Whatever early season optimism Everton took to meet Blackburn Rovers on Saturday evaporated with Tim Howard’s spill that gave Nikola Kalinic a 14th minute tap-in and ultimately three points for the home side. After the Croatian’s goal, Everton were unable to break down a hard-working, committed and organised Rovers side, coming away from Ewood Park with another opening day defeat.
18 P. Neville – 6 Jagielka – 15 Distin – 3 Baines
6 Arteta – 25 Fellaini
21 Osman – 17 Cahill – 20 Pienaar
59 – 16 Beckford on for 21 Osman
73 – 7 Bilyaletdinov on for 8 Saha
77 – 26 Rodwell on for 25 Fellaini
The Toffees lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Mikel Arteta and Marouane Fellaini lying deep and Leon Osman, Tim Cahill and Steven Pienaar supporting lone striker Louis Saha. The selection of Fellaini was a curious one. Making his first competitive appearance since February, the Belgian looked distinctly off the pace and, coming in such a key area, was a real liability for Everton. Too often Blackburn players easily bypassed Fellaini on the counter-attack, leaving the Everton centre-backs, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin, vulnerable to the pace and direct running offered by Mame Biram Diouf, a constant thorn in the side of the Blues’ backline as the game wore on.
After taking the lead Rovers were understandably content to sit deep and pack the midfield, pressing Everton vigorously and effectively whenever the visitors looked to play through the middle of the pitch. With that avenue cut off, Everton were forced to cross from wide but the deliveries came from too deep and the Blackburn central pair of Ryan Nelson and the excellent Phil Jones were comfortably able to head clear the danger. Leaving little space behind the last line of defence meant Blackburn could deny Leighton Baines and Phil Neville, the Everton full-backs, the chance to reach the byline, and with Osman and Pienaar looking to cut inside, every cross that came in was high, deep and nodded away from the Blackburn goal with ease.
David Moyes altered the Everton system to 4-4-2 around the hour mark, introducing Jermaine Beckford for Osman but the former Leeds United striker was equally as anonymous as Saha, who himself was replaced later in the game. Indeed, Beckford’s introduction was the last time he merited comment, and the lack of service either man received was down to Blackburn’s never ceasing work in midfield and the consistency of both Nelson and Jones. Unable to pass their way to goal or adopt a more direct crossing game plan, Everton were restricted to shots from distance that rarely troubled Paul Robinson in the Rovers goal. The ex-England goalkeeper had a goalmouth scramble to watch and was tested late by Phil Jagielka, but a first clean sheet of the season was deserved more for the team’s defending as a whole than anything exemplary the former Tottenham Hotspur No 1 had to do.
The 2009/10 season ended so well for Everton that they have been tipped by many as the team to watch between now and May, but this result must serve as a grounding experience. There is still plenty of reason to be optimistic at Goodison Park this year, and a top six finish is a realistic aim, but this defeat and the poor performance that came with it will have to be the exception and not the rule lest this campaign end in disappointment.