After a summer of uncertainty, capped off by that directionless display against Real Betis, Evertonians got their first real sight of Roberto Martinez’s Blues at Carrow Road and all the signs were pretty encouraging.
The narrative that’s been written ahead of time is that Martinez is going to take David Moyes’s supposedly prosaic but professional grafters and turn them into a swashbuckling but naïve side destined to sit at either end of a 4-3 result every other week.
The reality, in this first match anyway, was his side produced a performance that was largely reminiscent of so many away games in the Premier League last season. Everton were often superb in possession, operating as if they were the home team for long periods, but almost mesmerised themselves, such was their dominance, until their opponents inevitably scored with one of their infrequent attacks.
The 4-2-3-1 system, with Kevin Mirallas, Steven Pienaar and Ross Barkley supporting Nikica Jelavic, looks a winner. Marouane Fellaini was allowed to play in the deeper, defensive position he prefers, but having Leon Osman alongside him meant he never had to take the ball off the defenders and start attacks, the part of playing that role he struggles with.
Also noticeable by its absence was that slavish devotion to rolling the ball out from the back that was such a feature of preseason. Tim Howard mixed it up and so the Blues never became too predictable as they did against Betis.
The only real revelation then was the performance of Barkley. Playing as part of that advanced midfield three, as opposed to the deeper role he’s occupied in the past, allowed him to utilise his strengths – his strong running and powerful shooting – to devastating effect.
Last season, when he was maybe asked to do a job that required too much restraint and maturity, he was constantly trying to over-elaborate in dangerous positions and there was definitely a creeping feeling of ‘what’s all the fuss about with this kid’? Against Norwich though, especially when Everton counter-attacked, he looked terrific.
We said last season that we lack someone who, when teams are camped out on the edge of their own box, can simply power into the area and make something happen, and Barkley looks the part. He’s being compared to all sorts after this display, like Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard, but his performance was most reminiscent of Thomas Gravesen at his best, and despite what many think of the deranged Dane that’s meant as a compliment.
He certainly couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first goal in the top flight, a rasper from the edge of the box after good work from Fellaini and possibly the Premier League’s most underrated player, Seamus Coleman. That came on 61 minutes, 10 minutes after Steven Whittaker had given the home side the lead.
The former Glasgow Rangers right-back broke through a cluster of blue shirts with a combination of skill and good fortune before bending a low shot past Tim Howard. He thought he had scored and wheeled away to celebrate, only for the ball to strike the inside of the post and rebound straight back to his feet. The lucky twat couldn’t miss.
It was to Everton’s credit that they never panicked though – Barkley levelled matters with his pearler and four minutes later a lovely move resulted in Coleman putting Everton ahead. Pienaar, who had another quiet game by his standards, shaped to shoot before slipping a delightful pass into the path of Jelavic. The Croatian’s shot was parried by John Ruddy but Coleman was the man on the move, taking the recovering Norwich defenders by surprise and ramming the ball home to provoke delirious scenes in the away end.
However, that joy was relatively short-lived. On 71 minutes Whittaker was again tres spawny, as the French say, as he completely miscued a volley that turned into a perfect cross for the lively Dutch forward Ricky van Wolkswinkel. That said, the laser-haired striker, whose name actually translates quite amusingly to ‘wolf’s winkle’ still did brilliantly to guide his header into the far corner of the net.
Martinez gave a nod to his predecessor at that point, replacing Mirallas with the shaven-headed Steven Naismith. If Barkley at times looks like the young, strutting Paul Gascoigne, Naismith actually resembles the supporting-a-nutty-gunman-disgracing-himself-in-hotel-bars-bucket-list-favourite Gazza of the here and now. Seriously, he almost makes Danny Murphy look well.
The Scot did see a decent chance blocked by Ruddy though, before Jelavic’s attempt to bladder home the rebound struck a defender. Jelavic was then replaced by Aroune Kone, but he’s clearly still famished, as he struggled to make any impact in the late stages. Coleman had another shot snake narrowly wide but there was to be no breakthrough at the end for Everton.
Martinez was only left to try and deal politely with Delia Smith’s infamous wandering hands in the boardroom afterwards before returning to Merseyside with the rest of the Evertonians, pleased with the way his team shaped up in what everyone had down as a difficult game to open the season with.
Chris Hughton, who is increasingly looking like Gustavo Fring from Breaking Bad, said he thought a draw was a fair result, but he was clearly talking shite.
Goodison is going to be buzzing for this game against West Brom next week.