Well, well, well – who would have thought this? Ask Evertonians a few weeks ago who two of the real stand-out performers would be in a crucial home win over Manchester United, and how many do you think would have highlighted both Fabian Delph and Alex Iwobi?
Both were signed in the same summer transfer window back when Marco Silva was manager, and how long ago does that seem now? While they had promising beginnings to their early games on Merseyside, they eventually succumbed to a wealth of individual issues which held the pair back.
But in this current Everton system and setup something is notably different, for Iwobi especially. One of the biggest success stories of Frank Lampard’s brief time in charge has been the improvement shown by the Nigeria international – and matches such as this fantastic display against United prove it.
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Playing in a central role on a consistent basis, something which he has longed for ever since his transfer from Arsenal, the 25-year-old looks a completely different prospect than under previous managers. Not necessarily in terms of his work on the ball, because many could see the unique qualities he had in terms of his passing and skill for some time.
No, the difference instead is his sheer desire when out of possession. Those leaving Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon might have wondered if they actually saw Iwobi stop running at any point during the previous 90 minutes of football they had just witnessed.
He was rewarded with his name chanted from the stands on multiple occasions as he finally brushed off the shackles of his price tag and proved exactly the kind of player he is – someone who is staring the fight in front of Everton right in the face, and punching right back.
Shortly before fans chanted the name of Iwobi for the second time in the afternoon, they had also shown their appreciation for Delph. He left the pitch to a huge standing ovation for a display that was exactly what his side needed in the middle of the pitch.
It didn’t have any fancy flicks, Hollywood passes, or essentially anything that’ll make one of those little highlight reels that you see pasted over YouTube within minutes of a full-time whistle. “Fabian Delph – Tricks and skills vs Manchester United (HD)” is not likely.
But that’s not what Lampard needed in the center of the pitch. He needed someone to be intelligent, dedicated and, most of all, safe in possession.
All of that might read as simple qualities for a central midfielder to possess, but it’s been all-too-rare for the Blues across the course of this campaign. That’s why so much emphasis was being placed by fans in recent weeks on having Delph back among the squad.
He was constantly looking for the ball on Saturday, whether that be in shifting quickly to collect it from his team-mates or via stopping a Manchester United attack. He was exactly in the right places at the right times, showing his superior intelligence, mentality and commitment to the cause.
Both Delph and Iwobi have had a lot of questions directed at them over the course of their Everton careers, and rightly so in a lot of respects. However, there was absolutely no sign of that in this game, and rightly so once again.
From being much maligned players, now they found themselves fighting it out to be named man-of-the-match in a crucial win for their side. They could be absolutely key moving forward throughout the rest of the season.
Iwobi and Delph were just two players, but across the pitch Everton showed a real defensive determination in the face of some United pressure – if not exactly a barrage of chances.
The Blues have been criticized over the course of the campaign for their weak backbone, and for not being able to stop a raft of individual mistakes that were costing a lot of points. But there was little sign of that throughout Saturday afternoon’s clash.
They managed to put their past problems behind them to finally show the dogged determination when out of possession that Evertonians have been desperate to see. The backline, with the returns of Seamus Coleman and Michael Keane, looked much more watertight than it had previously.
The latter of those players might have had a shaky beginning to the match, but he certainly grew into it as the 90 minutes wore on. Midway through the second half, Keane proved crucial in winning an aerial battle to stop a dangerous cross finding the head of Cristiano Ronaldo only a few yards out.
Ben Godfrey kept his place in the side next to Keane. Godfrey’s decent display against Burnley had actually gone under the radar somewhat due to his late mistake which allowed the hosts to score their winner. That, of course, was always going to dominate the thinking of many.
But his performance against Manchester United was arguably a continuation of the good work he’d already showed earlier in the week. He was physically strong, his positioning was fantastic and his no-nonsense approach to defending was an example that many of his team-mates tended to follow throughout.
But special mention here must go to Vitalii Mykolenko. He was always believed that he was going to need time to settle into his new surroundings, and perhaps this display on an important stage was evidence that he finally had.
The left-back’s second-half performance at Goodison Park was excellent, with the visitors really struggling to get beyond the Ukraine international and create any space for themselves down that flank.
Mykolenko showed amazing levels of concentration, determination, fight, energy and defensive us to make sure the Blues took all three points here. And, while his efforts in the final third might not have always come off, it’s still worth a lot of praise that he got himself into those positions in the first place.
He got a huge amount of appreciation from Everton fans as he left the pitch – and rightly so. He was an important part of his side finally shifting their momentum in terms of their defensive performances, and this has to become the norm from now on if they are to continue in this mould.
Perhaps this is only a small point to make, but perhaps Lampard has finally stumbled upon the formation that will take Everton forward. For the rest of this season at the very least.
In previous matches against West Ham United and Burnley, the Blues actually didn’t play badly. In fact, they looked fairly strong at times in both of those games – and certainly comfortable in the style they were playing.
Perhaps it just needed the likes of Allan and Delph to come back into the side and offer their individual qualities in possession to really show how good a system that can be for Everton.
A 4-1-4-1 style might have Richarlison playing in a position he does not prefer, but it’s a role he looks best in for Everton. It allows Iwobi the time and space in the center of the pitch to be a real creative threat, with the shield behind him of two players capable of sitting in front of the back four.
After weeks of chopping and changing in terms of line-ups and systems, much of that being down to injuries admittedly, perhaps Lampard is finally realizing what his best side is to look like until May.
All about perception
What is it Michael Corleone says in The Godfather? “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
How many Everton fans could relate to that quote as they were making their way home from Goodison Park on Saturday afternoon? Even for those watching from home, there would have been a major shift in attitude when they were having a look at the Premier League table.
Of course, it still has the Blues right near the relegation zone. But, at the moment the final whistle sounded, they sat four points ahead of Burnley having played one match less than Sean Dyche’s side.
The table still reads as pretty precarious. One win was never going to change all too much in that sense. But it does make you look at the remaining matches left in this campaign with something of a different lens.
Suddenly, all of Everton’s home matches look somewhat winnable. If the Blues can successfully topple Manchester United (an admittedly below-par Manchester United, but nevertheless…) when their confidence must have been at rock bottom, then who’s to say they can’t do the same to the likes of Leicester City and Chelsea?
Evertonians won’t want to get ahead of themselves, of course. They’ve been down this road before, and not until they are mathematically safe will those in the stands be able to properly relax.
But this change in perception for the rest of the matches this term, however slight, could be absolutely vital to the mood of Goodison moving forward. And we all know the importance of that.