Everton maintained their productive Goodison Park form with a convincing 2-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday.
Chris Hughton’s side came to Merseyside on the back of a five-game unbeaten Premier League run which had seen them climb into the top half of the table.
But Brighton were no match for a Toffees side which has now claimed 23 points from the past 30 available on its own ground.
Visiting defender Gaetan Bong steered in Yannick Bolasie’s inswinging cross under severe pressure from Theo Walcott to give Everton the lead their supremacy merited on the hour.
And Cenk Tosun’s accomplished finish 16 minutes later ensured that Brighton goalkeeper Mat Ryan’s late penalty save from Wayne Rooney would go down as a mere footnote on a rewarding and uplifting afternoon for the Blues.
Here, we identify five talking points from Everton’s third Goodison success on the spin….
Rooney Digs Deep
A recurring criticism levelled at footballers from this country since time immemorial has been of their perceived inability to adapt. A dogged reluctance to be shifted from their comfort zone.
Wayne Rooney has more than done his bit to disprove this assessment across the past 16 years – right back to when the preternatural teenaged Rooney emerged from Everton’s Academy as an immensely gifted striker, yet excelled in a wide position on his early first-team outings.
So when Sam Allardyce was backed into a corner on the morning of this match – hit by the absence of under-the-weather pair Idrissa Gana Gueye and Morgan Schneiderlin – he was quickly set on the idea of deploying Rooney as his deepest lying midfielder.
This position has grown immeasurably in importance in the modern-day, harum-scarum Premier League, with possession a prized commodity but traded with some frequency. Amid this maelstrom, the holding midfielder must retain his senses. His twin responsibilities of shielding his defence and orchestrating his side’s attacks demand both a broad skillset and a capacity for flexible thinking.
A defender should be a pessimistic soul, always fearing the worst and ready to tidy up a mess only he anticipated. Rooney is a born optimist. But the 32-year-old never abandoned his post and always read the danger signs – if his defenders needed protecting, he was on hand to answer the call.
With the ball at his feet Rooney was exceptional. His vision, decision-making and execution of his passing were all nigh-on impeccable for 90 minutes. Witness the lead up to Everton’s second goal. Leighton Baines and Cenk Tosun rightly claimed the plaudits for their respective contributions – but in the preceding moments it was Rooney spreading play right and then left, dictating the direction and tempo of proceedings.
Even the penalty he had saved, in a peculiar way, highlighted Rooney’s ability to deliver when the pressure is at its most intense.
He failed from 12 yards with his team already home and hosed. In the reverse fixture back in October, with Everton trailing 1-0 and the clock ticking over to 90 minutes, he unerringly lashed home from the spot. He did the same in December’s Merseyside derby at Anfield.
If a crucial job needs doing… Wayne Rooney can do it.
Saturday was designated as Academy Day at Goodison Park, recognition of the consistently excellent and productive work undertaken by the Club’s revered youth system.
Rooney, of course, is one of its most illustrious alumni.
At the vanguard of today’s graduates is Tom Davies, the 19-year-old trusted by manager Allardyce to fulfil a vital role for his side.
Davies revealed in advance of the match that he believes his boss is drawing out his best form in an Everton shirt, with Allardyce asking the teenager to apply his drive and thrust to effect matches in his opponents’ defensive third.
The midfielder is a tireless runner and his energy and tenacity must make him an absolute nuisance to play against.
A footballer handed an attacking brief, however, must have more than industry and a fondness for a tackle in his locker.
And Davies does. He keeps the ball moving and does it with accuracy and purpose. The West Derby youngster completed 91.2 per cent of his 34 passes against Brighton – the highest success rate of any player who started the match – took two shots at goal and used his close control and intelligence to win the Blues four free kicks.
Something else that deserves shouting from the rooftops: this was Davies’ 52nd Premier League appearance, more than three months before his 20th birthday.
That figure is remarkable enough in itself but thrown into even more striking light when assessed against the comparative numbers of three English midfielders considered among the best of the previous generation.
Frank Lampard played 48 Premier League matches before he turned 20, while Steven Gerrard appeared in 41. When Paul Scholes celebrated the end of his teenage years, he had played four top-flight games.
The trio ended up making a combined 1,614 Premier League appearances.
New boys making an impact
Allardyce has had only one transfer window since being appointed at the tail end of November.
From the outset, the former England boss insisted he would prioritise adding goals and creativity to his Everton squad.
Allardyce went out and got Theo Walcott and Cenk Tosun and on all available evidence so far, the manager’s judgement would appear rather shrewd.
In the rawest terms, the pair already have four goals and an assist between them, contributions which have directly earned Everton seven points.
Walcott and Tosun have added to the Toffees in a broader sense, too.
Former Blue Leon Osman recently spoke of how Walcott’s pace and willingness to race beyond defenders to receive the ball opened up entirely new possibilities for Everton.
On countless occasions this weekend, the England international’s positive running stretched Brighton and, in particular, full-back Gaetan Bong.
The game Bong manfully stuck to his task, desperately seeking to keep track of Walcott. By the time the defender left the pitch late in the piece nursing a muscle injury he was dead on his feet.
It is quite conceivable that Bong’s tired legs and weary mind forced him to turn Yannick Bolasie’s cross into his own net to put Everton in front. Bong’s wayward touch would not have proved so costly, however, were he not yards from his goal – pushed back where he did not want to be by Walcott’s latest adventurous dart into the box.
It was left to Tosun to apply the coup de grace. Extra points to the Turk for artistic merit, with his thunderous finish crashing home off the underside of the crossbar.
Strikers, though, deal in one currency. They are defined by their goals. Like the batsman who finds his protests of being in fine nick falling on deaf ears if his average in the middle isn’t up to scratch, a centre-forward who is not hitting the net, regardless of all else, inevitably comes under the microscope.
No such worries for Tosun, who has now struck in successive weeks – and whose selfless frontrunning and smart movement provided a consistent and reliable outlet for his team.
Baines is back – like he's never been away
One hundred and fourteen days after he had last played for Everton, Leighton Baines returned to the Toffees starting XI and performed as if he was home from a week on a health farm.
This was Baines’ 374th start for the Club and on this showing there is plenty more in those 33-year-old legs yet.
The left-back was solid in defence – Anthony Knockaert has been coming into his own as a Premier League footballer of late but the right-sider got no change out of his savvy rival.
But the real joy with Baines is to be found in his attacking play. He doesn’t raid forward with such abandon these days. Rather he uses his famed nous to pick his moments, then applies his rich ability to capitalise on them.
Baines’ use of the ball out of defence was sound and when he first skipped over halfway he sent over a fabulously inviting cross that somehow evaded a posse of blue shirts in the box.
It is the 30-cap England international’s link play which has really charmed us over the past decade, however. And it was precisely this quality which ultimately sealed Everton’s success, Baines’ awareness and weight of pass in combination with Tosun creating the opening for the Turk’s emphatic finish.
Knockaert ultimately received a red card for a challenge on the defender.
Baines’ reaction to the Frenchman's tackle was wonderful. No histrionics, merely a puzzled glance at his defeated opponent, of the sort Floyd Mayweather might reserve for an opponent, aiming punch after punch at thin air.
The more solid the platform, the higher the bounce.
Allardyce does not conceal the value he places on clean sheets. Here we saw the reasons underpinning the boss’ thinking.
A defence expertly marshalled by returning skipper Phil Jagielka comfortably kept Brighton at arm’s length. And on the couple of occasions goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had to get his gloves dirty he was equal to the test.
The confidence spawned from that stability progressively spreads through a team and we saw Everton growing more ambitious with each passing minute. Moreover, with Brighton’s attacking players under lock and key, the Blues did not need to force the issue in search of a breakthrough goal.
When their patience was rewarded via the harassed Bong, so the gaps opened up. Bolasie, emboldened by his telling contribution, repeatedly powered at the visiting defence, while Rooney, Davies and Gylfi Sigurdsson in midfield suddenly had an extra yard on the ball.
And while we are talking about laying foundations, the 78 minutes Bolasie got under his belt will do him the world of good.
The winger has required careful nursing back to health following a serious knee injury and this was only his fifth start since December 2016. And, with his imagination on the ball and application off it, it was the best of the lot.