If the match with Manchester United was the toughest test of Everton’s recent good form, then the subsequent 1-0 defeat could be the toughest test of the Toffees’ season as a whole. While there were many positives to take from the performance, at this stage of the season it is points not plaudits that matter most.
For 83 minutes Everton were defensively imperious. Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin batted away almost everything United threw at them, winning countless headers, making numerous interceptions and putting their bodies on the line with block after block from long-range efforts. When a sliced Distin clearance struck the post and ran away to safety it even appeared Everton had luck on their side, a commodity usually needed to take anything from Old Trafford, but United’s persistence eventually told. When Javier Hernandez got between Jagielka and Tony Hibbert to head past Tim Howard, all the centre-backs’ good work was for nought and what had been a resolute defensive display became a disheartening defeat. It is, however, that kind of watertight defending that Everton displayed for the majority of the game that is the preserve of the Premier League’s top teams. Everton just need to ally it with the equivalent attacking force, but that is easier said than done.
When Everton go to Wigan Athletic next weekend much more emphasis will be placed on attacking, even with the Latics as desperate for points as United, albeit for vastly different reasons. With Louis Saha missing for the rest of the season the return of Tim Cahill will boost David Moyes’ options vastly, taking pressure from Jermaine Beckford and Leon Osman to score and create respectively. Having Cahill in the side gives Everton more potency when the ball is worked wide – the Australian remains one of the most dangerous headers of a ball in the division, and re-uniting Cahill with the rampaging former Latic Leighton Baines returns a profitable goal-scoring partnership. Wigan, currently third-bottom of the Premier League but level on points with Blackpool in 17th, were vulnerable at the back against Sunderland on Saturday – indeed, the BBC report on their 4-2 defeat says the Latics defence “disintegrated.”
Attack was a serious problem for Everton through the first half of the Premier League campaign – in their first 17 games of the season Everton managed only 18 goals. Yet in the 17 games since, the Toffees have found the net 29 times, a massive improvement and a tally only partly helped by the five goals Everton put past Blackpool at Goodison Park in February. To further underscore the goal-scoring run Everton have enjoyed, Saturday’s blank at Old Trafford was their first since the FA Cup defeat to Reading in March, and the first in the league since a loss to Bolton Wanderers in mid-February. Wigan’s defence has been particularly porous this season, with 57 goals conceded and the worst goal difference of the 20 Premier League teams. Even still, Everton failed to score against Wigan in December, and failure to do so again would be the worst way to follow up the weekend’s disappointment.