Everton began the Rafael Benitez era in perfect fashion on Saturday, overturning a half-time deficit to beat Southampton at a jubilant Goodison Park.
Richarlison returned from extended international duty to contribute a goal and an assist in a fabulous individual performance.
There were competitive Everton debuts for Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, who provided the assist for Richarlison’s equaliser, and Seamus Coleman started his third straight season as captain.
Alan Shearer, on Match of the Day, focused his analysis on the stream of crosses Everton fed into Southampton’s penalty area – 17 of them in all.
Above all, Goodison was full for the first time in more than 17 months and the sound and emotion of the occasion will live in the memories of the 40,000 inside the stadium.
Here, evertonfc.com identifies some of the main talking points from the opening day of a new Premier League season.
Shearer Notes Everton Crossing Into New Era
There were hints towards a major element of Everton’s gameplan this season in the identity of Rafa Benitez’s first two outfield signings.
Andros Townsend is an exceptional crosser of the ball and supplying strikers with live ammunition is a big part of the game of Demarai Gray.
Afforded time to zone in one only one aspect of Everton’s performance on the BBC’s Match of the Day programme on Saturday, Alan Shearer chose to analyse the stream of balls delivered from wide positions.
Shearer is the Premier League’s greatest goalscorer by some distance. He scored 260 times in the competition, while next best Wayne Rooney struck 208 goals.
Of that 260-goal haul, 46 came from Shearer’s head.
In short, he knows a thing or two about how to get the best out of premium centre-forwards.
Shearer’s voice resembled an appreciative purr as he detailed Everton’s commitment to delivering quality service into the penalty area against Southampton.
“You could tell what Rafa has been working on in pre-season,” began Shearer.
“When you have a forward like Dominic Calvert-Lewin, you want balls into the box, and you want them early.
“That’s exactly what they did, from the left and the right.
“It was unbelievable, no thought whatsoever other than, ‘Get the ball in the box’.
“It was absolutely relentless from Everton, the whole game.”
The footage Shearer used to support his thoughts provided evidence of a consistent tactic.
Gray landed a ball on Calvert-Lewin’s head after 10 minutes, Calvert-Lewin was millimetres from connecting with a Richarlison delivery and Townsend twice whipped in left footers from the right before Everton fell behind.
The policy was employed in pursuit of an equaliser and at 1-1 the deliveries continued, Michael Keane and Abdoualye Doucoure both hitting bodies with efforts after meeting crosses.
There was no indication of Everton reining in their approach with a one-goal advantage.
And with nine minutes remaining, Richarlison raced to the byline to cross blind. Calvert-Lewin was there to fling his body at the ball and complete the victory.
“If you get the ball in the box that many times,” emphasised Shearer, “eventually you are going to find a way that it goes into the back of the net.”
The numbers backed up what we were seeing, too.
Everton averaged 12 crosses per game in the Premier League last season.
Against Southampton, that number climbed to 17. One cross every 5.3 minutes.
Benitez has had a meagre six weeks to work with his players, to date, with Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison absent for most of that period.
This is a plan in its infancy – but on Saturday it reaped meaningful dividends.
The wave of euphoria sweeping through Goodison Park was becalmed by Adam Armstrong’s 22nd-minute goal.
Southampton hadn’t threatened a great deal and the striker’s excellent finish came as something of a shock for the home team.
One of the primary reasons Everton ultimately missed their European aim last season was a problem with recovering deficits.
They won only once at home after going behind – the first Goodison game against West Bromwich Albion – and only twice gained draws after the away team scored first, in matches against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
All Together N̶o̶w̶ Again. 💙— Everton (@Everton) August 15, 2021
Goodison Park as it should be. With you. pic.twitter.com/B1vA2wmebq
Armstrong’s goal, then, was a very early test of the capacity of Rafa Benitez’s Everton to absorb a blow and come out fighting.
It augurs well that they passed it with flying colours.
Everton tore into Southampton immediately after half-time, forcing a pair of corners and capitalising on a burst of pressure to equalise through Richarlison.
Benitez’s team injected more bite and aggression. The passing was quicker and more purposeful and the visitors were cut open more frequently.
Everton’s manager talks of ‘organisation’ being viewed as a dirty word in football, the term inferring a dogged team with limited attacking ambition.
In the opinion of Benitez, organisation is the platform for creativity and goals. It lends itself to concentration and resilience, too, and Everton had to weather the odd Southampton flurry after Richarlison’s leveller.
Jordan Pickford was excellent in goal, expertly handling a succession of menacing James Ward-Prowse set-pieces and exuding a calming presence.
The urgency Everton brought to their football in the second 45 minutes was ultimately decisive.
All square, with 14 minutes remaining, a measured approach when they earned a free-kick roughly 40 yards from goal would have been understandable.
Instead, Allan barely allowed the ball to stop rolling before restarting play.
Possession was funnelled through Abdoulaye Doucoure, Seamus Coleman and Alex Iwobi, finally arriving at the feet of Doucoure on the edge of the box.
The Frenchman, liberated by Benitez’s instruction to influence play at the top end of the field, outfoxed Ward-Prowse and unleashed a scorching strike to complete the turnaround.
It would have been natural to fall into preservation mode at this point, to run down the clock and protect a hard-won advantage.
Everton, though, doubled down on their aggressive policy, pressing their boot down on a beleaguered opponent’s throat and crowning a tremendous afternoon with a third goal.
One of the messages coming out of the Everton dressing room this season is of a desire for actions to speak louder than words.
The reaction to a setback here told us a lot about the personality and resilience forming in Benitez’s team.
Benitez’s Eye For Detail
With Everton in a fix at half-time, Rafael Benitez opted for subtlety over the sledgehammer.
There were attacking options on the bench and alternatives available to rejig Everton’s midfield.
Benitez kept his powder dry in that respect, instead deciding on a pair of positional switches.
Michael Keane and Mason Holgate swapped sides in the middle of Everton’s defence, Keane going to the right and Holgate moving left.
Richarlison vacated his post on the left of Everton’s attack for a central role, with Demarai Gray shifting in the opposite direction.
“Obviously, we had some problems with balls in the air and second balls, and we changed a little bit the position of the centre-backs,” said Benitez.
“We also changed the positions of Richarlison and Demarai Gray. That gave us something more in the wide areas, something more in between, and we also adjusted the position of the midfielders to support the centre-backs.
“In the end, we had more control and I was happy with the reaction.”
The defensive changes served to squeeze Adam Armstrong and Che Adams to the margins.
Armstrong had his blood up before half-time and evidently fancied his chances of a second goal.
Jordan Pickford saved well at his near post from the centre-forward before half-time, while the former Blackburn Rovers player’s movement was causing issues for Everton.
Strike partner Adams was in the game, too, assisting Armstrong’s goal and forcing Keane into a last-ditch interception when directing a dangerous pass towards Theo Walcott.
Armstrong had three goal attempts in the opening half but none after the break.
Indeed, Everton allowed only three efforts on target in the 90 minutes.
The home team, meanwhile, sent six of 14 attempts on target.
Richarlison needed two minutes in his new position to equalise and it is unlikely the Brazilian would have powered down the right to cross for Calvert-Lewin’s goal from a starting position on the opposite wing.
Additionally, Gray gave Everton more thrust down the left flank.
The 34.2 per cent of attacks directed down Everton’s left in the first half increased to 43.6 per cent following the restart.
When Benitez first went to his bench on 70 minutes, it was for Alex Iwobi.
The forward was fouled for the free-kick from which Everton eventually went in front six minutes later.
He was the player who nodded the ball down for goalscorer Abdoulaye Doucoure, too.
Iwobi was then involved in Everton’s third, releasing Richarlison with a return pass for the South American to cross for Dominic Calvert-Lewin to head in.
“We need to understand that it is so early,” added Benitez..
“We have just arrived and after six weeks, you can't expect the players to understand everything you are trying to do.
"With time, they will understand and improve. But, overall, I thought the reaction of every player on the pitch and everyone in the stadium was so positive. I will take that.”
For the second week in succession, Richarlison delivered a gold-medal performance.
He didn’t get a shiny piece of hardware for his brilliant turn against Southampton.
But the standing ovation when Richarlison left the field after 89 minutes was just reward for a match-winning display.
It seemed inconceivable when Richarlison’s summer itinerary became clear that we’d see him in an Everton shirt until September.
The idea of him being ready to feature on the season’s opening day?
That was pie in the sky. Or so we thought.
The 24-year-old played in all seven of Brazil’s Copa America matches – starting five – then undertook the monumental journey to Japan to play in the Olympic games.
His six-game tournament finished in triumph last week.
To doubt Richarlison is to underestimate an extraordinary character, however, a player who loves competing and was eager to repay Everton for granting him permission to pursue his Olympic ambition.
He’d have been forgiven if the weight of that medal round his neck prompted a sluggish start.
But this was a performance brimming with energy and directness. Richarlison demanded possession and embraced the responsibility of getting his team back in the game.
He started on the left, perhaps a ploy to expose Southampton’s 18-year-old right-back Valentino Livramento, making his Premier League debut.
Richarlison caused problems for Southampton in that position and one cross was agonisingly close to connecting with Dominic Calvert-Lewin in front of goal.
Moved into a central role for the second half, Richarlison was at his rampaging best.
He scored a technically exquisite goal and in the 81st minute – when, by rights, his legs should have been giving up on him – sprinted onto Alex Iwobi’s pass to centre for Calvert-Lewin to score.
There was time for a clever ball to send Iwobi through one-on-one, too.
Richarlison finished with two key passes, two crosses and three successful dribbles (the most of any Everton player).
He made three tackles and two interceptions and completed eight recoveries, in addition to 11 successful passes.
“Excellent,” Shearer called him.
Benitez insists there is more to come.
“We will try to bring the best from him in the next couple of weeks and after we will give him some time to recover fully for the rest of the season,” said Everton’s manager.
“I'm happy with his performance – happy on the left but especially in the middle, because he was linking really well with the midfielders and the players in the wide areas. It gave us a lot of different options.”
Evertonians Create Wonderful Day
A bank of angry clouds hung over Goodison Park in the minutes before kick-off but nothing could detract from an atmosphere loaded with light and optimism and joy.
Watch and listen again to those emotionally-charged seconds when the siren blared and Z-Cars boomed and try to avoid goosebumps dotting every corner of your body.
As Everton’s players emerged into a gloomy afternoon, Jordan Pickford turned his head towards the Howard Kendall Gwladys Street End and raised a fist in triumph.
There is a move towards generating artificial atmospheres in various sporting arenas. The piped music at regular intervals, or at moments of celebration.
All Evertonians need to get the blood pumping is the sight of their team getting after opponents. And after nearly 18 months of separation, the reunion between players and fans was raw and uplifting.
There was a loud and approving reception for Rafael Benitez, too.
And what a greeting for Demarai Gray and Andros Townsend, treated to archetypal Everton welcomes.
“When Goodison is bouncing, it is really bouncing,” Gray told the matchday programme.
It was really bouncing on Saturday.
Evertonians roared on their side, responding to the passion and commitment demonstrated on the field.
Players and supporters rode the disappointment of conceding first, recovering together to summon a stirring second-half effort.
And as Everton cranked up their performance, so Goodison dialled up the noise.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal sparked bedlam.
"That atmosphere, that emotion, is why you play football,” said Calvert-Lewin.
“Scoring goals – last season I scored a few with no fans there – that one today was my favourite by a mile.”