There were encouraging signs at Goodison Park on Saturday. Although the result did not satisfy supporters, the passion, energy and commitment on display transmitted through to the crowd, who sounded their appreciation of a gutsy performance with a generous ovation at the final whistle.
The starting lineup was the cause of some ferocious debate prior to kickoff. Would new signings Royston Drenthe and Denis Stracqualursi be included? Would Johnny Heitinga again play in midfield with a newly-fit Seamus Coleman on the right, and who would play up front?
When the final 11 was eventually revealed, there were indeed surprises. At right back Tony Hibbert came in for Phil Neville, joining a back five of Tim Howard, Sylvain Distin, Leighton Baines and captain for the day, Phil Jagielka.
Four were deployed across midfield. Seamus Coleman was in to show off some impressive healing powers, recovering from ankle ligament damage sustained just four weeks ago. He played on the right with Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell paired centrally and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov on the left. Further forward, Leon Osman roamed freely behind Tim Cahill, who was charged with leading the line.
Of that 11, most delivered for David Moyes, and the result was certainly not what Everton deserved. They had the greater share of possession and territory, reeled off 21 shots to nine and sent in 28 crosses to Aston Villa’s eight. On a number of occasions they seemed out of luck, witnessing several efforts deflect inches wide, and at 1-0, they should have been awarded a penalty when Baines was felled in the box.
Villa were an attacking nonentity in the first half yet Everton found them painfully clinical in the second. After Osman's opener, a Stiliyan Petrov howitzer out of nowhere brought them level. They fell behind again to a Leighton Baines penalty and then withstood countless further attacks where Everton should have finished the game off. With eight minutes left, Gabby Agbonlahor made Everton pay and earned Villa a share of the spoils, getting on the end of a pinpoint cross from Marc Albrighton.
Here are five talking points provoked by Saturday’s action.
Whatever your views on Phil Neville as a footballer, he is a true leader at Everton both on and off the pitch. Of all the absentees from the starting 11, his omission was perhaps the biggest surprise for fans who, whether they agree with it or not, know the high regard David Moyes has of him. With no rumour of any injury revealed, it seems this may have been for tactical reasons.
Presented with this scenario, most Premier League players would react badly. It is human nature to sulk and feel hard done-by during these moments, but that is not the case with Neville.
When warming up, he was constantly in the ear of his comrades, shouting encouragement and lambasting the referee at any split decision that went against Everton. Towards the end of the second half, he would forget his stretches and just gaze at the action, captivated by the game. As the players came out for the second half, he stood at the entrance of the tunnel, giving handshakes and an individual word to each.
True, Neville's game may be slightly waning. Some fans feel he is limited in attack and is too keen to back off in defence. Many would prefer to see Seamus Coleman revert to his more accustomed role of right back at Neville's expense.
However, what is irrefutable is how Neville’s presence around the dressing room increases the professionalism around the club and surely boosts the atmosphere and dogged will to win in the dressing room. Perhaps his outings in the Premier League will now begin to deteriorate a little, or perhaps his absence on Saturday will just prove to be a one off omission. Whatever the case, he will undoubtedly stay committed and professional right until the end.
In recent years, Aston Villa have got into the habit of grabbing some arguably fortunate points from the Toffees. Last season the game also ended 2-2 at Goodison Park, but in controversial fashion. After appealing for a goal (that replays showed did cross the line), Everton looked down the other end to see their opponents score.
There was similar anguish suffered during the earlier fixture last year at Villa Park. Everton recorded 23 shots, and managed 68 percent possession, yet still lost 1-0. A few years further back, who can forget Ashley Young’s heartbreaking injury-time winner, literally seconds after Joleon Lescott had scored a more-than-deserved equaliser? It seems that at the moment, Aston Villa truly have Everton's number.
In fact, Everton have not beaten Villa in the Premier League since 2006, a run of 11 games now. Positionally, Villa are a direct rival to Everton in the league and addressing this soon would clearly be beneficial. A sobering thought is to quickly remember the luck experienced in their win at Ewood Park a fortnight ago. It is only fair to say that this was a second Premier League fixture in a row where Everton have not finished with what they deserved.
The decision by a small minority of Everton supporters to protest before the game had generated much hype in the media before kickoff. Indeed, a few hundred dissenting voices marched towards the ground and expressed their disapproval at how the club is run. Their wrath is mainly aimed at chairman Bill Kenwright, and they cite the stagnation of the club as their main gripe, surely a debatable impression.
Their discontent has been noted by the national press and several controversial articles were published last week portraying a dreary, negative vibe around Everton. Things are turbulent at the club at present. There is no money, a star player has been offloaded, and the club continually appear short of playing personnel.
However, during the game, Bill Kenwright’s face flashed across the big screen. Whilst initially it was met by a few boos and heckles, 30,000 Everton supporters eventually showed their feelings and sounded out these jeers with warm applause.
As much as the detractors of Everton’s hierarchy will try to downplay this moment, the applause was noted and subsequently written about by most media outlets. This positive reaction has doused some of the talk of unrest for now, with many papers commenting on this moment over the pre-match protest. Financially things are not healthy at Everton, but it seems not everyone blames Bill Kenwright.
Although he only delivered a 20-minute cameo yesterday, Royston Drenthe eclipsed the previous efforts of Diniyar Bilyaletdinov on the left wing and produced several eye-catching touches in his brief shift. He never misplaced a pass, created a good chance for Leon Osman and was willing to take on an opponent three times, something Bilyaletdinov tried just once in 70 minutes.
However, what was particularly heartening was his link-up with Leighton Baines. Not only did they carve up Villa’s right hand side on a couple of occasions, but they both showed awareness of the other's game. Defensively they supported each other, anticipated several runs and overall worked well in tandem. Drenthe has played a large proportion of his career as a left back, so he evidently understands the role from both angles.
As Baines set off on a rampaging run yesterday at 2-1, he was joined by all of the midfield. Instead of joining in and impressing on debut, Drenthe showed alertness, dropping back to left back with Baines tied up further forward. Once Baines had finished his run, he immediately began to sprint back, wary of his potentially awkward positioning. Seeing Drenthe covering him, he was able to check his retreat, stay further forward and continue to add to the attack.
Brought in as a replacement for Mikel Arteta, it seems Drenthe may well be more suited to plug the similarly large gap left by Steven Pienaar. If he can complement and achieve success with Leighton Baines, Everton may soon boast one of the most formidable (and tiny) left-hand pairings in the Premier League.
Whilst one left-footed player gave cause for excitement, another caused a considerable amount of despair in the stands. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov passed poorly, lacked touch, control and vision and was so often a weak link coming forward. With such a meagre showing all too frequent last season, is it time to simply say he is not a player for the Premier League?
His long range shooting is on par with some of the best in the division, but otherwise he is a passenger in games and Everton cannot afford to carry such a luxury. In the dying minutes of the game, Ross Barkley and Royston Drenthe both produced far more than the Russian international produced all match.
With Victor Anichebe and Magaye Gueye also able to play in his role, how many more games is the seemingly apathetic Russian going to feature in?
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