It was the perfect start to the New Year at Goodison Park as Everton hit three past Southampton.
The first half yielded little in the way of goal-mouth action, while there was a smattering of discontent from the terraces at the half-time whistle.
But a much improved second half saw the Blues take control thanks in no small part to substitute Enner Valencia. The Ecuadorian notched Everton’s first before winning the penalty that was dispatched by Leighton Baines.
And applying the glossy finish was leading scorer Romelu Lukaku, who fired an unstoppable shot past Fraser Forster late on; his 11th of the season.
Valencia the enabler for Barkley
When the most notable moments of action involve injuries, you know it’s not been a classic half of football. Yet there was little else for both sides to talk about. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s afternoon ended prematurely when he was forced off with what looked to be an ankle injury. A disappointment all round, with the 19 year-old showing early promise in his partnership with Lukaku.
But as has been the case so often under Ronald Koeman, Everton we’re much improved after the interval. The effort and hard work off the ball had been good anyway, but gradually the Toffees began to show more craft and intent in the final third.
What was most surprising was the source of inspiration that saw Everton take the initiative. Valencia’s introduction after an hour didn’t exactly spark pandemonium among fans but it was the turning point in the match, giving a tiring Southampton defence an a new problem. In the Ecuadorian Everton had a willing, forward runner, having spent the first half with their wingers dropping deep or moving inside, cramping the space.
Almost instantly, Ross Barkley seemed to grow an extra couple of feet and put in the kind of display Evertonians have been so keen to see on a more regular basis. Shifted to the right, he had the benefit of a marauding Seamus Coleman and a busy Valencia – suddenly Everton’s number 8 had runners off the ball and they were breaching the visitors defence time and again.
Eventually one of Coleman’s pull backs found its way to Valencia, who slid in from six yards to score his first in an Everton shirt. And when he was brought down after a free-flowing attack, Baines made sure the Ecuadorian’s work hadn’t gone to waste.
Davies making a case for youth
Valencia wasn’t the only one who made a big impression. From what we’ve seen of Davies up to now, he’s a combative player who offers energy (and then some) in the middle of the park.
Fans have been crying out for Davies’ inclusion for weeks now and it’s not just about getting another home-grown talent on the pitch. Of course, Toffees love nothing more than seeing a Scouser take to the hallowed Goodison turf, but this lad can play and he got his first start of the season on merit.
It wasn’t always pretty. There were moments when the 18 year-old just overran the ball or found himself too far down a blind alley, but for the most part his composure helped give the side a platform from which to attack. Spending most of the game in a deep lying position, it was encouraging to see Davies join the attack when in possession. That he was able to get his head up early and play Lukaku in first time for the Belgian’s goal demonstrates he can make his passing count in the final third as well.
Just as impressive was his positional play. With Everton getting a lot of joy on the right flank through Barkley, Valencia, Coleman and Lukaku, Davies was happy to patrol the vacant space. And with Ramiro Funes-Mori caught in possession on the half-way line -and Southampton looking for a way back into the game- it was Davies who instantly found his way into the centre-half position once play was turned over.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing much more of Davies in 2017 and beyond.
Gana will be huge loss
It was a typical Idrissa Gueye performance once again today. It’s easy to take such consistency for granted and nothing will confirm how much Everton rely on Gana as much as his absence over the next 4-5 weeks.
Koeman will lose his midfield enforcer to the African Cup of Nations, with the Southampton win his final appearance before leaving for international duty with Senegal.
Just how much will they miss him? Well, about 92 tackles worth. That’s how many the Senegal man has made this season in an Everton shirt, leading the tackles charts ahead of Jordan Henderson (74) and Oriol Romeu (66). Gareth Barry is the closest of his teammates; 47 for the ageing midfielder, although perhaps Koeman has the best man in reserve to help combat the loss of Gana. With 970 to his name, Barry holds the Premier League record for most successful tackles.
So often compared to N’Golo Kante, the Everton man leaves the Chelsea man in his wake this season (56) while in all of 2016 Gana made 176 tackles to Kante’s 157. The protection he gives to Everton’s back four is invaluable and will be a huge loss over the next month.
Baines’ record is spot on
Whether it was boss’ orders or the birth of a more selfless striker, Lukaku giving the ball to Baines after Valencia was fouled in the area was greeted with relief by the Gwladys Street.
Why? Well, just look at the numbers. Baines now ranks alongside Peter Beardsley (11th) in the list of best penalty conversion rate in the Premier League; both have taken 20, scoring 18. He may be 11th on that list, but only Thierry Henry (23/25) and Matt Le Tissier (25/26) have taken more with an equal or better success rate.
His low effort against Southampton also equals a club record held by David Unsworth and Trevor Steven (23). As long as he’s on the pitch, Toffees will always be relieved to see Baines put the ball on the spot.
The numbers that show how important Rom is
Not everyone seems to agree, but Lukaku is vital to Everton’s on-field success. Arguably, there’s not been a lot of ‘success’ so far this season, but when it comes to goals, Lukaku is the man for the occasion.
After netting against Southampton, Lukaku has now been directly involved in 15 goals this season: 11 goals and four assists.
That’s 10 goals more than anyone else has contributed. Who is next down the list? Barkley and Baines with just five (three goals, two assists; two goals, three assists, respectively).
Don’t let anyone tell you we’d be okay without the Belgian.