Everton (0), Aston Villa (1) – Villa grind out a Win at Everton

What a pressure-cooker atmosphere for both managers, and for fans, as our Villans lined-up against the Everton’s Toffees at Goodison Park.  For Duncan Ferguson it was his opportunity to establish his claim as Rafa Benitez’s successor as manager.  An iconic aggressive player for Everton who earned the title of “Duncan Disorderly” for his nine red cards, he played to the hilt for club and country (Scotland).  Almost universally supported for the role as interim manager based on his inspirational commitment, he was a worthy foe to our own Steven Gerrard.

How appropriate that these two, the best of Everton and of Liverpool, should face-off so early in their managerial careers.  A win against Gerrard would do wonders for Ferguson’s prospects while, for Gerrard, a loss would damage the early sheen that accompanied his arrival at Villa Park.

While Villa’s victory was not pretty, the three points that Gerrard took back to Brum with him would have pleased him no end.  That his two new signings (Coutinho and Digne) were positive factors in the game took another load of concern off his back.

The pre-match hubbub suggested that Ferguson had strong ideas and was going to apply them right away.  Certainly, the players who had not played up to his standards were absent from his starting IX.  Coleman, Keane, and Alan were most noticeable by their absence.

Everton’s anxious fans were there in droves, filling the 39,000 stadium, and making a threatening ruckus pregame much directed at Gerrard personally and some at Digne, a recent turncoat.

The noise level continued through the kickoff and, when the ball bounced in the Toffee’s favor and Richarlison had a chance to break, our own mood-changer, John McGinn, did not hesitate to calm things down by bundling the Brazilian to the ground.  There were only 13 seconds on the clock.

For Villa fans who remembered the early freekick given up against Man U, there was some natural concern.  Fortune shone on the team as referee, Craig Pawson, did not hand McGinn a yellow card and a deflection on the way to the Villa penalty area saw the ball sail high in the air for Martinez to rise above the crowd in a dazzling yellow strip, all 6’ 4” and 194 lbs., to seize the orb.  Emi was ready to play!

Jordan Pickford had no such luck.  Before two minutes had passed, Tyrone Mings had fashioned a pass down the inside-left channel for Ollie Watkins to run onto.  Mings has the remarkable ability to “chip” the ball from one penalty area to the other with enough loft and backspin that defenders initially expect the ball to run to their goalie only to see that “off the bounce” the ball is “waiting for Ollie”.

Of course, the impression is a function of Watkins’ effortless speed that continues to fool defenders and goalies.  This time it was Yerry Mina who was caught in “no-man’s land”, waiting for Pickford to gather, only to see the ball hover at the far corner of the penalty area as his goalie had to race to beat speedy Ollie to the ball.

By catching the ball Pickford stopped the scoring opportunity but his momentum was carrying him over the line.  To avoid a red card, he had to immediately drop the ball and, to avoid losing possession to the striker, he had to hoof the ball into the crowd.  All very messy and nothing like the imperious Martinez.  Pickford yelled at his defender, mostly to cover his embarrassment.

The other effect of this Mings-Watkins’ play is to force defenders to play a little looser than they might otherwise to not be caught.  Watkins uses this leeway to cushion the ball on his chest and lay-off passes to his teammates.

While Martinez, Mings and Watkins started the game confidently, likely remembering their comfortable win at Goodison last season, Coutinho and Digne exhibited early signs of too much adrenaline – not surprisingly – and two attacks collapsed because each showed too much ball to a defender.

Fortunately, Douglas Luiz has been quietly “upping” his game and harnessing his emotions.  So far this season, he has only three yellow cards, a fraction of what he has picked up in previous seasons.  That he is simultaneously using his considerable energy to provide defensive cover for his backline and delivering on his dead-ball responsibilities with accuracy and consistency is probably the reason that Gerrard has not rushed to the transfer market to provide cover for the injured Nakamba.  Thanks to the stand-out efforts of McGinn and Ramsey, and Luiz’s hot-head reputation, he has not got the recognition he should.  The trio’s resilience is why Digne, Cash, and Coutinho can gamble with possession to create scoring opportunities, confident that Douglas has their backs.

An example of what fellow-midfielder Ramsey brings to the team occurred in the third minute.  Everton attempted a high-press and when Jacob received a pass out on the left wing in his own half, within twenty yards, he was encircled by seven blue shirts, ready to pounce on a pass.  Rather than risk ceding possession, Jacob shielded the ball outside his right foot and set-off on a run diagonally across the middle of the field.  Since he was probably the fastest player on the field, nobody was able to close-in on him. 

As he reached the center-circle he sprayed a perfect pass out to Cash who was open on the right wing and poised to pass to Buendia.  Jacob made it look effortless. With Rodriguez no longer at Everton, they have no-one comparable, someone to transition from defense to attack like our homegrown Academy graduate.

With plays like these, the initially enthusiastic home fans were losing steam and our 3,000 Villa traveling fans made themselves heard – another plus for our players. There are few teams whose road warriors match ours for loyalty and volume.

As if we needed a reminder of what John McGinn means to this team, he asserted himself, as needed, throughout the game.  When Everton started to show signs of spirit but a lack of finesse, John was able to out-hustle multiple blue shirts to release Buendia for some dangerous runs at their defense.

From one such foray, our increasingly influential Argentinian was immediately grabbed from behind by Richarlison.  The freekick was fully 30 yards from goal, not too far to test even the best English keeper.  Luiz took on the task and his powerful drive had enough curl and whip that Pickford had to fully extend himself, only for the ball come down onto the top of the net.  Nice effort.

Then in the 13th minute, Konsa, who had been playing a faultless defensive game, muscled past Richarlison to intercept a pass, then found Coutinho who immediately set Buendia on his way.  Emi’s shot was strong and accurate but was from too far out for a prepared Pickford.

Not long after, Everton caught a break that could have changed the game.  When a Villa corner was cleared the ball came to Digne near the halfway line.  To give himself more time and space, he turned to his right to avoid an onrushing Doucouré, only to lose his footing.  

The French midfielder was suddenly in a 2 on 1 situation with Ramsey, the only claret shirt, to his right and Richarlison beyond him.  Ramsey knew that he could outrun his opponent and that the real threat came from Richarlison.  Young Jacob made sure he ran between the two Toffees to make passing difficult.  Ramsey could also see that Luiz who had been 10 yards behind the play was catching up with Doucouré rapidly. 

Almost desperate to get the pass to Richarlison, Doucouré hit a firm pass well beyond Ramsey for his Brazilian teammate to run onto.  What he had not allowed for was that Emi Martinez is one of the world’s premier keepers and had already anticipated the pass, standing at the edge of the penalty area.  Within a couple of yards, Richarlison slowed realizing our goalie was on his way to clear the danger.  The Brazilian dropped his head, and Everton fans let out a massive sigh of resignation.

Villa, meanwhile, created three genuine chances, that Everton were stretched to repel.  First, Cash carried the ball to the edge of the area and slipped a perfect pass for Buendia to break the line only for Godfrey to get in the way before the other Emi could get his shot away.  Then, Digne whipped over a cross that Buendia was able to head goalward off the bounce.  A defender managed to block it by being in the right place rather than any conscious act.  Finally, a Mings “loft” again over Mina, this time towards the penalty spot, was controlled by Watkins, but credit to Pickford for rushing off his line and forcing Watkins to rush his shot and miss, right of the post.

When Ramsey finally got the call for being tripped, it contributed to Villa’s goal.  Luiz, again, took the kick from the inside left channel just outside the area.  Mings, who came up for the attack, was positioned to the right of the goal.  At 6’ 5”, Tyrone is a large target.  What he is also talented in doing is redirecting crosses “back into the mixer” (the Everton striker, Dominic Calvert Lewin in trying to fend off Mings may have got the final touch).  This time it was Coutinho who was placed centrally, and he generated a good enough effort that Pickford was forced to dive up and backwards to tip the looping header over the bar.

The clock said 46’ 57” when the ball crossed the plane which suited Villa as that meant there were three seconds of the allocated 2 minutes remaining.  The convention for dead-ball situations such as these is for the opposing team to have the opportunity to score from the follow-up play as long as they have possession and are threatening.

In hindsight, Everton should have been prepared for the worst.  Pickford had been forced into two saves in the previous few minutes and who says, “Three times a charm”.  Right now, I am guessing Emi Buendia.

As Digne approached the ball in the right corner, he was set to hit an inswinger with his left foot.  Buendia stood next to Gomes, Everton’s Portuguese midfielder who was guarding the near post.  As the ball approached Buendia ran, unchallenged, towards the flight and met the ball at the corner of the 6-yard box.

All the pushing and shoving was concentrated at the front of the goal, meaning that our Argentinian had a free run.  Of course, he still had a lot to do.  He had to elevate and twist his body so that he could deflect the ball approximately 60 degrees and loop it towards the far top left corner of the net.  As someone suggested, he headed the ball with his eyebrow.

Pickford had the angle covered but he was so close that he had little chance to elevate and barely got fingertips to the header, just enough to deflect the path above Townsend who was on the line and set to head clear.  Pickford remonstrated, unsure of who to blame.  It did not matter.  Villa had the important first goal at the halftime break to take stock.  Everton 0, Aston Villa 1 (at 45 + 3 mins).

Unfortunately, the team’s excitement at having taken the lead was somewhat tainted by the boorish behavior of home fans who threw plastic juice bottles at the celebrating players.  It was very fortunate that the Villa players hit on the head were not seriously hurt.

When the second half did start, it was Villa who were livelier.  Watkins broke free of Godfrey down the right wing and had Coutinho well positioned heading into the penalty area.  Showing an understandable lack of cohesion, the Brazilian continued towards the 6-yard box while the pass went back to the penalty spot. Everton cleared.

Everton upped their commitment level and, when they replaced Andre Gomes with Anthony Gordon, they found a spark.  Almost immediately, Richarlison got his head on a cross that almost caught the top corner before curving high and wide.

Soon after, a quick one-two with Richarlison on the right gave Gordon a step on Digne and he whipped a dangerous cross through the crease.  Konsa and Cash were each side of Calvert-Lewin, but the striker made contact with a toe but the ball skewed high and wide of Martinez’s left post.  The Toffees’ best move and chance of the game in the 67th minute.

Meanwhile, Demarai Gray flashed in and out of the game, but Cash did enough to limit his threat.  That left it up to Jordan Pickford to be the instigator of attacks for an Everton team devoid of imagination.  His clearances deep into the Villa half, especially when Yerry Mina was his target, created some half chances and the Colombian defender came close to getting headers on-target.  Still, a Godfrey header that was straight at Mings and Martinez on the goal line was the only bona fide shot out of 15 efforts.  Gray’s attempt to volley through a crowd with Mings rushing out to block was typical – it flew yards over the bar.

That Everton’s final play was a corner that curved out before reaching the penalty area, and was then headed weakly, summed up the home team’s performance.  With Villa in containment mode for the whole second half and never seriously threatened suggests that Ferguson will have his work cut out to keep his team safe.

While not a performance to savor, Villa did what they had to do to secure three valuable points.  Every Villan contributed to defending their lead, with Watkins particularly effective in heading out crosses or harassing the nearest blue shirt.

Our midfield trio controlled between the penalty areas, while our backline was solid providing Martinez all the protection he needed.  With practice, our attacking trio of Watkins with Coutinho and Buendia should outclass and outscore most teams.  The best is yet to come.

Everton: Pickford, Godfrey, Mina, Holgate, Kenny, Doucouré (Onyango 65′), Gray, Townsend (Gordon 56′), Gomes (Allan 51′), Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin

Subs (not used): Rondón, Dobbin, Keane, Gbamin, Begovic, Coleman

Aston Villa: Martínez; Cash, Konsa, Mings, Digne; McGinn, Luiz, Ramsey; Buendía (Hause 90+1), Watkins (Ings 79′), Philippe Coutinho (Chukwuemeka 74′),

Subs (not used): Targett, Iroegbunam, Olsen, Sanson, Kesler Hayden, Young

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