With last season’s shocking campaign still fresh in the mind, Everton fans arrived at Goodison Park on Saturday apprehensive, to say the least.
As fans crowded outside the stadium, there was a feeling that this year’s performances could only get better, but also a clear awareness that it would take time for new boss Ronald Koeman to implement his ways.
However, a couple hours later, when leaving the stadium, the mood was jovial. It may have only been a single point at home, but it meant a whole lot more than that.
The draw alone was a major positive. Tottenham were title contenders last season, and if Everton had not bucked up their ideas over summer, it would have been a walkover for Mauricio Pochettino’s men.
Under Roberto Martinez, the Toffees averaged a mere 1.2 points per match at Goodison last year, which was such a fortress in the past. Given that statistic even hoping for a point against last year’s third place side might’ve been seen as extravagant.
The point was satisfying, but there was so much more to be pleased about for Evertonians. Immediately from kick-off, the game plan was fresh and new. When Maarten Stekelenburg received the ball it was promptly launched forward.
The side was, desperately, missing a target man in Romelu Lukaku, but that direct ethos is exciting for Everton fans. The statistical comparison with Everton under Martinez is incredible.
In the first fixture of the 2015/16 season, against Southampton, the side put together a total of 550 passes compared with the 357 Koeman’s side managed at the weekend. The football is more direct, no longer possession for possession’s sake, and refreshing for all at Goodison.
There is still a long way for the squad to go in order to clamber back up to challenging for a place in Europe, but Koeman has the time needed to grow the team. The fans aren’t expecting anything incredible this year. A season of stability and consistency is what the club needs.
The new arrivals will need to gel and the style will take time to adapt to. For example, Martinez’s ineffective passing game was more relaxed for the side, but under Koeman the squad will need to close down, track back and squeeze opposition.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Everton tired dramatically in the second-half against Spurs. The fact that they are only “70% fit” as Koeman admitted last week won’t have helped this. As fitness improves, so will the squad’s ability to carry out Koeman’s new style, but the foundations are already clear to see.
There was also a lot for Everton fans to be content with in terms of new arrivals. Idrissa Gueye was the standout player, winning the Man of the Match award, and looks to be one of the canniest signings in the Premier League this season.
No midfielder on the pitch won more tackles than the 26-year-old on Saturday and his ability to win the ball back then distribute it successfully was a joy to watch. Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, to be fair to them, did a solid job winning the ball back under Martinez, but the class that Gueye provides in terms of carrying the ball forward will make a great difference this term.
The Senegal international has already drawn comparisons with N’Golo Kante, which is hardly surprising given that it was only the former Leicester City player who won more tackles than Gueye’s 126 and made more interceptions than the Everton man’s 157 last year in the Premier League. Gueye is a very, very exciting prospect!
There were two other debutants on the pitch. Goalkeeper Stekelenburg had a fantastic game between-the-sticks, pulling out some top drawer saves to deny Erik Lamela and Vincent Janssen, and impressed with his ball distribution.
Over the past couple of seasons, first-choice ‘keeper Tim Howard was faltering and, whilst second-choice Joel Robles has shown promise, he is not of a high enough calibre to play week-in, week-out in the Premier League. Koeman now has a confident and proven man in Stekelenburg.
The final debutant was not a new arrival, but a product of the youth academy – Mason Holgate. The press has already started claiming that Holgate is the next John Stones and it is easy to see why.
Holgate gave a confident performance, slotting into the first-team perfectly. With Ashley Williams close to match fitness and Lamine Kone potentially arriving, it is unlikely that the 19-year-old will feature too much more this campaign but he is, nonetheless, another sign of bright things in the near future.
All of that said, there is still a lot of work to be done for Everton, both in the transfer market and on the pitch. Gerard Deulofeu put in a good shift as a temporary striker, but it is clear that the Toffees lack options up front. If Lukaku does move on from the club then it leaves Arouna Kone, who is woeful in front of goal, and Oumar Niasse, who seems Crystal Palace bound anyway, as the club’s only strikers.
It is of the highest importance that Koeman signs another front man – Wilfried Bony has been linked with the Toffees who, in my opinion, would be a fantastic addition.
Everton also need someone to control the midfield. Gueye is great in the more defensive role and Ross Barkley can drive the ball forward, but the side lacks a player who can ping passes across the park with a near 100% accuracy and carve defences open. On the pitch, although the foundations are clearly there already, the team have a lot of growing to do in order to adapt to it.
It’s an incredibly positive start under Koeman and fills the fans with a hope that had vanished recently. The best is yet to come!