Everton have come a long way in five months and emerged from a feisty encounter at Leeds with another point and more pride.
“Have you got the bollocks to play?” was the question Frank Lampard wondered out loud after watching his Everton side lose 4-0 to Crystal Palace in the FA Cup in March. There will be no more testicular questioning by the Everton manager after a start to the season that has been almost as low on points as attacking quality, but with no little grit and commitment. If effort really must be measured in bollocks then Everton are extremely well hung.
The scale of the changes at Everton over the last five months becomes apparent when you look at the team that collapsed in March and realise that only Jordan Pickford and Anthony Gordon started at Elland Road on Tuesday night in a match that was every bit as scrappy and low-fi arsey as you might expect after Spygate (there was a close-to-zero chance that Stop Crying Your Heart Out was not downloaded and ready to be aired if Leeds had eventually triumphed).
This is an Everton team transformed in the intervening months. A whole new defence utterly dedicated to nothing more and nothing less than pure defending has been constructed, with James Tarkowski and Conor Coady at its heart. After years of criticism about his ability to organise a defence, Lampard has taken the sensible option of bringing in two organisers to do it for him. There was copious pointing, there was enthusiastic shouting and there was every bit of nous you would expect.
Then there was Nathan Patterson, who looks about 12 but played like a veteran against the effervescent Jack Harrison. In front of that defence was Amadou Onana – that rarest of things, an excellent Everton buy – and the reborn Alex Iwobi, thriving in a central midfield role that showcases his energy and his vision. It was his sumptuous pass that released Anthony Gordon for Everton’s goal, but the way he calmly dispossessed Leeds players and came away with the ball in his own penalty area was almost as impressive.
First Joelinton and now Iwobi. Who will be the next largely ineffective attacking player to be transformed into a central midfield colossus? Thomas Tuchel should start open auditions.
While Gordon delighted and frustrated on one flank, Dwight McNeil worked exactly like a man used to playing under Sean Dyche, producing an astonishing eight tackles as Leeds surged and probed with their 70% possession as Everton set out to frustrate and to frighten on the counter-attack.
This was an 80s throwback of a football match, with balls literally booted up in the air and players booted to the ground. Leeds had moments of real quality and passages of textbook pressing but lacked a finishing touch, while Everton had precious little of anything other than total commitment. But that was enough, and they may even have claimed all three points had Rasmus Kristensen not blocked a shot with his face or Patterson lost his nerve when primed to shoot.
Everton only had a Plan A, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in a bruising encounter, Lampard failed to make a single substitution. He looked at the bench and was not certain that anybody sitting there would have the same commitment as the 11 men on the pitch.
Some Leeds fans are already talking about anti-football but that sort of conversation is for the bitter; Leeds must learn to combat deep defences and time-wasting if they want to play their brand of front-foot football. Somebody will always try and break their momentum and on this occasion, Everton did that job very well.
In time they will need a Plan B – having a striker will help – but for now, Lampard will be mightily relieved to see that his players really do have the bollocks to play.
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