Sam Allardyce highlighted the talismanic contribution of “top professional” Phil Jagielka after Everton shutout Premier League champions Chelsea in a Goodison Park stalemate on Saturday.
Captain Jagielka responded to being summoned for his first start since the defeat at Southampton last month by delivering an imperious defensive performance.
Indeed, the England international, in his 11th season with the Blues, set the tone for his side's resolute display early in the match, when he brilliantly cleared off the line from Tiemoue Bakayoko and Willian in quick succession.
Michael Keane was similarly outstanding on his return to the heart of the Blues’ back four, as Everton secured arguably the hardest earned of the four top-flight clean sheets they have recorded since Allardyce was announced as boss last month.
Before starting against the Londoners on Saturday, Keane had played only 10 minutes of football under Allardyce – as a substitute in the 2-0 victory over Huddersfield Town on 2 December. Thirty-five-year-old Jagielka’s action in the past four weeks had been limited to brief outings from the bench against Liverpool and Newcastle United.
“I thought Phil was brilliant, lasting as long as he did,” Allardyce told evertontv.
“He has been out for a while and is getting on in years – but he is keeping himself extremely fit. In all honesty, I did not want to keep him on for the full 90 minutes but because I felt I needed to make changes tactically at half-time – and then [Idrissa] Gana was injured – we did not have any substitutes left.
“But, as always, the true professional he is, he stayed on right until the end and helped us get a valuable point.”
Everton were forced to spend extended periods of a compelling 90 minutes stemming the tide surging their way in the shape of Chelsea’s panoply of fleet-footed and imaginative attacking stars.
Jordan Pickford produced a terrific one-handed stop to keep out Pedro's first-half blast, while Eden Hazard's stinging low drive drew a plunging reaction save from goalkeeper Pickford after the break, shortly before Cesc Fabregas saw a deflected strike whistle narrowly wide of the target.
Ashley Williams also headed the ball against his own crossbar as he attempted to clear a menacing cross from wing-back Victor Moses.
Allardyce had introduced Wales international Williams at the interval to join Jagielka and Keane in a newly-formed back three, with Sandro Ramirez also brought on in place of Tom Davies, as the manager tried to inject more purpose into his side's play.
And Keane came close to stunning Antonio Conte's men at the death, when he headed narrowly over from a Gylfi Sigurdsson corner. As it was, Everton took a point to make it 14 collected from the past 18 available and the Toffees remain ninth in the Premier League table.
“Pedro, Willian and Hazard are not the sort of players you want to come up against – certainly not when I was playing" said Allardyce.
“Because we closed the spaces, [our players] all mastered that defensive unit so well and mastered those players pretty well, by keeping them in front of them and not letting them get down the sides or in behind.
“I thought Michael had a very solid, good performance and at the other end could have been the hero by winning it late on. I could see the headline being written: 'Keane scores Goodison winner to beat Chelsea'.
“Defensively he was very good: very, very good.
“The grit, desire, determination and will to block out a hugely talented side was something we did very, very well as a team.
“The Everton fans appreciated that. We would have all liked to see more attacking play but when they see tackles flying in, they cheer for that and it gives the players an extra boost.
“It is not easy to chase a side for that long and keep them at bay. As a footballer, you want to play with the ball as much as you can, get up the other end and put your opponents under pressure.
"That is where we failed a little bit. But we were outstanding defensively as a team and nearly nicked it at the end. It does not matter what went on before, if Michael had headed that in it would have been the golden Christmas present before Santa Claus comes down the chimney."