It was only after Johnny Heitinga replaced Leon Osman with twenty minutes to go and Everton switched to three at the back that Norwich, two-nil down, came into this game. Prior to that the home side’s pressing and passing simply overwhelmed the visitors. During the first half especially the harrying of any Norwich player who had the temerity to hold the ball was relentless; quickly surrounded by blue shirts they were simply bullied off the ball. Everton, bar a couple of jittery moments when John Stones lost his bearings (which more of later), were dominant. This was a sanguine Goodison which relaxed into the game and delivered appreciative ripples of applause; as if reserving its altogether harsher and utterly committed face for the tougher challenges which lie ahead. The ‘twelfth man’ was not needed.
There was only one real surprise in the starting line-up, that being the welcome return of Phil Jagielka to partner John Stones at the back. As expected the injured Ross Barkley was replaced by Leon Osman and Leighton Baines reclaimed the left-back spot. Chris Hughton, perhaps with half an eye on Everton’s injury issues at centre-back, went with two-up in the shape of strikers Gary Hooper and Grimm’s fairy tale escapee, Ricky van Wolfswinkel.
Paradoxically given the ‘new’ Everton and the smooth, intricate attacking play on display it was an old fashioned centre-back punt, controlled and laid off by a hulking centre-forward, which set up the first goal. Barry simply collected Lukaku’s neat lay-off, trundled a few paces, and from about twenty yards lashed the ball left footed into the far corner with Ruddy helpless. Such strikes have become common currency at Goodison under Roberto Martinez; of its kind, this was one of the best, right out of the Seamus Coleman play-book. The second goal, shortly before the hour mark, was no less accomplished. Kevin Mirallas must have drawn huge confidence from his performance at Stoke where he twice hit the woodwork. Here his perfectly struck free-kick was expertly curled high inside Ruddy’s right-hand post to seal the points.
The goal aside, this was one of Mirallas’ best performances of the season. He provided a stream of dangerous crosses from left and right; none were converted, though one in the first half which found Lukaku at the far post, was put wide by the Belgian, where perhaps greater positional awareness or less fear of spoiling his good looks might have seen him score. Joe Royle or Andy Gray would have buried it. With the addition of Aiden McGeady, Everton now have a range of diverse, experienced wide-men at their disposal. We suspect that Roberto Martinez will now have as his number one priority the addition of another striker.
At the back the authoritative displays of Antolin Alcaraz and the emergence of John Stones have lifted the disquiet over the lack of cover in central defence. Stones looked solid during his baptism, in what must be the ultimate test of any defender – Peter Crouch at a very wet and windy Britannia Stadium. Equally against QPR he cruised through the ninety minutes, accomplished, unruffled, head held high, faultlessly distributing the ball. Here though things were different. This is the Premier League. Nothing is left to chance. You can be sure that Chris Hughton and his team will have pored over the tapes and considered their tactics carefully.
The first tremor for the teenager came after about twenty minutes, a long diagonal ball into the area, went over Stones and found Gary Hooper, maybe three or four yards beyond the defender, onside and now unmarked, he only had the keeper to beat, but a slightly heavy touch allowed Howard the time to smother the danger. A little later another long ball into the area evaded the youngster, again Hooper ended with the ball mysteriously at his feet, luckily once again Howard smothered the danger. Be under no illusions there are a dozen strikers in the Premier League – we can all name them – who would have had the time to light the proverbial cigar before slotting both chances home. Another indecisive moment from the youngster late on, which presented the lively Nathan Redmond with a second bite at the cherry after the danger had appeared to have passed, drew a verbal cuffing from Phil Jagielka. The Premier League is unforgiving. Its examination of every player – his strengths, his weaknesses – is as painstaking as it is ruthless. Every second of game-time will be of huge value for the teenager. He looks a player; this experience can only make him better.
EVERTON (4-2-3-1): Howard; Coleman, Stones, Jagielka©, Baines; McCarthy, Barry; Mirallas, Osman (Heitinga 69), Pienaar (Naismith 71); Lukaku
Unused subs: Robles, Hibbert, Oviedo, Gueye, Vellios
NORWICH CITY (4-4-2): Ruddy; Whittaker, Bennett, Bassong©, Olsson; Snodgrass, Fer, Johnson, Garrido (Redmond 66); Hooper, van Wolfswinkel (Murphy 88)
Unused subs: Bunn, Martin, Hoolahan, Elmander, Fox
Booked: Bennett, Bassong
Ref: Kevin Friend