On the surface, Everton’s hard-fought 2-1victory over Fulham on Sunday seemed like a game between a team with nothing to play for – except hoping Liverpool suffer an almighty collapse to let the Blues sneak into seventh – and a team with their minds elsewhere – Fulham’s latest biggest game in history, the Europa League semi-final second leg, is fast approaching on the horizon. Upon further inspection, however, there was more to the contest than meets the eye.
Not only were Fulham impressively resolute, for if they have given up on the Premier League, it certainly did not show in their performance, but the home side played – for the first half an hour and a 15 minute spell after the break – with a style and verve rarely seen in recent years at Goodison Park. A week ago, Everton’s performance at Ewood Park was favourably compared to Barcelona in more than one report – and at their best, they showed it was not a one-off against the Cottagers. The Toffees may have lost their way when Fulham went ahead – thanks to an uncharacteristic lapse from this writer’s Everton Player of the Year Leighton Baines – but once David Moyes got a hold of his players at half-time, Everton were back on track. Until the hour mark, it looked a matter of time until the Blues went ahead but only one goal came and the momentum died somewhat. Moyes took risks – a rarity for the pragmatic manager – withdrawing Phil Neville in favour of Louis Saha and suddenly Everton were vulnerable on the break, but the Scot wanted the win. It came in the 94th minute but for much of the hour and a half before Mikel Arteta swept Everton to victory from the penalty spot, the Goodison faithful had been treated to some wonderful play – which may have been the case since the turn of the year, but something about this performance felt like it was a level above even the previous delightful displays.
Perhaps it was the spring sunshine which, during the brief lulls in the game, gave the occasion almost a pre-season friendly feel – something only added to by the dearth of away supporters. But more than the weather, it was Everton lighting up proceedings. The Blues have entered sublime displays at home numerous times this season but this was different – this was not Everton taking apart a woeful Hull City side or going toe-to-toe with Chelsea and Manchester United. Rather, Everton were faced with a determined Fulham – who made nine changes and yet retained a clear game plan that was executed very well – and set about attempting to dismantle them the right way. While Roy Hodgson’s side did not play for the draw, their two banks of four were so disciplined it was clearly going to take something special to break through, and, inspired by Arteta, Everton tried their best to produce it. The opening 30 minutes saw the ball rarely leave the floor and, with Arteta directing traffic, this Everton is a far cry from the teams Moyes put out in the early part of his eight-year spell on Merseyside. A five-man midfield has long been the order of the day but no more does Moyes look to hard-working but limited players such as Kevin Kilbane, Mark Pembridge or Thomas Gravesen. These days, Everton value technique over tenacity – even the players who, from the outside, appear to be of the destructive bent – such as John Heitinga or Marouane Fellaini – have talent in abundance. Indeed, the most impressive thing about Heitinga’s game is the unerring accuracy of his passing.
Even with captain Neville starting again in midfield – as he did at Ewood Park – Everton’s engine room was greatly more focused on attack than defence. Normally a right-back, Neville’s presence as the sole ball-winner in the midfield five not only allows Tim Cahill to support the lone striker, but frees Arteta from any real defensive duties – but against Fulham, Neville went one further. By dropping deep, he gave cover to the centre-backs and allowed both Baines and Tony Hibbert – who was excellent – to fly forward. Neville’s importance was emphasised when he was withdrawn and the Blues looked less dangerous, but the freedom with which Everton now play was underscored by the No.18’s deft back-heel to escape trouble in the first-half. Once the School of Science and later the Dogs of War, Everton are looking at further glory days – for if the 33-year-old Neville is pulling out the tricks, things must be going well – and they are.