A surprisingly evenly-matched contest had its tipping point after almost an hour, and fittingly it involved a player who is looking more and more like Malcolm Gladwell.
Steven Pienaar, on as a substitute for Leon Osman, finished off a flowing breakaway involving Ross Barkley, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas. With a wonderfully assured first-touch-of-a-ball-in-anger-in-six-weeks he clipped the Belgian winger’s low centre along the rain-soaked turf and into the bottom corner of the Park End goal. It was probably the best thing Pienaar’s done all season, as he was less than stellar during the few games he played before his injury; perhaps there is something to Roberto Martinez’s theory then that being out for ages makes you a better player. And we all scoffed.
The Blues’ boss, resplendent in a velvet-collared ‘nylons for the lady?’ war-time profiteer’s coat looked on bemused like everyone else in the ground as Pienaar lept over the advertising hoardings to correct the orientation of a South African flag behind the goal. By the time he was ready to celebrate with his teammates they had all retreated to the halfway line – the moment had gone and he just looked like a bit of a weirdo.
And talking of divvy celebrations, Mirallas’s ‘going over that waterfall at the climax of The Mission‘ schtick is starting to look a bit self-indulgent, especially for a goal that was only his by dint of a piece of chicanery.
On 8 minutes an Everton corner was half-cleared back out to Leighton Baines and he fed the ball to Osman who in turn teed up Mirallas to shoot low through the crowd of players in the box. Gareth Barry, returning from an off-side position, gave the ball a slight flick as it ran through his legs and Allan McGregor was left stationary as it crept into the bottom corner. Barry cracked on he never touched the shot but it was pretty clear at the time and then confirmed on the telly later.
Say what you like about Steve Bruce – that his face looks like a bag of fruit and veg, whatever – he had a few gripes about Barry’s contribution and they were all pretty valid. Not only did the Everton midfielder get away with the goal, he was also very lucky to receive just a single yellow card for two dubious challenges in the first half.
He first went unpunished for a high boot on Danny Graham that saw the dreadful striker stretchered off with a knee injury. Barry was actually cautioned for the next challenge, when his foot rolled right over the top of the ball and almost took Sone Aluko’s leg off, but it wasn’t just Bruce who expected to see the referee give a straight red. The Everton man got away with it though, although there was a degree of payback from the Tigers when, on 30 minutes, Aluko skinned Baines and cut the ball back for Graham’s replacement, Yannick Sagbo, to crack the ball home at the near post.
The equaliser had certainly been coming at that point. Hull have some decent players, and that ones that aren’t decent are at least absolutely massive. Every set-piece saw pandemonium in the Everton box and the visitors headed a handful of decent chances just wide of Tim Howard’s goal.
Hull’s ‘physicality’ – when did people start using that word? – wasn’t the only issue in the first 45 minutes though. Most of Everton’s problems were actually of their own making as they failed to adapt to Bruce’s team putting pressure on the ball-playing central defenders. Their ploy of initially leaving Sylvain Distin as the outlet and then hounding him in possession wasn’t particularly devious but, crikey, it was effective as Everton endured sustained periods where they looked like the team we feared they would become when Roberto Martinez took over.
Some of the one-touch stuff down in the left corner in particular, between Barry, Baines and Distin was cringe-making. There are still times when Everton players are side-footing first-time passes into space with no idea whatsoever who is around and that’s just as bad as wellying the ball aimlessly downfield. No, in fact it’s worse, because at least with the long ball you are taking a chance on losing possession in their half and not a snot-rocket away from your own penalty area.
At its very basic level football is about making your opponent think you are going to do one thing and then doing the other, so robotically passing the ball regardless of what the other team are up to makes no sense at all. The players should be able to work that out for themselves. ‘Imagine what Suarez will do if we play like that’ was a comment made by more than one tense Toffee at the break, and it doesn’t bear thinking about as the lavishly dentured Uruguayan already gives Distin worse nightmares than a drowned clown with crows pecking at its eyes.
Thankfully Martinez gave the team a talk at half time about a space-monkey that always got fed bananas until NASA told his astronaut companion to occasionally feed him nuts instead. No one was sure whether it was racist, or whether monkeys actually eat nuts, but before anyone could speak to the press the Everton manager rolled the sleeve of his coat up to the elbow and asked whether anyone wanted to buy a watch.
Everton were certainly less lemming-like with their use of the ball in the second half anyway and the introduction of Pienaar and, to a certain extent Stephen Naismith and Aroune Kone in place of the subdued Barkley and Romelu Lukaku, pepped them up a bit for the closing stages. Hull appeared to run out of steam too as the exertion of their ‘pressing game’ – ‘getting stuck in’ in old money – eventually took its toll.
All that really remained – apart from a harsh Baines booking for diving – was a strange cameo for Kone as he curled an absolute sitter against the post and then forced a good low save from McGregor. It just seems really weird how the Ivorian has gone ‘full Jelavic’ before his Everton career has even begun. Generally his touch and his movement here were sound if unspectacular but he still looked like a complete confidence-vacuum. The majority of the crowd appear to, well, not hate him, but view him as a joke figure already, which is possibly even worse.
It’s a certainty that we are going to have to rely on this chap at some point during the season though so we really could do with him blamming one in soon just to give him some shred of self esteem and maybe nip in the bud the corrosive effects of the dreaded Goodison groan.
It wasn’t vintage stuff from Everton then, but you have to give Hull some credit and applaud Martinez for making the changes, to the approach and the personnel, that edged the Blues ahead in what was a very competitive game.