Everton stun Brighton with a five-star Bank Holiday trip to suddenly move towards safety
Everton have transformed their chances of avoiding relegation with a five-star, five-goal performance away to a shell-shocked Brighton & Hove Albion.
It has looked for several weeks as though the ultimate decision over who will get relegated from the Premier League would be which teams among the rabble would not actually be able to dig out a win, and Southampton. None of those still labouring near the bottom of the table with three or four games of the season can reasonably argue that they haven’t had a chance. The bottom five have won two out of their last combined 25 games. All a couple of them had to do was conjure something and they’d be looking as comfortable as West Ham and Wolves are right now.
But now Everton have raised the stakes with an extraordinary 5-1 win at Brighton, which changes the shape of the bottom of the Premier League while also raising the question of exactly where this has been hiding all season.
A year ago today, Everton were 16th with four games left and one point above the relegation places. They escaped with a match to spare, and as such it’s difficult not to want to tip a bucket of old water over Farhad Moshiri’s head and remind him that these nerve-shredding scraps are usually a manifestation of something going wrong behind the scenes rather than being some sort of design feature that you should aspire to each campaign.
But this is Everton that we’re talking about, and if football clubs do carry such a thing as DNA, theirs surely now contains “getting yourselves into an almighty pickle near the bottom of the table and then doing something extraordinary to get out of it”. We’ve talked at length on these pages about the teams near the bottom of the Premier League, looking for signs of life, of what they need to do to give themselves their best chance of avoiding that dreaded trapdoor. And with Everton, it was more difficult to see these signs than at most.
All three of their Premier League wins under Sean Dyche prior to their Bank Holiday Monday trip to Brighton had been 1-0, and the biggest problem Everton have had of late is that the last of these had come two and half months ago. Their previous match, a 2-2 draw at Leicester, seemed to betray all the insecurities that have left both teams looking so prone, from James Maddison’s dismal penalty to Dominic Calvert-Lewin missing an open goal from two yards out. They absolutely could not afford to be this wasteful again.
And it can hardly be said that Brighton didn’t have anything to play for. With games in hand, their pursuit of Liverpool in fifth place remained well and truly on, and Manchester United’s recent downturn has started to push the slim possibility of sneaking into fourth and claiming a Champions League slot, too. It had seemed that, with their 6-0 shellacking of Wolverhampton Wanderers and an extremely late 1-0 win against Manchester United, they had recovered from any hangover from their recent penalty shootout defeat at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final.
But it may already be half-forgotten that Brighton also lost 3-1 at Nottingham Forest during this period, so we already knew they had this in them. What was more surprising was the enterprise Everton displayed in managing to pick them apart. Brighton were committing too many players forward from the outset. Within a minute Everton had the lead, a Lewis Dunk mistake allowing Dominic Calvert-Lewin to pass Abdoulaye Doucoure a tap-in with 34 seconds on the clock.
Brighton controlled possession throughout the whole of the first half, but to little tangible effect. They seemed to have an idea in their heads that crosses into the Everton penalty area was their best route to goal, but those crosses repeatedly came to nothing as Everton’s big, bruising, extremely experienced central defenders tidied up with ease.
It didn’t end there. This early jolt to Brighton’s system was leaving gaps at the back which Everton were able to exploit with increasing confidence as the match progressed. The second goal came from breaking into the space left vacant by Brighton’s defensive midfield, Dwight McNeil crossing for Doucoure to volley past Jason Steele. McNeil made a monkey out of the Brighton keeper with a cross that bounced in off his knee for the third, and by the closing minutes of the first half, it looked more likely that Everton would score again than Brighton respond.
By the time the whistle blew, Brighton had 73% of the possession but 0% of the shots on target.
The Brighton team which emerged for the second half was less than two-thirds that which had ended the first. Roberto De Zerbi made four changes at the break, with Levi Colwill, Solly March, Julio Enciso and Evan Ferguson replacing Adam Webster, Facundo Buonanotte, Deniz Undav and Danny Welbeck, and the early signs were encouraging. Three minutes in, March finally forced Jordan Pickford to make a save. Ten minutes later came another one, one-handed from a Ferguson header after which the flag went up for offside, though whether it would have been considered so after a VAR check may have been a different matter.
Brighton kept coming. They hit the woodwork twice. Pickford was not having one of those days when he has a rush of blood to the head and does something eccentric which goes horribly wrong. Brighton didn’t so much knock at Everton’s door as much as charge at it repeatedly with a battering ram, but it was to no real avail and with 14 minutes left came a sucker punch: a sweeping break which ended with Alex Iwobi rolling the ball through for McNeil to play Steele for a fool before tapping into an empty net for 4-0.
Brighton pulled a goal back through Alexis MacAllister’s shoulder three minutes later, but by the closing minutes and despite the home team continuing to dominate possession, the stands at the Amex were starting to visibly thin out. In the sixth minute of stoppage-time, the last few remaining home supporters also headed for the exits when Everton broke again and McNeil punted the ball into the top corner to complete a 5-1 walloping.
It should go without saying that Everton remain deep in the mire. They’re up to 16th, though that means somewhat less when you’re still only two points above the relegation places. But – and it’s a mighty, mighty big but – this precise point in the calendar is exactly the right time of the season to be chucking in a best performance in months, as if from out of nowhere. It’s true to say that Brighton were surprisingly off-colour, and their remaining Champions League aspirations are now hanging by a thread, but if we are to criticise Everton’s players when they are bad – and there have been points this season when they’ve played as though only recently introduced to each other – then they should also be praised when they pull such a confident and assured performance as this out of the hat.
What matters now to Everton is what happens next. Excellent though they were, it will all be for nought should they lose their remaining games and end up relegated anyway. But this performance has built them a platform from which they can progress. Their next game is at home against Manchester City, and that may be too big a gap to bridge – though never say never if they can repeat this sort of performance – but their last two are against Wolves and Bournemouth, and those are winnable.
It’s incredible, the difference that one result and one performance like this can make. In the space of 90 minutes in Sussex, Everton have revived their season in a way that no-one expected beforehand. They’re far from safe, but they’ve given themselves a chance, and that’s more than many have given them for much of this season.
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