After 80 minutes of attacking incompetence, it was reassuring to know that both Brighton and Everton still had a moment of defensive calamity in them, thus ensuring we didn’t get a second 0-0 of the Premier League weekend. If Everton deserve collective censure for failing to clear their lines after blocking Jose Izquierdo’s shot, Bruno merits more personal admonishment. Stopping defending to elbow a player is rarely a wise move.
After 75 minutes of the game at the Amex, it was announced that this was a record attendance for the stadium, but the only surprise is that an apology for the entertainment on show was not quickly forthcoming. After the midweek snafu about the game being moved to a Sunday but not broadcast on UK television, the only conclusion is that the latter at least was the right call. This was a match summed up by two of Brighton’s players stood next to each other, facing away from you: Propper Gross.
Despite the obvious disappointment at conceding a late penalty and equaliser, Chris Hughton will hardly be disheartened by a 1-1 draw. Brighton have taken seven points from their last three home league games against West Brom, Newcastle and Everton. They lost their first home game of the season 2-0 to Manchester City. Two months later, even that looks a decent result.
Only Brighton’s blunt attack will cause Hughton anything more than a light headache. For all the application of Pascal Gross and Anthony Knockaert, too many moves break down when Glenn Murray becomes involved. There was a moment in the second half when Murray was sent through on goal, undone by a one-two of his own limitations. First came the poor touch, then the lack of pace. Murray was caught offside three times, conceded three other fouls and failed to attempt a shot. If he’s the best option…
For Ronald Koeman, however, far more pressing worries and another weekend where more questions were asked than answered. Everton’s manager spent the build-up to the game insisting that his side’s form would improve when they weren’t playing teams likely to finish in the top six, but this is an issue of method as much as result. Matches against Burnley (h) and Brighton (a) have yielded a single point.
Until recently, Everton’s chronic problem has been a lack of pace. Koeman chose to crowbar all of his new players into one starting XI without noticing – or without caring – that none of them had anything better than average speed. The result was tepid, stodgy attacking play that was far too easy to defend against. Everton were left crossing the ball into the box or depending on set-pieces. Both could be negated by proficient defenders.
Against Brighton and Burnley, Koeman shows that he has diagnosed the problem but does not have the solution. Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Nikola Vlasic have started both matches in wide areas, but are both 20 years old and incredibly raw. For all the bright points both provide, consistency is lacking.
Moreover, if Koeman has decided to abandon the strategy of throwing as many central midfielders onto a pitch and hoping for the best, that only highlights the other obvious flaw in his squad: there are no strikers for Calvert-Lewin and Vlasic to service. Somehow, Koeman has spent £155m on filling in the cracks in a wall and left it with two gaping holes.
Of all Everton’s options to play as a lone centre-forward in this system, Wayne Rooney is surely the worst. Either Koeman is not brave enough to order his forward to stay up the pitch, or Rooney is too arrogant to listen. He touched the ball more times in the 20 yards closest to his own goal than the 20 yards closest to Brighton’s.
“He shows that he’s still one of the best in his position,” Koeman said after Rooney’s performance against Stoke on the opening day. That day, Rooney played as an attacking midfielder behind two strikers. Even if we believe Koeman’s faintly ludicrous assessment, Rooney is no longer good enough to thrive out of position. For much of the game, he trudged around with all the impetus of a child forced into town to buy new school shoes on the final day of the holidays. Only Morgan Schneiderlin registered a lower top speed.
The most embarrassing incident came after an hour played. Rooney dropped so deep that five Everton players were in front of him as he collected the ball. His pass was arrowed straight out of play for a goal-kick, followed by him haranguing Mason Holgate for not being further up the pitch. Rooney is truly leading by example in this Everton team; it just isn’t a compliment.
For all the logic and general decency in wanting to keep faith in Koeman’s management, the truth is that he was guilty of gross negligence this summer. To spend £155m on a squad by the end of August and have a front three of Calvert-Lewin (£2m), Vlasic (£8m) and Rooney (free) is an indictment of his squad mismanagement. For all the positives of playing young players, they deserve to be used in a coherent system.
Just as damning are the stories of Everton’s players having lost faith in Koeman’s management, citing his attitude in training and confusing tactics as reasons for the club’s struggles this season. Counting the players who have declined since last season takes more than the fingers on both hands, but Ashley Williams, Morgan Schneiderlin and Idrissa Gueye are the first three that come to mind. If a manager’s task is to improve players, Koeman is not up to his.
Rooney late penalty may have saved Koeman’s skin for another few days, but do not be fooled by either goalscorer or result. Koeman’s task was to make Everton entertaining and successful. On both measures he is failing badly.