Everton had to settle for a point at a sodden Riverside Stadium as they played out a goalless draw with Middlesbrough.
The Toffees took control of the first half and had opportunities to take the lead; Romelu Lukaku unable to beat Victor Valdes after Tom Davies’ through ball.
Ademola Lookman had chances of his own but was crowded out on two occasions in the space of a minute, before firing just wide before half-time.
The hosts grew into the game in the second half and came inches from a winner late on. Joel Robles put in a man of the match performance and denied Rudy Gestede with minutes to play to earn The Toffees a point and extend their unbeaten Premier League run to eight games.
Ademola looks the man
Despite the lack of goals, it was another promising display from one of Everton’s future stars.
Lookman had three good chances in the first half but found himself crowded out on two occasions, with the third attempt just the wrong side of Valdes’ post. There were some suggestions the new signing should have done better, especially with his two chances inside the box. But I can’t see what else Lookman could have done.
When Seamus Coleman crossed from the right, it evaded the home defence and made it’s way to Lookman. Taking it down on his chest, his attempted cross-cum-shot was repelled by the keeper. In real-time it looked like an excellent opportunity wasted, but that assessment is harsh on second viewing.
In a crowded area, Lookman chested it into the only space available, which took him towards the byline. Knowing the angle was against him, he tried to flash it across the 6 yard box where Davies lurked.
Seconds later, Ross Barkley turned the ball back into the area, where again Lookman was surrounded. Being closed down by two ‘Boro players, the 19 year-old pulled out a clever drag-back to create just enough space for a shot. Again, the effort was repelled but operating in such a tight space, it was encouraging at least to see the youngster demonstrate the quickness of thought and the skill to engineer even a half chance. It’s the kind of ability often seen of players capable of making the difference in a tight game.
It was only Lookman’s second Premier League start for Everton, and so far the signs are encouraging that The Toffees have a potential match-winner on their hands.
Speaking of match-winners, Everton could have done with a moment of inspiration from the leading goalscorer.
Lukaku bagged four against Bournemouth last week but chances -not least due in part to a considerably more organised rearguard- were hard to come by. His one clear-cut chance came mid-way through the first half as he bore down on Valdes one-on-one. His shot didn’t quite have the conviction of his quadruple a week ago, but it was a good effort. Unfortunately Valdes was proving as difficult to beat as his defenders, and the Spaniard was equal to him.
If last week’s opening goal within 30 seconds set the tone for Lukaku’s rampant man of the match display, then his miss-kick that ended up in row Z early in the game was a sign that it just wasn’t going to be his day in the north-east.
If Koeman had the dice to roll, he might have done so
There was a sense that Koeman’s changes were a bit too conservative for a game poised at 0-0 against a relegation threatened ‘Boro. But with a bench that was hardly bulging with mouth-watering attacking options, it was as much as the Dutchman could do.
He took a holding midfielder off in Idrissa Gueye for a forward (Enner Valencia), while Aaron Lennon’s introduction for Lookman was near enough like-for-like. That the former Spurs winger was more likely to successfully assist Lukaku onto the team bus than in front of goal, is not exactly Koeman’s fault.
But it was disappointing that with 10 minutes to go, ‘Boro were the team taking the game to their opponents and looking the more likely to score. By Gareth Barry’s introduction in the 87th minute, it was clear that Koeman had accepted a draw, even if his players had settled for it before then.
With Arouna Kone haunting Koeman’s bench, it demonstrates Everton’s lack of attacking depth, an area Blues were hoping to see strengthened in the recent window.
Away form doesn’t mirror club’s aspirations
But for some inspired goalkeeping from Robles late in the game, Everton may well have been on the end of their first Premier League defeat of 2017.
While a point away from home is never a terrible result, Everton won’t catch the leading pack by drawing with newly promoted, relegation battling sides. Their away form (W4, D4, L5) is only marginally better than the four sides behind them in the table, and a far cry from those six teams ahead of them.
Of those in the top seven, only Spurs have failed to win more on the road than Everton (also 4). Arsenal and Liverpool have won six while Man United trail Chelsea and Man City by one win (the latter two have notched eight away wins).
And while The Toffees have come away empty handed on five occasions, the rest have slipped up only twice or three times (except City, 4). The result is that Everton have won just 16 points on their travels, compared to Liverpool’s 22 and Chelsea’s 27.
Expectations are rising at the club, not least thanks to Farhad Moshiri’s investment and the excitement of a potential new stadium. But if they can’t match the leading pack’s away form, Everton will continue to fail to meet fans’ (and the majority shareholder’s) aspirations.
Robles forcing his way into Koeman’s plans
A huge reason behind Everton’s modest return of five points from a possible nine away from home is ‘keeper Robles. I think I speak for most Evertonians when I say we’re pleasantly surprised with the way in which the Spaniard has taken his opportunity between the sticks, while Koeman’s number one Maarten Stekelenburg has been absent through injury.
After solid games against Crystal Palace and Stoke, he put in another assured display at the Riverside, coping well with crosses against two aerially dominant strikers in Alvaro Negredo and Gestede. The latter looked to have won the match for ‘Boro in the final minutes but for a superb fingertip save.
I’d still expect Koeman to go into the market in the summer for a keeper, having not been entirely convinced by Stekelenburg. But the confident displays of Robles are currently helping Everton pick up points, while he can boast five clean sheets in eight since deputising over Christmas, conceding just six times.
If he can keep up this form till the end of the season, then it will at least give Koeman something to think about in terms of who he wants as his long-term stopper.