If the defeat to West Ham on New Year’s Day was annoying, dispiriting and had you admonishing yourself for thinking that top four might be an option for this Everton squad without another significant injection of quality in the January transfer window, this win over Wolves was, obviously, a hugely uplifting one.
Not only because it returned the Toffees to winning ways and made it five wins from six in the Premier League but also because it was secured by a side that played 76 minutes without a recognised striker on the pitch… and even then, despite the fact that he often plays up front for Brazil, Richarlison, who came off the bench for Gylfi Sigurdsson, isn’t usually regarded as a centre-forward.
It was also the first League match that Everton have won with James Rodriguez in the starting line-up since November when they beat Fulham at Craven Cottage and, with fitness now on his side, he looked much more productive. The Colombian played the full 90 minutes of the frustrating games against Leeds and Burnley and then missed the next four games through injury before returning as a substitute against the Hammers 11 days ago.
While he wasn’t able to influence the games that book-ended his spell on the sidelines in the way he would have wanted, James was instrumental this evening to a performance that, in the absence of a target up front, demanded guile, movement and a good deal more consideration in possession that the Blues have displayed at times this season.
Flitting about in an unrestricted role behind a nominal “false 9” in Sigurdsson, dropping into pockets of space and moving the ball on intelligently, Rodriguez provided much but he was ably assisted by another inventive and purposeful display from Alex Iwobi, the excellent touch of Lucas Digne bombing on down the other flank, and the box-to-box presence of Abdoulaye Doucouré.
Iwobi, James and Digne combined superbly for the opening goal and, when the contest had lapsed into something of a stalemate in the second half with precious few chances for the either side, it was André Gomes who came off the bench to find the head of Michael Keane, who steered home the winner with 13 minutes to go.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s absence for a Premier League fixture for the first time all season was compounded over the weekend by a knock for Richarlison that meant he wasn’t deemed fit enough to start this game and it presented Carlo Ancelotti with a choice between starting Cenk Tosun for a second successive game or going for something altogether more bold and conventional.
Ultimately, despite the Turkish international scoring against Rotherham in the FA Cup on Saturday and converting what would, in all likelihood, have been the winner in normal time had it not been for a hair’s-breadth offside decision, the manager opted to leave Tosun on the substitutes’ bench and deployed Rodriguez and Sigurdsson ahead of Doucouré and Tom Davies in the middle and the four-man back line behind that that had formed the bedrock of those four successive League wins that ended 2020.
With the crutch of Calvert-Lewin’s aerial ability and hold-up play gone, the formation lent itself to greater fluidity on the ball from Everton and an often open game against an opposition of similar technical capacity and one also managing without its main centre-forward as Raul Jiminez continues his recovery from a skull fracture.
In contrast to what was an overly cautious and narrow line-up at Newcastle back at the start of November, this felt like it had an altogether more positive feel and it all came together beautifully with just five minutes gone.
Iwobi passed inside to Rodriguez and followed the path of the Colombian’s cross-field ball to Digne with a single-minded run towards the penalty spot and, when the Frenchman volleyed it across, the Nigerian met it with a really fine, composed, first-time finish that crept inside the near post.
With the likes of Ruben Neves, Pedro Neto, Nélson Semedo and teenager Rayan Aït-Nouri in their ranks, Wolves carried plenty of threats of their own and they had wiped Everton’s lead out within eight minutes of falling behind.
A corner from the right was only cleared as far as Aït-Nouri on the Wolves left and when Doucouré sold himself too early, his compatriot glided past him to the byline before drilling the ball across goal for Neves to volley home at the back post.
The two sides then traded blows as a rare mistake by Digne let Neto in but Fabio Silva's volley in front of goal was saved by Jordan Pickford and Leander Dendoncker just missed getting his head on a cross from Nélson Semedo while, at the other end, Iwobi and Rodriguez played a one-two which put the Nigerian in but his shot was also tame enough for Patricio to smother.
While it remained a fairly open game between two technical teams lacking a genuine focus up front, goalmouth action was at a premium in the second half but it was Ancelotti's first substitution that ultimately paid dividends. It came at a time when the visitors had lost their way a little so it was somewhat surprising that the Italian swapped Davies for Gomes but, just as he did at Sheffield United on Boxing Day, the Portuguese stepped off the bench to add a robust, measured presence and that little bit more class in midfield.
He also turned provider after Everton had survived a scare when Neves's dipping volley just cleared Pickford's bar. Iwobi and James combined again with another neat exchange of passes that ended with the former's shot being charged down by Conor Coady and the ball going behind for a corner. That delivery was glanced away by the Wolves defence but was collected by Gomes who swung it back in and Keane did the rest with a well-placed header.
It was just rewards for a player who has emerged as a commanding presence in Everton’s defence and who is now adding more goals to his repertoire, a crucial ingredient if this team is to remain among the top four places and on the fringes of the title race.
A handball by Doucouré just outside the box had Evertonian hearts in mouths as Neves lined up a direct free-kick with six minutes to go but, thankfully, his effort clipped the outside of the post and it was then just a case of Ancelotti's men closing the match out to wrap up another three points.
Given what happened on this ground on 12th July last year with six of the 11 players in common in the line-up and Everton’s injury problems up front this evening, expectations were low for this game which makes what felt like an improbable victory all the sweeter.
A hard-earned draw to take into another potentially testing away encounter at Aston Villa would have been gratefully received but, as Ancelotti reiterated after the game, he wanted his side to get back to winning ways to make up for what happened against West Ham.
Victories for the teams below in their games in hand would drop the Blues back to sixth place and that may ultimately be where they end up without reinforcements this month. But the longer they keep chalking up wins and the longer they’re hanging around the upper echelons of the division, the greater the chance that Everton can achieve something truly unexpected in this unpredictable season.
Everton returned to Premier League action this evening with a very important win for a weakened team at Molineux over one of their rivals for European qualification in the form of Wolves.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin was ruled out after sustaining a hamstring injury Richarlison was a doubt, leaving Cenk Tosun as the only fit striker. But Ancelotti has gone with no recognized strikers in a 5-5-0 formation, with both Richarlison and Tosun on the bench.
Everton got things going and tried to attack down the left. But it was cagey stuff from both sides until Godfrey overplayed a pass down the wing. But some fluid passing saw Iwobi benefit from a lovely James cross-field pass and Digne lay-back, he buried it, perhaps with the benefit of a slight deflection.
The perfect start for strikerless Everton, would this now mean parking the bus for the rest of the game? Everton's poor use of a midfield free-kick suggested that conservatism would be the watchword for the night, although Lucas Digne was happy to run at Wolves and put in crosses for them to repel.
Wolves won a corner when the ball came off Davies and, in the second phase, Ait-Nouri scampered past Digne and deliver a tremendous cross for Neves to rattle in. Game on! Wolves had established a path to goal and Fabio Silva was next to try it on, forcing a late save from Pickford.
A good one-two saw James set up Iwobi again but he telegraphed a poor shot that was easily saved. James got well forward and crossed for Calvert-Lewin... who wasn't there!
Pickford gave away a needless corner that allowed some decent pressure from the home side. Some better passing saw another Everton corner that James drove in to no avail. After a long spell of midfield cat and mouse, the Blues looked to make some decent passes count but it broke down in the Wolves area.
Digne swung over a great cross for the absent DCL that was wellied behind for a corner that Mina tried to glance in but ended up heading well over, just before half-time.
Iwobi fouled Ait-Nouri early in the second half and that led to a Wolves corner that was powered away by Keane. Doucouré then caught Neto to collect a 5th yellow card of the season that rules him out of Everton's next game, with Neto needing a lot of treatment.
The free-kick when it came saw Keane prevent a clean header and danger was averted. With little of note happening, Ancelotti decided to switch out Davies for Gomes after the hour. Holgate made a desperate lunge that earned him a yellow. After the free-kick, Neves launched a tasty volley just wide of the angle to wake Pickford up.
James got forward and could have had a shot but tried to set up Iwobi, but it was blocked for a corner. Off the second phase, a fine Keane header came at the end of a lopping Gomes cross to surely win the game for Everton.
Iwobi ran half the pitch with the ball and put in a nice cross for the absent Calvert-Lewin... Doucouré got called for one of those handballs at point-blank range, Neves, flashing his set-piece off the outside of the angle.
Hoever came close in the last 5 minutes of added time before Martin Atkinson blew time on a very fine win by The Don over Nuno Espirito Santo.
Scorers: Neves (14'); Iwobi (6'), Keane (77')
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Patricio; Semedo [Y:89'], Coady, Saiss, Ait-Nouri; Dendoncker, Neves, Moutinho (86' Vitinha); Gibbs-White (64' Hoever [Y:90+5']), Silva (78' Cutrone), Neto.
Subs not Used: Ruddy, Shabani, Richards, Kilman, Lonwijk, Corbeanu.
Everton: Pickford, Holgate [Y:68'], Keane, Mina, Godfrey, Digne, Davies (64'Gomes), Doucouré [Y:49'], Sigurdsson (76' Richarlison), Iwobi, James (86' Coleman).
Subs not Used: Olsen, Kenny, Nkounkou, Bernard, Gordon, Tosun.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
VAR: Jonathan Moss
Everton get back to Premier League action this evening with a trip to Molineux to face one of their rivals for European qualification in the form of Wolves.
Nuno Espirito Santo's side begin this round of matches sitting in 13th place, however, seven points below the Blues having won just once in their last six Premier League matches.
That victory came at home to Chelsea almost a month ago and their run of less-then-spectacular form has largely coincided with the loss of striker Raul Jiminez who fractured his skull at the end of November and has been sidelined ever since.
In his absence, the Midlanders had scored just four goals until they went to Brighton on 2nd January and put three past the Seagulls in a match they should have won but ended up drawing 3-3.
Wolves followed that with a 1-0 win over Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Third Round last Friday, a sign perhaps that they are stabilising their form in the absence of their marksman.
For Everton, this fixture marks a return to one of their more depressing results from last season, one which they lost 3-0 on the back of as poor a performance as Carlo Ancelotti has overseen in his time in charge.
The Toffees will also be without their main marksman and their best alternative will have to undergo a fitness test before it is determined whether he is fit enough to play.
That's because Dominic Calvert-Lewin has been ruled out after sustaining a hamstring injury Richarlison is a doubt for the game at Molineux, potentially leaving Cenk Tosun as the only fit striker.
Calvert-Lewin striker has been practically ever-present for the Blues in the Premier League but played no part in the FA Cup win over Rotherham on Saturday and he has now realised one of the Blues' biggest concerns by picking up a problem that deprives the team of its top scorer.
“He had a little problem during the week before the game against West Ham," the manager said of Calvert-Lewin today. "The fact that he'd never had this kind of injury before meant he was not able to judge 100 per cent himself.
“He played against West Ham, so this means it's not a really important injury, but we want to keep him safe and to be 100 per cent when he comes back.
"Richarlison, we have to wait to train today to make a decision on this."
On Allan, who has been out of action since he suffered up a hamstring injury at Leicester in mid-December, Ancelotti said that the Brazilian could be back "in around 10 to 15 days”.
It means that the usual suspects are options in midfield where Abdoulaye Doucouré, a player who has emerged as a vital presence in the centre, will almost certainly walk back into the starting XI having been named on the bench against Rotherham.
Gylfi Sigurdsson could also return to the line-up, with Tom Davies as the anchor, James Rodriguez deployed on one flank and Alex Iwobi on the other.
At the back, Jordan Pickford should rotate back in and as harsh as it would be on Ben Godfrey following his sterling efforts as an emergency left-back, it would not be a surprise to see Yerry Mina come back in to partner Michael Keane.
Lucas Digne, expected to make his second start since making a rapid recovery from ankle surgery, might have the most testing role, though, as he will have to contend with the pace of Adama Traore while the midfield and defence as a whole will have to be mindful of the invention and movement of players like Daniel Podence.
With their respective injury concerns to their strikers, this one has the hallmarks of a draw which wouldn't be the worst result in the world for Everton when you consider what happened here last time out.
However, Ancelotti will be keen to get back to winning ways after dropping points against West Ham on New Year's Day and if his charges can keep it tight and perhaps repeat what they did at Leicester and Sheffield United, no Blue would be complaining.
Kick-off: 8:15pm, Tuesday, 12 January 2021 on Sky Sports
Referee: Martin Atkinson
VAR: Jonathan Moss
Last Time: Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 - 0 Everton
Predicted Line-up: Pickford, Coleman, Keane, Mina, Digne, Davies, Doucouré, Sigurdsson, Iwobi, Rodriguez, Richarlison