5 Things We Learned: Stoke

@Everton

Organiser Pickford Not Fazed By Responsibility

Everton kicked off the 2017/18 Premier League season with 1-0 home win against Stoke City.

With competition debutants and a particular 'second coming', the new Blues in particular were watched eagerly by the Goodison faithful.

Yet what can we take away from our opening-day victory? Let's recap...


Reading the Roons

There is only one place to start: Wayne Rooney. “That is why we signed him” was boss Ronald Koeman’s summary of Rooney’s performance – and the manager made clear he wasn’t talking only about the sumptuous header his attacker scored to win the game.

Rooney brought all his creative wares to bear on a match that was only ever going to be decided by the slimmest of margins.                                                                                                                                                       
But it was his persistence, his determination to make sure Everton got the job done, by hook or by crook, and his urging and cajoling of team-mates, that all combined to leave Koeman purring.

Rooney is blessed with a rare, innate ability to clinically analyse the flow and rhythm of a game, even while he is in the eye of the vortex that is your typical Premier League match.

He found himself dropping especially deep to try to inject some pace and direction into Everton’s first-half display.

Rooney’s work at this juncture was accomplished – but Stoke would have been content to see him scheming away at a safe distance from their goal.

The 31-year-old knew this and, before long, was dictating matters higher up the pitch, where he was integral to the construction of the goal he ultimately scored.

His passing after half-time – for its intelligence, range and imagination – was pure Wayne Rooney.

Defence on top

The Premier League returned with a series of giddy encounters. Arsenal edged a topsy-turvy seven-goal encounter with Leicester on Friday night, before Watford and Liverpool picked up the baton the following day by sharing six goals at Vicarage Road.

But while England’s top-flight is lauded worldwide for its thrills and spills, a lot of the defending on show is causing coaches and managers an almighty headache.

No such worries at Goodison Park. There was an over-my-dead-body attitude to Everton’s display against Stoke, epitomised by the way Phil Jagielka entered his head into direct combat with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s boot, hurrying through the air and trying to thump the ball past Jordan Pickford.

Jagielka won that particular battle, which was in keeping with the Blues’ resilience on the day.

Debutant goalkeeper Pickford was excellent, in complete command of his box and spectacularly equal to Xherdan Shaqiri’s scorching late drive. And fellow new boy Michael Keane looked as if he had been an Everton player for the past decade.

It all added up to a clean sheet. And if you shut out your opponents, you don’t half boost your chances of winning the match.

Non-stop Idrissa

We know all about Idrissa Gana Gueye’s appetite for hard graft. The Senegalese last season appeared immune to the fatigue that routinely takes hold of Premier League players deep into a campaign.

Nevertheless, simple physiology dictates that everyone needs to put their feet up sometimes. And a summer break has certainly not stripped Gueye of the energy and dynamism that make him such a vital cog in Koeman’s team.

No danger of the midfielder’s prodigious work going unappreciated either. When Gueye badgered the harassed Darren Fletcher into coughing up possession in the second half, Goodison Park feted him as if he had just smashed the ball into the net from 30 yards.

He recovered the ball in his own half on countless occasions, tested Butland with a firmly-hit first-half strike – and was first on the scene in support of Dominic Calvert-Lewin when the youngster broke clear after robbing Kurt Zouma late in the piece.

Exceptional.

Home Rule

There was once a time – and plenty of Evertonians will remember it – when visitors to Goodison Park would have gladly shaken on a respectable defeat at the ground, before going away to get on with their season, unscarred.

We haven’t reached that stage yet but, unquestionably, the Blues’ home is now right up among the most inhospitable of environments for Premier League opponents.

Koeman’s team won nine of their final 10 games on their own patch in 2016/17. Indeed, the restoration of Goodison into a fortress was instrumental to Everton’s solid campaign last time around.

The Blues are playing to sold out, passionate and extremely partisan crowds. No Everton player could fail to be inspired by the tremendous din that customarily greets the first note of Z-Cars, and accompanies the clatter of studs on hard ground, as the teams make their way out of the tunnel to be met by the sight of four packed stands.

And anybody wondering how Rooney would be received on his Everton homecoming needed only listen to the tumultuous ovation the player received prior to kick-off. When he collected his man-of-the-match prize in the sponsor’s lounge post-match, the roof nearly came off the place.

Koeman’s developing team and their fiercely loyal supporters could prove a potent mix once more this season.

Manager’s influence

Koeman told evertontv last week that he would devise specific tactics for each opponent his team faced this season. The manager also confirmed he would tap into his players’ versatility to catch opposition sides off guard.

Here, the Dutchman was as good as his word. Certainly, Stoke would not have anticipated Calvert-Lewin operating as a wing-back.

Koeman decided the ploy needed changing at the break – but not before Calvert-Lewin had stuck the cross of the match on Rooney’s forehead to win the game.

And when the boss opted to alter things, he was able deploy the game Calvert-Lewin as a central striker. On came Cuco Martina to facilitate a shift to a back-four, which required Keane and Jagielka to revert into a more orthodox central defensive pairing.

There was an effective late midfield cameo from Tom Davies, too, as Koeman sought to shut down the contest.

Plenty of matches are won and lost from the dugout. Good news, then, that Everton have a proactive manager… and players who are buying into his way of doing things.

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