With little to play for other than the maximum possible Premier League merit payment by virtue of league position — not an insignificant factor given football and Everton’s uncertain economic climate — this was the kind of match where you wanted to see something on which to pin your hopes for next season.
Signs that there is enough in this Toffees side that it won’t require a complete overhaul (not that one is possible, of course), that there is fight and passion in the ranks, and that a rediscovery of their attacking mojo was possible. Evertonians saw plenty to inspire hope on all those counts this evening as Carlo Ancelotti’s men edged Europa League-chasing Sheffield United at Bramall Lane.
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since Blues fans reacted in anger at the Blades’ 2-0 win in the reverse fixture at Goodison Park last September. Everton have gone though another managerial crisis, appointed one of the game’s most decorated managers and yet still managed to this point to end the campaign with a whimper. Sheffield United, of course, emerged as the surprise package of the season; at one stage occupying the top four and looking for long stretches as though a top-six finish was very much on the cards.
As such, this fixture had morphed from being a potentially comfortable away day for an Everton outfit that initially had designs on European qualification themselves into being a somewhat daunting date on the calendar and probable defeat, especially given the fact that the Toffees came into this evening winless in four games and bearing all the enthusiasm for completing the season of death-row inmate awaiting his last meal.
How refreshing, then, that not only did Everton win their second away game since the post-lockdown restart but they did it with the kind of defensive resilience and resurfacing attacking enterprise that they will need in order to make 2020-21 a much more successful endeavour. The second half, in particular, will have demonstrated to the manager and the fans that there is enough of a foundation in place on which to add what we hope will be the targeted quality names to be added in the coming weeks, particularly when the mentality of the team is right.
With young Jarrad Branthwaite visibly growing into his role alongside Michael Keane in the heart of a defence that gave the Blades precious little by way of goalscoring opportunities, André Gomes building on those last few minutes against Aston Villa as he rediscovers his talents going forward, and Richarlison weighing in with an excellent striker’s goal, there is cause for optimism once more as thoughts remain with what next season might hold.
Importantly, there was an intensity about Everton from the first whistle this evening, with Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin setting the tone for an effective pressing game that restricted United’s ability to play through them. With the Blues struggling to play out from the back themselves in the early going, it made for a fairly uneventful contest for the opening quarter of an hour until Jordan Pickford was called into action for the first time.
Everton got caught trying to pass their way out from the back, Lucas Digne ended up fouling Sander Berge and Pickford helped Oliver Norwood’s curling free-kick on to safety with his palm.
But then, in the 20th and 24th minutes came glimpses of the Toffees’ abilities to pick their way through the lines, first when Gomes played Theo Walcott in down the right channel with a nicely-weighted pass but the winger could only drag a shot across face of goal and, second, when Gomes curled a pin-point ball behind the defence from the touchline to meet Calvert-Lewin’s run but the striker’s first touch was too heavy and it got away from him.
As the first half was coming to a close, Branthwaite’s errant pass ended with Pickford palming Chris Basham’s cross away and Pickford having to save a deflected shot from Ben Osborn. In between, however, Everton should really have gone ahead. Richarlison won the visitors’ first corner, Dean Henderson punched Gylfi Sigurdsson’s delivery out to the other side of the box where Walcott clipped a teasing cross back into the far post. Calvert-Lewin rose well over his marker but could only plant his header onto the post.
It would take Everton less than a minute to find the net following the start of the second half. Gomes was fouled midway inside Sheffield’s half and Sigurdsson improved on the flat delivery that had only found the head of the first defender in first-half stoppage time by picking out Richarlison with a sweeping free-kick.
The Brazilian steered it expertly beyond the goalkeeper with a header to score his 15th of the season and what proved to be the winning goal.
Gomes then sent Walcott away down the right again but while the former Gunner’s cut-back looking for a Blue shirt was disappointing, it was heartening to see Everton starting to create openings again.
Branthwaite prevented an early reply from the hosts by David McGoldrick when he charged down the forward’s shot after Tom Davies had run into trouble near the touchline and been dispossessed but the Blades wouldn’t really get another chance to threaten Pickford’s goal until five minutes from the end when George Baldock headed a decent chance over from about eight yards out.
In the intervening 35 minutes, Everton had stuck to their task diligently, stifling a Chris Wilder team that is normally difficult to repress – this was the first time they had been restricted to no shots on target at home since August – particularly in the closing stages of matches, and it was the Blues who could have added to the scoreline.
Calvert-Lewin, playing at Bramall Lane for the first time since leaving the Steel City for Everton four years ago, did well to out-muscle John Egan and made a bee-line for goal but his shot was partially blocked by the covering defender and Henderson was able to beat it away.
With 10 minutes to go, Everton’s best passing interchange of the match on the edge of United’s box ended with Walcott firing in a cross that was too far ahead of Richarlison before Gomes raked a 20-yard effort narrowly wide. Then, in stoppage time, substitute Anthony Gordon and Calvert-Lewin sprinted away into what was, briefly, a two-on-one situation but the teenager’s cut-back went straight to a red-and-white shirt and the ball was cleared.
If Ancelotti has been unmistakably frustrated with his charges since the win over Leicester at the start of the month, this performance will have given him much more encouragement. It was also pleasing to see some flexibility from the manager in terms of the formation, with Sigurdsson appearing to play in a more central role alongside Richarlison and behind Calvert-Lewin. Again, the ingredients were here to make up the kind of side that had, until that soporific defeat at Spurs, one of the four best records in the top flight since the Italian came on board.
It wasn’t perfect by any means — the repeated attempts to play out from the penalty area and cycling of the ball back from the fullbacks to Pickford get a little mind-numbing and, occasionally, heart-stopping; Davies suffers from occasional lapses in judgement in dangerous areas that put the defence under unnecessary pressure; the way they so often go to pieces in the final third is maddening; and Calvert-Lewin’s ongoing goal drought could become a psychological hurdle if it goes on too much longer.
But as evidence for optimism for next season it’ll do, particularly if Bournemouth can be despatched in some style on the final day next Sunday.
Reader Comments (25)
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1 Posted 21/07/2020 at 02:50:28
We must retain Richarlison and we must allow André Gomes to get forwards.
2 Posted 21/07/2020 at 04:41:27
Great Richarlison headed goal from a superb Sigurdsson free-kick. Branthwaite came good after several passes straight to the opposition while under no pressure.
Why can't the team do this consistently? To remain in 11th place, we now have to beat Bournemouth by the same number of goals or more than Southampton beat Sheffield Utd or lose by less than one more if Southampton loses.
Should make for a couple of interesting games. I hope our team actually does turn up for the game again so that we finish the season on a positive note.
3 Posted 21/07/2020 at 07:09:39
Gomes linked play up well and although it looked scrappy from both teams at times, for me we shaded it by creating more chances. As usual, Pickford went from sublime to ridiculous with another adrenalin overdose. Keane was solid again at the back, and Branthwaite handled himself well. Great header from Richarlison.
Ancelotti must be as confused as the rest of us with in-and-out performances but, if we at least finish off with a resounding win on Sunday, he'll have an opportunity to decide who stays and who goes to build for next season's European charge.
4 Posted 21/07/2020 at 07:35:52
Also, Digne needs to stop giving away free-kicks in really dangerous positions. He has done that a few times this season and it gives the opposition a chance to hurt us.
I felt Gomes and Keane were exceptional and Davies never stopped trying to break up their attacks. I just wish he wouldn't give the ball away 30 yards from our goal about 5 times a game.
Finally, the playing out from the back is pitiful to watch; we often had throw-ins or possession in line with their penalty area but still contrived to get the ball back to Pickford... it may keep possession but won't create an opportunity.
5 Posted 21/07/2020 at 08:32:26
6 Posted 21/07/2020 at 08:43:46
7 Posted 21/07/2020 at 09:16:38
Davies will probably get plenty of stick for giving the ball away in our own half, but credit him for having a bit of youthful endeavour and not just playing the easy sideways pass.
Defence looks very solid, particularly Keane who deserves a lot of credit for recovering from some sticky periods over the last few years when a lot of people would have binned him off.
Walcott still infuriates me (sorry, there's got to be one), plays a peach of a cross to the back stick for Calvert-Lewin but follows that with 3 or 4 nothing crosses/passes when in similarly promising positions. I really want him to succeed because he's clearly got the ability, but something upstairs just switches off most of the time.
8 Posted 21/07/2020 at 09:44:57
I thought that too about Gomes. He looked very fit and sharp and his demeanour looked very much more switched on. He is a confidence player and maybe his last period against Villa has given him a lift and he is starting to believe in himself again. I think he is a super player when on song and for me he was the difference yesterday as he gave us control in the middle.
I have been very critical of Sigurdsson and, in fairness, he was way better than usual whilst Tom had a decent game too.
Very much better.
9 Posted 21/07/2020 at 09:48:03
I agree with you ref Baldock. Amazing how some referees miss this kind of thing. Frankly, I thought the ref on this occasion was absolute crap. So damn inconsistent and whistle happy.
10 Posted 21/07/2020 at 10:36:45
What Everton are lacking is 'Composure' in the final third. I am a big fan of Calvert-Lewin but right now his anticipation seems to be shot to pieces – either he is 1-2 yards slower or 1-2 yards further ahead.
The good thing is that he is getting himself into excellent positions... but, after the Premier League restarted, I have counted 8-10 guilt-edged opportunities that he has squandered. A top Premier League striker would have put away at least 50% of those chances.
Hopefully, he can quickly pull himself out of the rut he finds himself in. He needs a goal desperately – if he gets that in the final game of the season, that will be a huge relief for him, and help bring back some self-confidence.
The next season is looming and will be upon the players and the fans very soon, so they need to exit this season on a high.
11 Posted 21/07/2020 at 10:51:31
That's our issue at the moment. Recent results have left us as fans so short of anything to believe in that this was like winning the FA Cup.
If it proves to be the springboard we need, then I am even happier. There were a lot of plusses. COYB — don't let us down on Sunday.
12 Posted 21/07/2020 at 11:23:32
I watched Ancelotti's post match presser after the game. He had trouble containing his enthusiasm about young Branthwaite. Also, he had some interesting things to say about Sigurdsson, Richarlison, & Calvert-Lewin.
For my part, I had given up completely on Sigurddson but he put in a good shift. I wouldn't be surprised to see him back amongst the goals against Bournemouth.
13 Posted 21/07/2020 at 12:16:26
14 Posted 21/07/2020 at 14:11:01
15 Posted 21/07/2020 at 14:17:51
I think he didn't look and hit it where he expected Calvert-Lewin to be but, having started the move out of position on the right, Calvert-Lewin was miles back.
I think that's part of our issue, Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin go wandering out of frustration, seeking the ball, so when we do cross, no-one is there. Cottee or Lineker would lap that up but then they wouldn't have done a Calvert-Lewin and started the whole move.
16 Posted 21/07/2020 at 14:30:12
17 Posted 21/07/2020 at 16:33:30
More pleasing was the display by our young Jarrad Branthwaite. Added to Anthony Gordon, it's great to ease young players into the first team, from the academy.
One or two players every year would be a great return, and should be something we should aspire to. Luckily we have a safe pair of hands in Carlo.
18 Posted 21/07/2020 at 18:33:38
19 Posted 21/07/2020 at 19:26:06
20 Posted 21/07/2020 at 20:17:43
Last night a 4-2-3-1 gave particularly Gomes the shape he needs to play effectively. Sigurdsson played between the lines, allowing quick transitional play through the lines and Gomes had time and space to spray the ball around and even had a shot, must be his first since his goal vs Wolves last season.
I'm just surprised Ancelotti hadn't realised this weeks ago !
21 Posted 21/07/2020 at 20:45:52
Last night's performance reminded me of some of the games in the final weeks of last season when Silva found a system which suited the players at his disposal. The home wins against Chelsea, Manchester Utd and Arsenal plus the away win at West Ham Utd saw the players believing in themselves and a collective team effort masking the deficiencies of individuals. But the same period also saw us lose badly at Fulham, a team heading for relegation.
It is interesting to note the six players at the front of last night's starting eleven were all regulars last season. I guess most if not all of them will be there two months from now, augmented hopefully by a Gana Gueye type of player to strengthen midfield. Such a player will help improve our consistency and move us into the top half of the table.
22 Posted 21/07/2020 at 22:21:14
The win was down to hard graft and attacking Sheffield Utd and bending their rigid shape out of its comfort zone. Taking a few risks for a change and having the zest and energy to win the ball back with rapidity.
Wasn't it good to see Sigurdsson puffing like a turbulent Icelandic volcano when he came off. When he works that hard, things happen for him. The assist for Richarlison's goal was a great set-piece cross in.
The formation change and the work rate allowed Gomes to shine. He is a Rolls-Royce player when the midfield are winning battles, that performance promises a lot more to come from him next season. Especially with one or two quality midfield additions.
Richiarlison is a match-winning player, indispensable for us.
Branthwaite is 18 just. How can a centre-back be that good at 18? Someone said Rio Ferdinand was, so there you go. Also, I hope he doesn't get slagged off when the inevitable odd mistake comes along. He's one to encourage and support.
23 Posted 21/07/2020 at 00:29:30
When Albrighton of Leicester gets the ball in the attacking third all their players know what is going to happen next – it's going in the box and they react accordingly.
I would just like to see it more often because, if he can put say 8 crosses in during a game, a 25% strike rate gets us two goals.
24 Posted 22/07/2020 at 08:01:18
25 Posted 23/07/2020 at 04:11:26
I agree. Ancelotti is a shrewd Manager who can change the formations of his team from match to match and even throughout a game. He is able to coach players individually to adapt to these formations and improve in their performance in the position allocated.
Of course some of the players are not tactically aware and technically able throughout a game, but they are all heading in the right direction. There have been setbacks, such as in the of Bernard, who prior to the break was one of the most improved players and really benefited from Ancelottis coaching, but now seems to have personal issues. Calvert Lewin has also gone back a bit, the break and a long season seem to have taken there toll in him. Overall in my opinion they all will feel they have benefited from Ancelotti tenure so far in their knowledge and individual performance objectives.
During the Summer I expect Ancelotti to do more work and pre-season to have a different purpose about it. Players will continue to improve and there will be additions to the squad in terms of fine tuning the team to make it more resilient and more adaptable. In my opinion existing players will still have a role to play and there will be a lot more rotation in the playing team according to the opposition. There will be more of a blend in youth and aged players.
Everton will become less predictable, more adaptable and more motivated/challenging. Each players will have a good understanding of the objectives of the team and what their role in obtaining those objectives. Everton will also be a overall fitter team.
This is the first season Ancelotti has finished outside the top six of any League he has Managed in. Everton have never consistently beaten teams in the lower half of the Premier League for twenty years, They have always lost some games to lower half oppositions and been inconsistent in performances against top half teams. I expect the mid table pattern of two results and a loss , a glass ceiling at Everton for over twenty years, to be shattered last.
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