Winning this game probably isn’t that significant in the big sweep of things. Losing though, that would have felt catastrophic, so it was a sense of relief as much as anything that greeted the final whistle at a sodden Goodison after Kevin Mirallas’s sensational free kick sealed a late comeback for them tricky Blues.
Roberto Martinez is still mending and making do in terms of getting a team out on the pitch – Steven Pienaar and Seamus Coleman returned to the bench here while Sylvain Distin went straight into the starting line-up. Aiden McGeady made his full league debut.
The Irish winger almost made it a glorious introduction too, cutting in from the right with his jinky little baby steps and slamming a doozy of a shot against the far post. Unfortunately though that bright opening was not indicative of the rest of the half. Villa were negative and without a proper centre-forward Everton lacked any focal point for their attacks. Mirallas might be suited to the role of central striker away from home, but against moribund massed defences at Goodison his best assets, his direct running and his shooting, are too easily negated.
At almost no point during the first 45 minutes did one Everton player occupy two Villa defenders, through either strength or skill, so there was simply no space created to work in. The ball got moved slowly from side to side and the murky-shirted Midlanders shuffled along accordingly. It was painful to watch at times and, perhaps understandably after Tuesday night there were audible grumbles as some of the passing looked aimless and the forwards never seemed to make their runs with any conviction.
On one of the rare occasions that Ross Barkley tried to inject some drive into the Blues’ attack, on 34 minutes, it ended up backfiring as the young midfielder’s run across midfield was halted by Fabien Delph’s tackle. While the Evertonians were still crying foul, Christian Benteke fed the loose ball out to Leandro Bacuna who advanced on Tim Howard before slipping the ball through his legs and into the Gwladys Street net.
If Anfield was the point where the season derailed, this felt like the moment where it settled at the bottom of the canyon and then erupted in an oily cloud of smoke.
At half time Martinez replaced the half-fit Barkley with the half-fit Pienaar and that planted the seeds of the eventual revival. The little South African is simply better at anyone else in the squad at changing the pace of the game, with his awareness and the cleverness of his passing. For such a slightly built individual he is also better than any of the club’s centre-forwards at shielding the ball, getting his head up and bringing others into play. What’s more, when the ball goes into Pienaar’s feet his teammates make run beyond him, confident that he will at the very least retain possession or force a foul.
In short: when he plays, we play.
Martinez’s second successful substitution came on 70 minutes when he withdrew John Stones and introduced Steven Naismith. Quite the opposite to Mirallas, the Scot lacks pace so struggles to make an impact away from home, but he does the basics well enough as a centre-forward that he has his uses at home when the Toffees are on top and pinning opponents back. He also freed Mirallas up to drop a bit deeper, away from the close attentions of the Villa central defenders, and the Belgian’s influence grew markedly from that point.
Only four minutes after coming on, Naismith put Everton back on level terms as he ran onto Pienaar’s clever flicked pass in behind the Villa defence and poked the ball past Brad Guzan.
The visitors offered almost nothing in attack throughout – they are a dismal side managed by a once highly-thought-of manager who now just looks like he should be sat alone at night in a dim pool of light at a motorway McDonalds, reducing a Styrofoam cup to tiny pieces, kneading his forehead almost violently and pleading into his phone: ‘I know I said I’d leave her but it’s just not that simple, you know that. We’ve been through all this already…’
If there was to be any justice, and there often isn’t in football, then only one side was going to go on and win the match.
And guess what, they did!
There’s definitely been a change in Mirallas in the last month or so. He was actually one of the disappointments of the early part of the Martinez reign as everyone else’s game seemed to be lifted but he looked less effective playing the more patient style. He seems to have realised that he is a senior player now though, especially in the face of the present injury crisis, and is taking on a level of responsibility more commensurate with someone of his undoubted ability.
It was Mirallas’s persistence that initially won a free kick on 85 minutes, fully 30 yards from the Villa goal. Are you useless at gauging them distances normally? Thankfully Match of the Day confirmed it was that far with a handy infostatistographic.
Talking of the BBC’s flagship sports show, a couple of points. Firstly, them dead long spindly hairs that stick out of the top of Alan Hansen’s shirt and move in time to his wobbling turkey neck – once you see them you can’t unsee them and they will knock you sick every time he’s on now.
Secondly, Andy Carroll’s sending off at against Swansea. Which bit made Bobby Moore spin in his grave worse, Chico Flores holding his face like he’d taken a right-hander off Ernie Shavers or celebrated Geordie hard-case Carroll furiously removing his scrunchy as he stormed down the tunnel?
Anyway, with both Mirallas and Leighton Baines shaping up over the free kick, Guzan had to try and hedge his bets. Despite the distance though, the American keeper, who looks like a methodical FBI agent in one of those yellow-stencilled jackets who reluctantly has to deal with the unorthodox methods of a detective he doesn’t trust but who gets results in bizarre cases and let’s face it we’re coming up with nothing but dead ends here looking for the missing girl, was helpless as Mirallas struck what Paul Lambert described as ‘a world class free kick’. He also added: ‘There’s nothing you can do about that’.
There were nervy moments at the end when Villa forced a corner. We’ve suffered late disappointments against these before – Ashley Young, you doe-eyed twat – but not this time, buddy.
It wasn’t always pretty, but all things considered it what was required and what was eventually deserved. You could see that Martinez wasn’t just talking out of his arse when he said it was the most satisfying win of his time in charge so far.
Finally, a quick word on the transfer window. The biggest thing to point out is that Kenwyne Jones looked mustard for Cardiff City on his debut. Everton themselves missed a trick by getting their two targets in so early. Lacina Traore they should have signed but kept it quiet and then only announced it at 11.30pm on deadline day. Everyone would have been made up then. It would have looked like a veritable swoopy coup. And he would be that bit closer to actual match fitness.
John Heitinga has gone to Fulham, to join their collection of arl arses who just fancy living in London for a bit. The Dutchman had his moments, and was apparently wildly popular with the other players, but overall he always retained that look of the panic buy he was – one who got paid more than he was ultimately worth. He had the one decent season at centre-half, scored that last gasp goal at Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup, but best of all probably was the way he barged into Ashley Cole during that penalty shootout at Stamford Bridge.
Oh, Everton’s accounts were published too. Without even looking at them it’s probably fair to assume that we are not going to be making any massive signings any time soon, the debt remains about the same, we spend a fucking immoral amount on player wages but we get a ton of money from the telly deals so like the rest of the Premier League basket-cases we will shuffle on regardless for another season at least.
You can probably get more detailed analysis than that but that’s what any fancy number talk will boil down to, ultimately.