep this winning run going.
Kick-off: 8pm, 1 February, 2017
Referee: Craig Pawson
Last Time: Stoke City 0 - 3 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Robles, Holgate, Williams, Funes Mori, Coleman, Baines, Schneiderlin, Davies, Barkley, Mirallas, Lukaku