Everton continued their outstanding Premier League form with a scrappy 1-0 win away to struggling Sheffield United.
Jordan Pickford returned between the sticks for Carlo Ancelotti’s side, who were looking to pick up their fourth consecutive league win and bounce back from a difficult Carabao Cup quarter final defeat to Manchester United on Wednesday. In addition, Mason Holgate and Tom Davies came back into the starting eleven, as well as youngster Anthony Gordon, making a rare start for The Toffees after several weeks on the substitutes’ bench.
In horrendous conditions, The Blues struggled early on, with Sheffield United spending the majority of the first fifteen minutes in Everton’s half. The ever-energetic David McGoldrick was the main focal point of the hosts’ attack and nearly gave The Blades the lead after a mazy run into the Everton penalty area and around a helpless Pickford. A combination of a poor finish and excellent awareness from Ben Godfrey ensured this moment didn’t lead to a goal but illustrated that, despite their struggles this season, Chris Wilder’s men were going to spend much of this match on the front foot.
To their credit, Everton responded ok to this initial pressure. Their best chance came courtesy of a brilliant direct pass from Michael Keane to Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Despite a sensational touch to take the ball away from centre back John Egan, Calvert-Lewin’s volley drifted just wide, much to the frustration of the striker, who will have viewed this as a golden opportunity to properly mark his return to the Steel City after four years away.
This was followed by half chances for Alex Iwobi, who continued to show glimpses of real quality, particularly when charging at the opposition defence, and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who pulled an effort a fraction or two wide of Aaron Ramsdale’s right post.
But irrespective of these opportunities, Everton lacked an intensity, both on and off the ball, to merit a lead going into the break.
Half Time: Sheffield United 0-0 Everton
The second half didn’t see The Blues change this and produced very few opportunities for either side. For the most part, the match was scrappy, with possession changing hands frequently and any substantial attacks broken up by fouls or inaccuracies in the final third.
But one Evertonian that stood out in this period and built upon a very progressive first half display was Davies. A much maligned figure who has been on the fringe of Ancelotti’s first team this season, Davies put in one of his most mature performances to date, showing a composure and quality in midfield that helped Everton move up the pitch and deconstruct anything meaningful Sheffield United threatened to build. Whilst there remains aspects of his game that need to be improve, Davies has illustrated this season that when called upon, he can make an impact in Everton’s midfield and when given the responsibility to manage proceedings in that area of the pitch, he is now ready and very much up to the task.
Despite Davies’ contributions, Everton didn’t really look like they were going to grab a winner. In search of that crucial first goal, Ancelotti turned to his bench, bringing on the Brazilian Bernard to try and provide a moment of brilliance that had been severely lacking from the match thus far. He instantly made an impact, bringing a zip to The Blues’ press and skill on the ball that saw Everton grow in confidence and push further forward.
It was through Bernard and fellow substitute Seamus Coleman that The Toffees broke through. An excellent cross by the latter was headed away by defender Chris Basham straight into the path of the former. He laid the ball off to the on-rushing Abdoulaye Doucouré with a beautifully cushioned pass, with the French midfielder then feeding Sigurdsson, who struck past Ramsdale to give Everton the lead with ten minutes to go.
It was the one piece of constructive, quality play in the match and a fine example of Everton under Ancelotti: Calvert-Lewin causing confusion in the penalty area, a deft touch from the inverted winger and a finish from a supporting midfielder. With more time and better personnel in these areas, you would think this ‘classic’ Ancelotti move will become a more regular feature of Everton in the second half of this season and beyond.
The last nine minutes or so saw The Toffees hang on superbly. Despite the concession of several corners, they kept Sheffield United at bay, showing real resilience and commitment against a side frantically searching for an equaliser. Decent chances came and went for striker Oli McBurnie but Everton always looked comfortable and mature in this period and earned the clean sheet that came their way.
Much has been made of Everton’s last three victories against Chelsea, Leicester City and Manchester United and rightly so. However, tonight feels like the biggest win of the four. This is because in previous seasons under previous managers, Everton succumb to that direct pressure and drop points. To win these kind of matches, when you’re not at your sparkling best, is a very ‘un-Everton’ quality and one you associate with the very best teams in the division.
This illustrates the significant transformation in mentality and organisation Ancelotti has brought about at Everton in his short time in charge. They are no longer there to be bullied and possess a work ethic that gives them an opportunity against anybody, whether that be a struggling side at the bottom or an elite outfit at the top.
This has all been achieved within twelve months of his time on Merseyside. Sitting second in the Premier League on Boxing Day with the majority of a squad that finished twelfth last season, there are not enough words to praise Ancelotti’s endeavours so far, nor any bounds to where his Everton side can go from here.
A very Merry Christmas for The Blues indeed.
Full Time: Sheffield United 0- 1 Everton