Wayne Rooney made a goalscoring return to Goodison Park, scoring in his first league game for Everton since 2004.
It was the perfect second debut for the Croxteth-born striker, whose 18th goal for the Toffees (13 years after his previous) gave Everton all three points in a narrow win against Stoke City.
Ronald Koeman handed home Premier League debuts to four other summer signings, with Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane impressing in a game which left the home support frustrated before Rooney’s fine header.
Koeman was indebted to his record-breaking ‘keeper for making safe the three points, Pickford diving full stretch in the dying minutes to deny a goal-bound Xherdan Shaqiri effort.
Despite the drawn out pursuit of a certain Icelandic in South Wales, Evertonians have been happy with the club’s summer business, with Koeman and Steve Walsh acting decisively to strengthen key positions. So there was still plenty of pre-season optimism blowing around Goodison before kick-off.
But anyone who swears by the cliche that a group of new recruits needs time to gel, will have felt smug about Everton’s first half display. And with good reason.
It was a sluggish-at-best start from the hosts and spells of pendulum-like passing across the back three was nearly enough to send the Gwladys Street into a snooze. Ashley Williams is still no better at distributing the ball than he was last season, and with Phil Jagielka lining up as the left sided centre-half of the back three, possession was too often relinquished. The highlight of the half was a spectacular hoof that almost found it’s way onto Big Stand across the park.
There was little movement in front of the man with the ball, while attempts to play in behind Stoke’s rearguard were over-hit or misplaced. Everton took the spoils of possession, and while Stoke never really threatened their play had a slickness and urgency that was missing from the hosts.
It’s good to be home
When the Toffees finally decided to go forward with anything like urgency, it yielded the decisive goal. It was the best move of the half (the game for that matter), Idrissa Gueye playing a one-two with Rooney to get behind the first line of defence. Sandro Ramirez did well under pressure and shifted the ball wide before Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s first-time cross. And continuing his run into the box having helped initiate the move, Rooney was right on cue to head the ball back across goal past Jack Butland.
When football is played with movement and purpose, it looks easy. It was a goal befitting the return of a boyhood Blue, seemingly not content to simply pick up one more payday, if his celebration and subsequent performance in the second half was anything to go by.
Coming deep to influence play, Rooney took responsibility in a way you’d expect of England and Manchester United’s record goalscorer; a player who has won all there is to win on the domestic and European stage.
Rooney improved and so did Everton, helped by Koeman’s tactical switch from a back three to a four. Keane was imperious at centre half, making well-timed tackles when needed, and using his body and strength the rest of the time to excellent effect.
Behind him, the most expensive British ‘keeper ever did no harm in allaying concerns that Everton might have overspent in bringing him to the club. Assured and confident in coming for crosses, Pickford commands his area well for such a young ‘keeper. He showed match-saving athleticism in the final moments to tip away a Shaqiri effort that looked sure to snatch a point for Stoke.
Gana stakes his claim for midfield spot
Still, only one new boy in Rooney had as much of an impact on the game as last year’s best-buy.
Gana signed from Aston Villa over a year ago for £7m and few Evertonians batted an eye-lid. Yet he would go on to be one of the most eye-catching performers in a blue shirt last season and he carried on where he left off against Stoke.
Initiating the move that led to Rooney’s opener, when Stoke’s 10 men rearguard stood firm, it was Gana who was trying quick, short passes through the lines. When Everton’s play broke down, it was the Senegalese who tracked back to win the ball. When the Toffees needed to take the sting out of a frantic period of play, it was Gana who kept things ticking over, making himself available, keeping things simple.
He was quite simply unplayable and in light of genuine competition for starting berths in central midfield, Gana will make himself the first name on Koeman’s teamsheet with dominant displays like this.
A Klaas behind at the moment
His fellow midfielder Davy Klaassen on the other hand was one most fans seemed happy to see leave the field of play on the hour mark. Leaving Holland with a reputation for goals and assists, perhaps Evertonians have been quick to hail his time so far in England as a disappointment.
He certainly seemed off the pace on Saturday afternoon, letting the game pass him by and looking somewhat lost in midfield. Yet his contribution to Everton’s goal was invaluable, making a dart for the near post and taking with him two Stoke defenders. No one noticed Rooney’s late run which gave him the freedom to plant his header past Butland unchallenged.
Perhaps it was because of Rooney that Klaassen struggled. Everton’s number 10 often comes deep in search of the ball and this only reduced the space in which Klaassen was operating.
But it’s in the final third, in the opposition’s area where it seems Klaassen will be most effective. He’s shown an eagerness to get forward, to support forwards. Flashes of link-up play, of one-touch passing followed by a forward run into space show the stirrings of an intelligent player. Like Sanrdo, the former Ajax captain will need more than a few pre-season games and a dull Premier League opener against Stoke to show his quality.
Whatever that was, let’s never speak of it again
Calvert-Lewin? At right wing-back? Yep, that really happened. Evertonian Twitter feeds up and down the country were full of despairing remarks when the teams were announced. And the first half experiment did very little to convince Blues that it was a good idea.
Seamus Coleman is the only full-back capable of making the wing back system work (an untried Jonjoe Kenny aside). If we’re going to play it again, let’s at least wait till the Irishman is fit and firing, or try one of three other right-sided defenders at the club (Martina, Holgate, Kenny). Even Tom Davies would have been a more sensible option.