6 Academy graduates make senior debuts but Toffees condemned to first pre-season defeat at Elland Road
Youngsters show glimpse of future but defeat exposes lack of squad depth
Antonee Robinson impresses at left-back with Baines-like performance
Everton’s penultimate game of pre-season ended in defeat as a young side were comfortably beaten by Leeds United.
No less than five Academy graduates made their first senior appearances at Elland Road on Saturday, but youthful exuberance could not prevent Roberto Martinez’s side losing 2-0.
Second half goals from Alex Mowatt and Chris Wood were enough for the Championship side to clinch victory as the hosts took charge of a stale opening 45 minutes.
Both sides had the ball in the net in the first half, only for Wood’s and Matthew Pennington’s efforts to be ruled out for offside and an infringement respectively. Bryan Oviedo was responsible for Everton’s only other notable strike on goal, a long-range effort that gently nudged the palms of ‘keeper Marco Silvestri.
Conor McAleny was introduced at half-time for the ineffective Arouna Kone, while new boy Tom Cleverley replaced James McCarthy. McAleny should have opened the scoring on 56 minutes, meeting a delicious Antonee Robinson cross after a surging run forward from the full-back.
But his close range header was comfortably saved and his teams’ misery compounded when Mowatt finished calmly at the other end after a neat one-two.
And victory was all but sealed in the 80th minute when Wood’s 25-yard strike took a slight deflection and looped over the hapless Joel.
Graduates score top marks despite defeat
Despite the hosts trotting to victory in a meaningless pre-season friendly, Saturday afternoon showed us a glimpse of Everton’s future.
Kieran Dowell and Gethin Jones along with Pennington and Robinson made their very first starts for the senior side. The latter three helped make up the back four, joining Tyias Browing who impressed in a handful of Premier League games early last season, while Dowell followed up recent substitute appearances, starting on the right of midfield.
After a wobbly start the defensive line grew in composure, none more so than left-back Robinson who impressed with far flung forays into the Leeds half. On the opposite flank, Dowell was doing his best to unlock the Leeds defence and when Everton came forward, they looked most threatening with these two on the ball.
McAleny showed his sharpness and guile around the Leeds box on a number of occasions. The tricky forward spurned Everton’s best chance of the game with a weak header, but his positivity in driving his side towards goal is something that won’t have gone unnoticed on the touchline.
Considering the goals that sunk Everton were down to a very well worked passing move from Wood and full-back Sam Byram, as well as a deflected long-range effort, the Toffees’ young defence gave a very credible account of themselves.
Starting XI example of squad lacking in depth
Which is considerably more than could be said of those operating at the other end of the pitch.
Martinez opted for a 4-4-2 formation, with Ross Barkley and James McCarthy starting in the middle with Oviedo and Dowell patrolling the flanks. Kone and Steven Naismith were the forward pairing and despite a number of openings in the first half, neither seemed to be tuned in to the other’s wavelength.
But it would be unfair to pile all of Everton’s attacking problems on the duo. Oviedo looked – for all his easy on the eye step-overs – like a man lacking first team action. His intent was not lacking, but too many stray and lazy passes meant Everton could not find any fluidity in the final third.
Likewise, Barkley was ineffective in his 75 minutes on the pitch where he once ran out for the home side. Either too easily out-muscled in the centre of midfield or lacklustre in his forward passing, the 21-year-old looked very much the confidence-sapped player who stumbled thorough the 2014/15 season.
What was particularly worrying was that the senior players who took to the turf in the first half were those Martinez will be looking to at least make in impact in the Premier League, should his first XI be unavailable. Barkley may want to make the No 10 position his own this term (granted, he was deployed in a deeper midfield role) but there was no evidence here to suggest he will be stepping up.
Likewise, neither Naismith -so effective as a second foil to Romelu Lukaku in Martinez’s debut season- or Kone looked capable of filling Lukaku’s scoring boots. The market’s still open Bobby, but the clock is ticking…
Case for the defence
With Everton’s midfield and forward line largely disjointed, the pressure inevitably fell on the young defensive line when passages of play broke down.
When they weren’t pressing high up the pitch, Leeds were quick to try and release Wood in attack. But Everton’s young debutants coped admirably with a Championship forward line who will be gunning for promotion this year.
17-year-old Robinson looked more than capable and was especially effective in the opposition half, showing fine skill, confidence and technique. His cross for sub McAleny in the second half should have led to the opening goal and he formed a sturdy defensive unit with his fellow academy team mates.
With Brendan Galloway in reserve and Luke Garbutt gaining first team experience with Fulham, the Blues look particularly strong in the marauding left back position. That’s at least something to be positive about.