Sam Allardyce’s unbeaten start as Everton boss continued with a pair of scoreless draws either side of Christmas Day.
The Toffees applied a blend of cussedness, organisation and desire to repel champions Chelsea’s welter of high-class forwards at Goodison Park four days ago – and might even have beaten Antonio Conte’s team if the excellent Michael Keane had been able to direct a late header on target.
Everton found attacking fluency difficult to come by on their Boxing Day trip to West Bromwich but once more were equal to everything their opponents could throw at them.
The premium Allardyce places on clean sheets is producing a tangible return, then, and substitute Oumar Niasse was close to converting one point into three at the Hawthorns with a powerful 89th-minute effort which was kept out by the legs of West Brom ‘keeper Ben Foster.
We identify five talking points from Everton’s past two matches.
Allardyce Breaking Records
Becoming the first Everton manager to navigate the opening seven matches of his reign without defeat is a notable achievement for Allardyce.
The feat, however, takes on an even more impressive hue when you consider the identity of some of the men who preceded the 63-year-old former Bolton Wanderers boss in the Goodison post.
Allardyce, of course, has a way to go before he is talked about in the same revered tones typically reserved for Harry Catterick and Howard Kendall. But neither of those men enjoyed such a fruitful start to their respective Everton regimes as the current incumbent.
Catterick lost his fourth match at the helm – 2-0 at West Brom – while Kendall saw his side defeated 1-0 at Southampton after overseeing a win and a draw in his first two games as boss.
Indeed, Joe Royle in 1994 was the last Toffees manager to make such a dramatic impact following his arrival.
Royle launched his reign in barnstorming style with successive victories over Liverpool, Chelsea and Leeds United and had been in charge of five matches before he saw his side undone – by Sheffield Wednesday in a Boxing Day fixture.
Allardyce’s initial success has been founded on making his team difficult to score against. It has swiftly become apparent, though, that the manager is not welded to one specific way of playing.
He originally tightened the ship by employing a conventional back four but had no hesitation in switching to a three-man defence halfway through the Chelsea encounter in a bid to put the brakes on the freewheeling Londoners.
Likewise, Allardyce was confident enough in both the foundations he has laid and the players at his disposal to parachute Keane and Phil Jagielka into the middle of his defence for the visit of Conte's men.
This festive period is renowned for taking its toll on fatigued bodies – witness West Brom striker Salomon Rondon’s hamstring giving up on him as he pulled the trigger against the Blues.
But minds become equally weary as the games pile up, a relevant issue when every Premier League opponent presents their own unique threat.
That Allardyce’s seven undefeated games have been squeezed into 24 hectic days, then, merely adds further weight to a significant accomplishment.
Dom The All-Rounder
England’s cricket team have paid a fatal price for the lack of a quality all-rounder in their team during the ongoing Ashes series in Australia.
These multi-faceted players not only bring their own skills to the party – their presence also balances a team and provides the platform for those around them to function at full tilt.
Everton, though, in contrast to the national cricket side, possess a host of versatile performers. Chief among them is Dominic Calvert-Lewin. What's more, he’s not a bits-and-pieces performer of the sort familiar to England cricket fans in the 1990s – the players who were half-decent bowlers and semi-efficient batsmen but not strikingly proficient in either department.
Calvert-Lewin, to continue the cricketing analogy, is capable of holding an end up. But he can help blow away an opposing side, too.
The 20-year-old’s startling progress provided fuel for optimism during the Toffees’ difficult start to the campaign – Calvert-Lewin could rightfully claim to be the one player who has frightened the life out of rampant Manchester City this season.
And the England Under-21 international has continued to thrive under the tutelage of Allardyce.
As alluded to above, the Everton boss expects his players to be adaptable. For Calvert-Lewin this week, that has meant making a go of leading the line with very little service to feed off.
It is right up there among the toughest jobs in football but one that all the very top strikers can perform.
Calvert-Lewin talks openly and regularly about his determination to add more goals to his game – his single-minded ambition and pursuit of improvement perhaps explain the speed of the player’s development – but against Chelsea his remit involved using his strength and control to buy his side a breather whenever the ball was cleared upfield.
His touch and power – in the face of a proper buffeting from the visitors’ athletic backline – were immaculate.
Allardyce admitted that Calvert-Lewin’s selfless effort had left the Yorkshireman ‘dead on his feet’. But summoned to deliver another tireless frontrunning contribution in the West Midlands, the player did precisely what his manager asked of him.
When he was replaced on 61 minutes, it marked the first time in eight Premier League matches that Calvert-Lewin had not started and finished the game.
In that period, he scored valuable goals against Huddersfield Town and Swansea City, to add to his telling influence on further strikes for his team in the clashes with Huddersfield and Liverpool.
Calvert-Lewin is increasingly valuable to Everton in every facet of the game – something reflected in the contract he signed this month to keep him at Goodison until June 2023.
Not bad going for this big-hitting all-rounder.
Allardyce confessed before Everton welcomed Chelsea to Goodison that he wanted to see Morgan Schneiderlin imposing himself on matches to a greater extent.
The Frenchman was something of a revelation after signing from Manchester United in January but, in common with his team, found the going tough from the outset of this campaign.
Watching Schneiderlin against Chelsea, though, brought to one’s mind the old adage about class being permanent.
His positioning in front of the Toffees back four was exceptional, the 28-year-old astutely stepping in to snuff out a succession of the visitors' attacks at source.
Schneiderlin bore even greater responsibility on his shoulders at West Bromwich, asked to provide the ballast in an unfamiliar midfield three – with gun pair Idrissa Gana Gueye and Wayne Rooney both unavailable for the trip to take on Alan Pardew’s team.
And with his tail up, the former Southampton player got stuck into his task with some relish. He covered enormous amounts of ground, offering reliable protection to Keane, Ashley Williams and Mason Holgate in Everton’s back three.
Schneiderlin attempted 45 passes – more than any of his teammates. His 82 per cent distribution success rate was the best on the pitch and seven per cent higher than former Everton man Gareth Barry, who missed his mark with one-quarter of his 52 attempted passes.
Moreover, whenever possible, Schneiderlin was ambitious with his distribution. A player who likes to circulate the ball quickly, he was prepared to slow the tempo when necessary, at one point turning 360 degrees as he assessed his options, before eventually releasing Calvert-Lewin with a measured ball over the top of West Brom’s backline.
We heard plenty about Allardyce’s shrewd man-management before he swung into Goodison. In Schneiderlin’s form this week, we have seen the embodiment of the boss’ unique brand of ‘footballer-whispering'.
The heftiest chunk of credit goes to the player, though. He received a challenge from his manager and has risen to it splendidly.
Learning On The Job
Everton’s aforementioned jam-packed schedule has impacted on Allardyce’s ability to work closely with his players on the training ground.
It is an open secret that the manager has lent on a combination of video analysis and clear instruction to help impart his messages since being appointed in late November.
A knock-on effect of this lack of on-pitch practice time is that Allardyce has had scant opportunity to assess his players first-hand.
Indeed, the point is driven home by the manager’s preference for organising full-scale training matches when the calendar allows.
As Allardyce admitted following the meeting with Chelsea, however, you only truly discover what a footballer is made of when he is thrust into the heat of battle.
Glad tidings for Allardyce, then, as he watched Keane stand tall in successive matches, the defender imperious in the air, rapid across the turf and accomplished in possession on his return to the side following a four-week absence.
The manager was similarly pleased to see Phil Jagielka make light of his own month of inaction by delivering a characteristically disciplined, obdurate performance against Chelsea.
It was the turn of Niasse to get his go from the bench at West Brom and he nearly won the game – while Allardyce invested great faith in Beni Baningime by introducing the midfielder with both matches evenly poised and the action at its most ferocious.
Allardyce is adamant he will not rush his recruitment given the vast pool of players at his disposal. And the past week has provided evidence that his squad is heavy on more than just numbers.
It would be remiss to sign off this feature without mention for Yannick Bolasie.
One can only imagine the crushing disappointment Bolasie must have felt when his embryonic Everton career fell into abeyance through no fault of his own.
But the 28-year-old’s response to the blow of suffering a cruciate knee injury 12 months ago has been admirable.
When Bolasie signed for the Blues from Crystal Palace in August 2016 he spoke enthusiastically about the Club’s ambition and potential.
But, more than once, he insisted, "I just like to play football".
When his enthusiasm for his profession was put to the test, he was as good as his word and resolved to work tirelessly to come back the same sparkling footballer who earned his move to Goodison.
And the value of a fit-again Bolasie was apparent the second the teams lined up at West Bromwich. His versatility enabled Allardyce to operate with a 3-5-2 formation, Bolasie tasked with providing support through the middle for Calvert-Lewin.
Primarily a winger, the DR Congo international is another in Allardyce’s squad who has more than one string to his bow.
It will take a while before Bolasie is fully up to speed. He only resumed first-team training little more than a month ago, after all.
But there was a frisson of excitement among the army of travelling Evertonians at the Hawthorns nonetheless, when Bolasie showcased a flicker of his dazzling footwork shortly before his withdrawal on 61 minutes.
A player with Bolaise's ability to produce moments of off-the-cuff brilliance is extra precious when you are not conceding goals at the other end.
It is great to have him back.