As performances go, Everton Under-23’s 2-0 win over Southampton at Goodison Park on Monday evening was as professional as it gets.
Despite heading into the game in hand with their lead at the top of the Premier League 2 cut to just three points, the young Blues shrugged off any pre-match nerves to control proceedings from start to finish and could, in truth, have stacked up an even greater margin of victory had it not been for Harry Lewis in the visitors’ goal.
Strikes from Liam Walsh and Kieran Dowell eventually sealed a crucial three points for Unsworth’s men. Both were well crafted, with the latter a sumptuous strike into the top corner from distance, but what was most pleasing about the display was the way in which Everton’s young guns repeatedly won their 50-50 battles in front of an expectant home crowd.
In many ways, the latest batch of Everton hopefuls are made entirely in their manager’s image. As a player, Unsworth was as committed as they come- a real team player- and in much the same way, his second-string squad are prepared to run through brick walls to achieve results for their talented mentor.
At the back, the central defensive partnership of Matty Pennington and Morgan Feeney comfortably stood up to a physical Saints attack containing the bulky Olufela Olomola, while full-backs Jonjoe Kenny and Antonee Robinson toiled tirelessly to simultaneously restrict the Southampton wingers and provide a constant outlet in attack.
Such was the home side’s dominance, the duo were particularly prominent in the final third during a near-faultless first period that could, and perhaps should, have seen the hosts out of sight.
Indeed, tellingly, left-back Robinson was the standout figure in blue on a night when many others shone. Marauding runs forward were complemented by savvy defensive work, and it’s clear to see on this evidence why Bryan Oviedo was allowed to leave for Sunderland. Should anything happen to Leighton Baines, the Milton Keynes-born defender would no doubt prove to be a worthy deputy on the basis of tonight’s action.
In midfield, the two-man holding axis of Liam Walsh and Beni Baningime produced an energetic performance full of grit and determination. Unsung hero Baningime was noticeable for the sheer amount of tackles and interceptions made; goalscorer Walsh for yet another display befitting of his lofty reputation.
For long spells, the 19-year-old conducted play, passed and probed as the Blues cut through Southampton at will. Linking with the likes of the returning Joe Williams, Jonjoe Kenny and Kieran Dowell, Walsh was at the heart of most of what was good about Everton’s, at times, scintillating game- and the watching Ronald Koeman can surely not help but have been impressed.
Others played their part too, with Courtney Duffus delivering a performance full of brawn in the lone striking role and playmaker Kieran Dowell flittering in and out of proceedings with moments of real quality such as the match-clinching second goal.
By the end, three points were merely a formality; Southampton comfortably beaten by the best Under-23 team in the country. Few from the south coast could have complained had the scoreline been doubled on the night.
Now, after seeing the game out with consumate ease, the young Blues are a healthy six points clear at the top of the table with just five games to play. In this form, few would bet against them crowning their superb year by lifting the coveted PL2 trophy in the coming months.
And what a deserved reward that would be for a side that simply refuse to rest on their laurels.