Everton comeback downs Southampton and gets Benítez off to winning start
There was a hug on the final whistle for Duncan Ferguson, a wave to all four sides of an appreciative Goodison Park and an embrace for every player who eventually got his Everton career off to an ideal start.
For Rafael Benítez, the first day in a potentially troublesome office unfolded perfectly as spirit, quality and tactical acumen combined to produce a stirring comeback against Southampton. Benítez’s victory salute was reciprocated by a long-awaited full house of Evertonians enthused not only by second-half goals from Richarlison, the outstanding Abdoulaye Doucouré and Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
The character shown to recover from the costly mistake that enabled Adam Armstrong to open the scoring, plus the changes that delivered a vastly improved second-half display, with Benítez switching the positions of Richarlison, Demarai Gray and both central defenders, gave Everton something to build on beyond the opening day. Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side impressed in spells and their manager considered the margin of defeat unfortunate, but his team lacked the incisive touch to turn tidy approach play and well-organised pressing into a tangible reward.
The new Everton manager received an excellent ovation when introduced to the home fans before kick off. So much for hostility towards the former Liverpool manager. The guttural roar that also greeted the opening bars of Z-Cars captured perfectly the emotion of their return en masse after 17 months away. But groans followed, and Everton’s first-half performance prompted them.
A careless display from the central defensive pairing of Michael Keane and Mason Holgate in particular. Everton, with five senior players isolating due to coronavirus issues, started brightly with new signing Gray to the fore. Southampton were solid and absorbed the early pressure well, but had created little when a dreadful mistake by Keane gifted them the lead. The Everton defender dithered too long in possession midway inside his own half. Che Adams dispossessed Keane and released Armstrong in the process. The £15m signing from Blackburn, a replacement for Danny Ings in style and stature, advanced on Jordan Pickford’s goal and bent a stylish finish into the top corner.
Confidence evaporated in the home ranks and rose in the visitors. Armstrong tested Pickford from a tight angle after Adams beat Holgate in the air yet again. Keane almost diverted Adams’ attempted through ball past his own goalkeeper after his defensive partner had squandered possession carelessly. Richarlison was booked for a dive Tom Daley would have been proud of.
It was an ominous opening to Benítez’s Everton career but he oversaw a vast improvement for the second half and his more aggressive, positive team were quickly level. Southampton cleared Lucas Digne’s near post corner but only as far as Andros Townsend on the edge of their penalty area. The debutant sent a looping header back into the box where the unmarked Richarlison, played onside by Mohammed Salisu, volleyed into the roof of Alex McCarthy’s net from close range. Benítez switched Richarlison inside with Gray moving to the left to good effect.
Southampton fought back, with James Ward-Prowse delivering a series of dangerous corners and Romain Perraud combining well with Moussa Djenepo down the left. But it was Everton who finished in the ascendancy and secured victory with two fine team goals. The much-maligned Alex Iwobi was involved in both. After Doucouré had rolled a quick free-kick out to Seamus Coleman, making his 300th Premier League appearance for Everton, substitute Iwobi headed the captain’s neat chip back into the path of the midfielder. Doucouré, instructed to get forward and score more this season by Benítez, turned his marker inside the area before beating McCarthy with an unstoppable shot into the top corner. Five minutes later Richarlison exchanged passes with Iwobi and swept a delightful first time cross along the face of McCarthy’s goal. The keeper was powerless to prevent Calvert-Lewin’s diving header from crossing the line. Goodison was a very happy place again.