West Brom have been a thorn in our side in recent years and Everton wins have usually been hard to come by, particularly at the Hawthorns. Their rigid shape combined with our lack of incision has been a combination which invariably ends in stalemate as both games did last season. This season they are a somewhat different proposition and look to be trying to evolve into a more fluid attacking style, perhaps at the expense of the defensive shape which was the the order of the day under the previous regimes of Hodgson and Clarke.
Like us they were also spanked in their last match and with 24 players either coming or going in the summer their doesn’t seem to be much fluency to their play yet, which I guess is expected with a new manager and so much flux on the playing staff. One crumb of comfort going into the game for us was that Martinez record against the Baggies is pretty good – just 1 defeat in 9 – plus he’d won both his previous managerial face-offs against former toffee Alan Irvine.
West Brom started with two up front (Ideye and Berahinho) and their approach of using them was twofold; when we had the ball their job was to occupy Jagielka and Stones, or get “in their faces” to coin a Phil Brown term, and stop the ball being played out from the back. When possession was regained the tactic was simple, get the ball into the box as frequently as possible.
Lukaku’s stunning right footed curler on 2 minutes actually came from us springing through this high press approach, with Barry dropping in between Stones and Jagielka to twice play the ball from the centre back position into midfield in the build up. Other than that, West Brom’s gameplan worked pretty much as planned in the first half; they won the ball back in our half more than we did in theirs (7 v 1) dominated territory in our half, and tossed balls into our box with great regularity (20 crosses to our 1). The aerial bombardment didn’t really yield much, though, and for all their huff and puff the half came and went without our hosts testing Tim Howard once and, with the exception of left back Pocognoli, the Baggies found it hard to deliver precise service to the two forwards.
Lukaku’s goal apart we created hardly anything in the opening 45 minutes. Dorrans, who was deployed to his twice annual role of minding Baines from the right-wing, did pretty well to stop him. Baines did see plenty of the ball but the forward pass inside (to Naismith) was usually blocked off, meaning the duo combined just 5 times in the opening period (once in the build up to our opening goal), with Baines instead predominantly going backwards to Jagielka.
One area we did get some joy in was in between West Brom’s defensive and midfield lines as without Mulumbu the Baggies had two midfielders more accustomed to forward forays then protecting their back line, meaning there was no real shield to protect a rickety defence. With their defence deep and forwards pressing high a big chasm opened up every time we broke forward, with Mirallas exposing this space just before the end of the first half with a run and shot – it was a warning of what was to come after the break
Still, as the teams went in for half time I think we were a tad lucky to be in front on the balance of play.
After the break it was a different game altogether and it followed a similar blue print to most of our away games last season. Baines was now able to get the ball in more threatening areas and in the opening 20 minutes of the second half he and Naismith combined 3 times more frequently than they did in the entire first half, much to the befuddlement of poor old Andre Wisdom at right back. The Liverpool ressie who was subjected to a similar dry bumming in his previous game against us back in 2012 would eventually be switched to left back to save him from further embarrassment. By then, however, the damage was done.
The gap we earlier mentioned in between West Brom’s defence and midfield was again evident in the moments leading up to our second goal as Lukaku was able to drive through and unleash a decent shot, this time with his left foot, which was saved by Foster before an offside Naismith uncharacteristically blazed over. Shortly after Mirallas received again from Baines down the left and his shot was allowed to squirm under Foster in true Dave Beasant style for 2-0 which pretty much ended the game as a contest. With our hosts chasing the game more than ever the gaps in their half of the pitch were now even more obvious, and McGeady and then Osman nearly exposed these holes soon after when a third goal looked imminent.
West Brom sent on Samaras which precipitated more long balls and if there is one slight worry it’s that we looked a bit unsteady at times in dealing with the aerial ball into our box with neither Stones or Jagielka really an aggressive ball-winning centre half. Both are excellent, covering defenders as Stones in particular showed with a last gasp challenge in the second half, but neither are comfortable winning balls in the air, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens when Distin is fit again.
This was an away win which followed the same script of many of our away wins last season. In the first half we did ok by getting our noses in front, encountered a tough opponent who closed down our passing space pretty well and on occasion we weathered the storm when needed. As the game went on and West Brom tired, more spaces popped up and we were able to dominate the ball in more dangerous areas and get the crucial second goal, albeit aided and abetted by two comedy clangers from Olsson and Foster. Arguably the key difference was that West Brom didn’t protect their back four and 18 yard line well whereas Gareth Barry did a great job for us in this role, winning back possession expertly and igniting attacks from the back when we regained possession, including on our opening goal. All in all though this was a deserved win for the toffees, a much-needed clean sheet and something to build on as we enter a hectic schedule of fixtures.